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Article from ejc/rec Valo, EJC/REC, Vol 13, Number 1
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 13 Number 1, 2003


 

WORKMATES, FRIENDS OR MORE?
PERCEIVED EFFECTS OF COMPUTER-MEDIATEDNESS ON INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS

Maarit Valo [1]
University of Jyvskyl, Finland


Abstract. The article reports a study on interpersonal relationships between American and Finnish undergraduate students, formed and maintained through a number of computer-mediated interaction modes over a period of two to three months. The Finnish students' journals were analyzed for the perceived impact of computer-mediatedness on the development of these relationships. The results indicate that both asynchronous and synchronous technologies have a variety of effects on e.g. self-presentation and attribution processes, maintenance behaviors, resolution of misunderstandings and disagreements, and mutual commitment in the interpersonal relationships formed. However, technological systems per se determined neither the type of personal relationship created nor its characteristics. In the students' experience, their relationships and interactions with their transatlantic partners were not "virtual" or "cyber-space" but a slice, though captivating, in their everyday communicative life.

Personal long-term one-to-one relationships constructed and maintained by e-mailing or on-line chatting have become a popular topic in the research on computer-mediated communication during the past ten years. (For reviews, see Lea & Spears, 1995; Oehrle & Welch Cline, 1993; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Walther, 1994, 1996, 1997a; Walther, Anderson & Park, 1994) However, computer-mediated relationships are no longer based only on written interaction. Technologies allowing simultaneous audio and video connections have been adopted in the construction and development of long-term one-to-one relationships. How do people experience relationships maintained through various technologies? What criteria do they use when describing and evaluating the relationship and the other party? The present article discusses Finnish university students' own reflections on the impact of computer-mediatedness on their relationships with American students.

Characteristics of Computer-Mediated Interpersonal Relationships

In the middle of last decade, Lea and Spears (1995, p. 199) argued that research on interpersonal relationships has neglected computer-mediated communication as a possible context for developing relationships. They suggested that research in this area conservatively continues to focus primarily on direct face-to-face interaction and that systematic studies of computer-mediated social interaction are scarce. Chenault (1998) agreed, complaining that e.g. in the field of speech communication, the popular press has shown more interest than scholars in interpersonal relationships built through computer-mediated communication. In contrast to these writers, Walther (1994, 1996) drew attention to the great amount of research conducted on computer-mediated communication, especially by interpersonal communication researchers. He also remarked that most theoretical accounts of computer-mediated communication emphasize its interpersonal aspects.

What is the reason for these different views on the amount of research being conducted in the area of computer-mediated interpersonal communication? One possible explanation may lie in differing definitions of interpersonal communication. On one hand, interpersonal communication may be considered as almost identical to face-to-face communication (see e.g. Walther, 1996). Thus, interpersonal communication may refer to interactions in dyadic settings, in small groups, or between people in an organizational context. On the other hand, interpersonal communication is often regarded from the relationship perspective, as involving no more than two people (see e.g. Lea & Spears, 1995). Research on computer-mediated communication in the former sense (i.e. short time contacts between people) has become popular; yet, in the latter sense (i.e. one-to-one long-term relationships) it is still relatively meager.

Here, computer-mediated interpersonal communication is examined from the point of view of relationships. A relationship is developed by two individuals through learning to known each other. The relationship is based on (at least some degree of) permanence, mutual dependence and reciprocal self-disclosure. (For definitions of what constitutes a relationship, see e.g. Rogers, 1998; Sigman, 1998)

There are no typical computer-mediated interpersonal relationships. They vary widely in terms of context, functions, personalness, importance, mutual interdependence, depth, breadth of topics, commitment, and predictability. They may be socially oriented or task-oriented. (Parks & Floyd, 1996; Walther, 1996.) If both partners find their computer-mediated relationship to be something special, they may start interacting with each other using additional forms of contact (telephone, postal service, and face-to-face communication). On-line may become off-line. (Baker, 1998; Parks & Floyd, 1996). Thus, the borderline between on-line and off-line is vague; at a later stage, the relationship can be carried on in both ways.

