How do people really seek information about others?
Information seeking across Internet and traditional communication sources
Walther and Parks (2002) suggest that some modern relationships have outgrown the theories used to help explain and predict them. As noted by Walther and Parks (2002), theories and approaches such as uncertainty reduction theory (Berger & Calabrese, 1975), social information processing theory (SIPT; Walther, 1992), SIDE model (Reicher, Spears, & Postmes, 1995; Spears & Lea, 1992), and the hyperpersonal perspective (Walther, 1996) all offer unique and valuable insights into interpersonal processes, however, it is important to note that they were not primarily designed to account for the array of possibilities for channel usage in building, maintaining, and ending relationships. The fact that researchers have done little descriptive work in this field underscores a general gap in the CMC literature; although there are a growing number of channels that people can choose to use, little is known about what media choices people make for various interpersonal goals. The current study is designed to be an initial attempt to answer the question of what channels people use to learn information about other people. More specifically, drawing on Stephens’ (2007) information and communication technology (ICT) succession theory, it addresses the question of channel choice used to seek information about a target for a variety of possible relationships between seeker and target. Before discussing this theory, the paper begins by discussing Uncertainty reduction theory (Berger & Calabrese, 1975) as a framework for understanding why people seek information about others.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory
One of the most basic interpersonal goals is reducing uncertainty about other people, which as impression formation, can be seen as a mirroring process to impression management. URT (Berger & Calabrese, 1975) seeks to explain and predict how people form impressions of each other and focuses on the interpersonal communication process in initial interactions, The core assumption of URT is that people’s primary concern when meeting each other is to reduce uncertainty about themselves and each other in order to increase predictability about each other’s (and their own) behaviors. Thus, the theory holds that in situations where an individual is uncertain, that individual attempts to reduce ambiguity about that situation by seeking information pertaining to that specific environment. For example, as a student enrolls in a class they may seek to reduce uncertainty about their professor by seeking information about that person in a variety of ways. By seeking information about their professor their uncertainty about her or him is reduced.
Although URT (Berger & Calabrese, 1975) was originally formulated solely to explain initial interactions, the authors intended for it to be applied to later interactions, and it has been applied to a variety of relationships. This is partly because the need to learn about people extends beyond the initial stage of a relationship. Knobloch and Solomon (2002) argue that uncertainty is not solely part of initial interactions, but that uncertainty management is a maintenance technique in ongoing, close relationships. This may occur in already established relationships because uncertainty is a continuum in a relationship. Planalp and Honeycutt (1985) and Planalp, Rutherford, and Honeycutt (1998) note that there are events that occur within established relationships that increase uncertainty, and these events occur in most relationships at some time. Thus, the need to continue reducing uncertainty about another person does not disappear once you “get to know” that person, but is instead a process of always changing (both increasing and decreasing) levels of uncertainty.
Subsequent research has also shown that URT can be applied to interactions after initial ones. Knapp and Vangelisti (2004) developed the stages of coming together to describe how romantic relationships develop. The second stage, experimenting, occurs after initiating and is dominated by interactive information seeking strategies. Gudykunst, Yang, and Nishida (1985) examined URT across three relationship types (acquaintance, friendship, and romance), and three cultures (Japan, Korea, and the U.S.). They found that URT fits across relationships and cultures, with some variations.
Parks and Adelman (1983) also sought to expand URT to dating relationships. They were especially interested in examining the use of a partner’s social network as an uncertainty reduction source. Consistent with their predictions, greater levels of communication with a romantic partner’s social network was associated with lower levels of uncertainty about one’s romantic partner. This study also noted that sources of information other than interactive dyadic conversation with a target can help reduce uncertainty about said target.
