Let’s get hyperpersonal
Why social media can be more rewarding than face to face
There’s a moment from the Emmy’s when Nicole Kidman turns her back on her husband to kiss her co-star.
R. Eric Thomas captured the sentiment in a meme that anyone who has spent time on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram could relate to:
So why do we seek validation from digital strangers we’ve never met when we have real relationships around us?
This isn’t a new phenomenon, even if it’s grown with social media. The reward that we feel when we get validated by likes, hearts, comments and claps can be explained with a theory called the hyperpersonal model of communication.
To understand the concept of hyperpersonal communication, it helps to first understand what we mean by personal and impersonal communication.
In the early days of the internet, it was assumed that communication via computer was by nature impersonal. Early users of computers and the Internet were constrained by the limits of their text-based technology, which was contrasted with the rich meaning of body language, voice and facial cues of face to face communication.
In summarizing studies from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Rice and Love (1987) pointed out how researchers of the time described computer-based communication as “less friendly, emotional or personal,” “perceived as impersonal” and offering less “socioemotional content exchanged.” Computer communication was thought to be best used for impersonal task-oriented business communication. Face to face was best for personal bonding.
But then some curious human behavior started to emerge. Rice and Love observed in their research that even these text-based constraints could produce “electronic emotion.” They reviewed CompuServe’s nationwide bulletin boards and determined online postings “can facilitate a moderate exchange of socioemotional content.” People were starting to get personal on the web.
In The Psychology of the Internet, Patricia Wallace (1999) called this “the socioemotional thaw” and wrote that humans had a “drive to get more socioemotional mileage out of the keyboard” to seem more personal. “We adaptable humans are still learning how to thaw the chilly Internet, using whatever tools we can find. Few of us really want to be thought cold, and for good reason…” Wallace wrote.
People were inventing an online language with emoticons like :p and ;) to mimic facial expressions and linguistic softeners like IMHO and FWIW to mimic vocal pitch. “Though still primitive and blunt, these technological tools are the result of the ineluctable drive to thaw the Internet’s icy landscape with nonverbal cues, so we can express ourselves in warmer, more socioemotional ways,” Wallace wrote.
In the subsequent views, communication via technology wasn’t inherently personal or impersonal. It depended on context such as the purpose of the communication (for idea brainstorming or simply discussing a favorite hobby?) and length of communication (a one-time online interaction or groups that get to know each other over time?).
By the 1990s, Joseph Walther observed that computer-mediated communication could “surpass face to face in some interpersonal effects.” He called this “hyperpersonal” and noted:
“in some Usenet groups, and bulletin board chat spaces, among the physically challenged and the emotionally wrought, as well as your average ‘Internaut,’ reports of exceedingly intimate interactions abound. Hyperbolic messages, excessive affectionate responses, and the relations they form are reflected sometimes as anecdotes and sometimes through scientific analysis.”
Walther defined “hyperpersonal communication” as “more socially desirable than we tend to experience in parallel face to face interaction.”
Due to the “deindividuated” mode of communication, we “overattribute” the few cues that we have, leading us to exaggerate our liking or disliking of someone online. Reid (1991) found, for example, that college students who chat with other college students online tend to assume that they are more like themselves, in the absence of other physical or social cues. This leads them to think more fondly of the students they are chatting with online.
Another factor potentially increasing hyperpersonalization is the ability for senders to optimize their self-presentation (Walther & Burgoon, 1992). The sender can potentially think about their response and send more thoughtful communication than a real-time response. Senders are also not quickly judged or dismissed based on appearances (Godwin, 1994) and can be judged more on their informational and emotional content.
Walther noted that people using computer-based communication can focus more on “personal and relational optimization” because they are “unfettered by unwanted cues or multiple conversational demands.”
Surprisingly, this type of asynchronous communication showed similar hyperpersonal results to an older type of communication: Letter writing. Stafford and Reske (1990) found that among engaged couples, those who wrote more letters to each other showed more affection and favorable perceptions of each other than those who engaged in face to face and phone conversation. There’s something about being able to think through your response rather than rattling it off in the moment that can make it more personal.
Ultimately, beyond the media effects, the main reason why people can get hyperpersonal online is because it satisfies relationship needs. Face to face communication is already governed by many social norms and boundaries. The emerging online communication allows people to interact in a new and emotionally satisfying way that they can’t always indulge in face to face society.
Decades after the hyperpersonal communication model was created to explain online behavior, we’re still drawn in from the attention of strangers, even if our significant other is standing right behind us.