In the early stages of the research on computer-mediated personal relationships, theoretical doubts were expressed about whether on-line relationships could be personal at all. It was thought that exchanging written messages via computers can not convey emotional content or mutual attraction. Because of technical limitations ("reduced cues," "cues filtered out," "low social presence"), computer-mediated relationships were believed to be rare, temporary, uncertain, formal, impersonal, nonconformist, cold, and even amoral or hostile. (See e.g. Culnan & Markus, 1987; Garton & Wellman, 1995; Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984; Rice, 1993; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986; Stoll, 1996).

These assumptions partly arose from laboratory studies conducted in organizational contexts where zero-history groups engaged in task-oriented communication for a limited period of time (see Lea & Spears, 1995; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Walther, 1996). When research moved on toward dyads in natural settings, with unrestricted time to interact, the assumptions proved false. In spite of lacking a common physical setting, contextual cues, nonverbal behaviors and simultaneous feedback, on-line interactants may experience their computer relationships just as worthwhile as their face-to-face contacts. As early as 1985 in a study on university students' social use of an e-mail network, Hellerstein found out that the most active users of e-mail made friendships and built romantic relationships that were later carried on off-line. More recently, numerous studies have resulted in similar findings (Chenault, 1998; Lea & Spears, 1995; McCormick & McCormick, 1992; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Rice & Love, 1987). People can indeed fall in love, find romances and nurture them on-line.

In fact, computer-mediated communication can carry highly emotional or intimate content. Exceedingly friendly relationships with heightened levels of closeness and liking have been referred to as hyperpersonal (Walther, 1996, 1997a). In these relationships, the level of perceived intimacy exceeds that of face-to-face interaction (even though an exact comparison of the differences and similarities between computer-mediated and face-to-face settings is impossible). Relationships of this kind have been documented in a number of research reports. Computer-mediated communication may thus facilitate and encourage intimacy of self-disclosure.

However, as in face-to-face relations, bad feelings, anger, arguments, hostility, insults, and even mental violence can also emerge in computer-mediated relationships. Expressions of unkindness and aggression may appear more easily on-line than when confronting the other in person. Uninhibited behavior (flaming) in computer-mediated communication has been explored in a number of studies (see e.g. Chenault, 1998; Lea, O'Shea, Fung, & Spears, 1992; Postmes, Spears, & Lea, 2000).

Interpersonal perception involves various evaluative impressions and attributions derived on the basis of cognitive constructs, e.g. stereotypes, as well as on the basis of visual information and vocal cues (Bierhoff, 1989; Hawkins & Daly, 1988). When communicating face to face, we may be attracted to people on the basis of physical characteristics. Building a relationship with a new person includes processes of impression-forming and impression management, especially in the early stages of getting acquainted. First impressions are often crucial; they may dictate whether or not we get interested in the other person at all. Moreover, we tend to choose our acquaintances and friends in terms of similarity, matching ethnic backgrounds, ages, and educational and socio-economic levels, for example.

On the Internet, however, our interest may be aroused by the content of messages of persons who in face-to-face settings would not be "our kind". Moreover, compared to face-to-face encounters, computer-mediated communication provides more opportunities for reticent, isolated or disabled people to form contacts (Parks & Floyd, 1996). In this way, discounting the privileged aspect of access to a computer network, computers may be seen as promoting equality. A famous drawing by P. Steiner (published in The New Yorker Magazine in 1993 and in Walther, 1996) shows two dogs at a computer, one remarking to the other: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." As long as on-line relationships are based on writing, the interactants are not physically present. Thus, self-presentation can be highly selective, and ways of impression management can be intentional, conscious and controlled (Walther, 1996, 1997b; Walther & Burgoon, 1992). There is no facial or vocal expression revealing feelings or states of mind.

In e-mailing or chatting, impressions of other people are formed on the basis of written information. Studies have shown that in e-mail contacts people spend a lot of time editing and elaborating their messages if the relationship is considered important (Walther, 1997a). However, besides the verbal content of messages there are various "nonverbal" phenomena that can be made use of both in self-presentation and in impression formation. These include chronemics, i.e. delay in answering a message versus a quick response to it, signaling the involvement or uninvolvement of the sender (Walther & Tidwell, 1995). Even typographic features (Lea & Spears, 1995) can be interpreted as indicators of personality characteristics. In on-line contexts, the lack of individuating information may result in over-attribution processes. According to the SIDE model (social identification/deindividuation model) developed in small-group settings by Lea and Spears (1995), communicators judge one another on the basis of situational conditions, especially group similarity or difference. Because of limited information, stereotypical inferences may be made.