Each of these studies highlight that ongoing uncertainty-reduction needs exist in a variety of relationships, and suggest that different information sources may be useful in addressing these needs. Although URT has guided work on impression formation in multiple contexts such as intercultural interactions (Gudykunst, 1985), and organizational socialization (Miller & Jablin, 1991), research in channel choice for uncertainty reduction is relatively underdeveloped. As Ramirez, Walther, Burgoon, and Sunnafrank (2002) state: “[a]lthough technological advances have produced tools allowing individuals to seek and acquire information… studies specifically investigating their use to seek information about others have yet to surface” (p. 214). The research on uncertainty reduction that does exist generally looks at interactive CMC exchanges (Pratt, Wiseman, Cody, & Wendt, 1999) or compares FtF interactions to CMC interactions (e.g., Tidwell & Walther, 2002; Westerman & Tamborini, 2006). Although these attempts have great value, they do not illuminate the ways people utilize the plethora of channels available to them to learn about others. One approach that can help accomplish this is Stephens’ (2007) information and communication technology (ICT) succession theory.
ICT Succession Theory
Stephens (2007) offers a model of how channel use may occur as a process, rather than focusing on individual channel use separately. As part of this successive model, Stephens suggests that different tasks may be better accomplished by utilizing different patterns of channel usage. The model is articulated for use with organizational tasks, and draws on a list of tasks identified previously by Flanagin and Metzger (2001), as well as an additional task, known as “documentation”. The model offers specific testable propositions about the differential use of channels to accomplish various goals as relationships between people develop.
Although, Stephens’ (2007) model was designed with organizational tasks in mind, its application to interpersonal tasks should be obvious. For example, Stephens posits that mass media will be more effective as a precursor channel in information tasks. If this is applied to the specific information task of learning about other people (reducing uncertainty about them) then we might expect people to use them in learning information about people they do not know well. However, if so-called “text-capable” channels (also known as interpersonal media) are more effective as a successive strategy for informational goals, then we might expect people to use these channels to learn information about others that are better known. That is, individuals become better known at later points in interpersonal relationships (Knapp & Vangelisti, 2004). As such, these interpersonal channels may well prove to be more valuable for more established interpersonal relationships, relationships wherein both parties have more knowledge about one another.
Although the use of traditional mass media may be possible in accomplishing many organizational goals, their use in accomplishing interpersonal goals is less clear. For example, rarely, if ever, will someone be able to use a traditional mass medium (such as television or radio) to learn about another person. However, a hallmark of mass media can be informative to the application of Stephens’ (2007) model to interpersonal tasks. Mass media are anonymous, that is, senders and receivers of messages generally do not know each other. Thus, these channels allow people to use passive, active, (Berger, 1979) or extractive strategies (Ramirez, et al, 2002) because they do not require direct contact with the target. Thus, channels that allow people to learn information about others without that target knowing about the inquiry may behave similarly to mass media. Therefore, channels that allow the use of anonymous strategies should be effective in learning about lesser-known targets, and text-capable channels (interpersonal media that allow for the reduction of uncertainty through text-based interpersonal interaction) should be effective in learning about better-known targets. The first and second hypotheses are based on this logic:
H1: Channels that allow an individual to unidentifiably seek information about a target will be more frequently used when targets are lesser-known by the information seeker than will channels that do not allow for unidentifiable information seeking.
H2: Channels that require a seeker to be identifiable to a target will more frequently used when targets are better-known by the information seeker than will channels that do allow for unidentifiable information seeking.
Although some channels allow for only one type of communication, more recent technological developments have greatly blurred the lines between mass and interpersonal media. For example, online social networking sites (such as Facebook.com or Myspace.com) offer attributes to users of both mass and interpersonal media. Stephens’ (2007) model does not explicitly address these types of channels. However, if mass channels are good for learning about others early in the uncertainty reducing process and “text-capable” channels are good for learning about others later in the uncertainty reducing process, then a channel that combines both would seem to have great utility for many types of relationships. Thus, these channels would be used heavily to learn information about both lesser known and more well known others. Thus, hypothesis three is offered:
H3: Channels that combine mass and interpersonal media qualities will be useful for learning information about both lesser and better-known targets.