One of the main processes in developing both on-line and face-to-face relationships is self-disclosure. It refers to verbal interaction in which a person reveals information about him/herself, including thoughts, feelings, and experiences. As such, mutual self-disclosure is a major constituent of our social life. (Dindia, Fitzpatrick & Kenny, 1997). In spite of the possible "hyperpersonal" nature of on-line relationships, no substantial differences in the level of disclosure intimacy have been found in interactions between persons communicating face-to-face versus those communicating via computers (Oehrle & Welch Cline, 1993; Weisgerber, 1999). However, in initial interactions computer-mediated interactants have been shown to make more intimate questions than face-to-face interactants (Tidwell & Walther, in press).

In computer-mediated relationships, the interactants form increasingly more developed impressions over time, usually from text-based cues only. However, the process of forming detailed impressions of one's partner is slow. (Walther, 1993). It takes longer to reduce uncertainty (Parks & Floyd, 1996). Nonetheless, it has been argued (Walther, 1993) that the underlying processes in forming impressions are the same via computer-mediated communication as in face-to-face communication. People use the same active and passive strategies to get to know their partners. Nonetheless, it is customary in on-line relationships to ask one's partner direct questions e.g. about his or her looks (Lengel, 1997). Accordingly, the initial stages of the process of becoming acquainted may be experienced as rapid (Walther, 1993).

As in face-to-face communication, computer-mediated relationships need to be established and maintained in various ways. In the research on relational maintenance, maintenance behaviors and practices are often known as strategies (Rabby, 1997; Stafford & Canary, 1991) or dyadic speech events (Goldsmith & Baxter, 1996; Traynowicz Hetherington,Curtin-Alwardt & Gullickson-Tolman, 1997). These include assurances (showing commitment), positive behaviors like expressions of affection, support, comfort and politeness, openness or self-disclosure, talk of future plans together, rituals like greetings and farewells, prosocial and ceremonial behaviors, accommodation to one another, being non-judgmental, avoiding and/or handling conflicts, personal narratives, asking questions, making up after quarreling, catching up and debriefing (after a period of separation), talking about the relationship, reminiscing, and sharing tasks and activities. These behaviors serve to bond, preserve and maintain the ongoing relationship. (See also Cichocki, 1997; Dindia & Baxter, 1987; Gilbertson, Dindia & Allen, 1997). Relatively little is known about the maintenance strategies typical of on-line interaction solely (see Rabby, 1997).

Long-term computer-mediated relationships can be built and developed in differing contexts, to serve diverse functions. The majority of the research has concentrated on free-time settings, that is, on acquaintanceships, friendships and romantic relationships. Task-oriented settings such as university learning contexts have not been in the main focus when examining long-term relationships. Moreover, the impact of video technologies on these relationships has been given little consideration by communication scholars. The present article reports a study of interpersonal relationships developed through a number of communication technologiesboth text-based and videoin an intercultural learning environment. Emphasis was placed on university students' own reflections on the perceived impact of computer-mediatedness on the development of their relationships during an undergraduate course. Although these relationships were intercultural, i.e. between American and Finnish students, only the Finnish students' reflections are investigated in the present article. Thus, possible cultural variation in relationship parties' experiences are not considered here.

Method

The data of the present study were gathered from thirty-one Finnish undergraduate students (23 female and 8 male) who kept a personal journal on their computer-mediated interpersonal relationships. The students were enrolled in Internet courses arranged jointly for students of Speech Communication from a large Midwestern university in the United States and from a medium-sized university in Finland. The first course was titled "Intercultural Communication" and the second "Interaction Codes"; they were taught by an instructor from the United States. The Finnish students were randomly assigned an American partner (whom he or she had never met face to face). There were some groups of three (a Finn had two US partners or vice versa).

Over a period of approximately 9 weeks, the American-Finnish student pairs prepared two term papers by means of computer-mediated interaction. The modes of mutual contact included (1) asynchronous exchange of written messages via e-mail, (2) synchronous exchange of written messages by means of the FirstClass program (interactive group software allowing the sharing of text documents), and (3) synchronous interaction by means of the CUSeeMe video conferencing program (allowing the possibility of sharing documents).

Typically the partners started their relationship by sending e-mail messages to one another. After a few weeks, they started to talk via the synchronous FirstClass program, continuing to exchange messages via e-mail. Seeing and hearing each other occasionally via the CUSeeMe program usually served social functions, and it was tested at least once by all the pairs.

The Finnish students were asked to keep journals where they could write down their thoughts about the interpersonal relationship they were developing with their American partner during the course. The American students did not keep a journal. Those students who had two partners from the US made notes on their relationships with each of their partners. The journal was a paper notebook that the student could easily keep with him or her. The students volunteered to keep a journal and received extra credit for it.

The students were instructed to write down the thoughts (impressions, opinions, feelings, emotions, experiences, evaluations etc.) that they found significant from the point of view of their relationship with their American partner. They were asked to reflect on the following aspects of the relationship, for example: process of getting acquainted, impressions of the partner, interaction with the partner, discussion topics, development of the relationship as well as its quality, type and characteristics, its possible changes, the ups and downs in it, the impact of various technologies on it, and so forth. They were asked to make notes after each occasion they met their partner via any of the communication technologies. By issuing rather specific instructions it was hoped to avoid overall impressions regarding the course and its assignments as a whole. Nonetheless, as expected, the journals varied widely in content, style, and length.

The journals were read several times by the present researcher, first, in order to get an overall idea of the contents, and then, to identify topics concerning interpersonal relationhips. After this familiarizing phase, the data were segmented by looking for and identifying units of meaning related to the perceived impact of computer-mediatedness on the relationships. Using a qualitative approach, the data were then organized by generating conceptual categories representing dimensions of the students' reflections. (For procedures in qualitative data analysis, see Huberman & Miles, 1994; Marshall & Rossman, 1995; Miles & Huberman, 1994). The results of this study are based on these processes of reduction and categorization of the qualitative data.

Research Outcomes

The Finnish students perceptions of the impact of computer-mediatedness on their interpersonal relationships with their American partners were subsumed under seven major themes. These were (1) Pros and Cons of Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC), (2) Computer-Mediated and Face-to-Face Communication Compared, (3) Asynchronous and Synchronous CMC Compared, (4) Written and Audio-Visual CMC Compared, (5) Type of Relationship, (6) Self-Presentation and Attribution Processes, and (7) Maintaining the Relationship. The contents of the themes are presented below.

1) Pros and Cons of Computer-Mediated Communication

According to the students' journals, they undoubtedly recognized the value of computer-mediated communication in developing new interpersonal relationships. The students very soon got used to the various forms of computer-mediated interaction and there were feelings of admiration about this communication technology that made dyadic relationhips with American students possible.

I don't know if I've said this before but I am totally dumbfounded that these technologies (computers) make it possible to communicate in such a multifaceted way between continents. CUSeeMe, FirstClass and E-mail together have created a functional and multifaceted relationship that at the outset of the course I didn't believe was possible. None of these programs could have done it alone. [20]

However, no student could escape technical problems. Every now and then they felt frustrated about the computer network betraying them at the very moment they were about to have a meeting with their partner. In their journals, they vigorously complained of the inadequate number of computers or the non-functioning lines that hindered them from successfully maintaining their interpersonal relationships.

Trying to explain and fix dates and battling with computers has exhausted me. Technology plays a bigger role [in this course] than it should. Technical problems give substance to our working relationship. [14]

The students constantly reported being tired of maintaining an intercultural relationship only by means of computers. Due to the time difference of eight hours, the time allocated for joint on-line working on the FirstClass and CUSeeMe conferencing programs was limited to a maximum of four or five hours. (There was more time available if at least one of the parties in the relationship had access to the computer network from home.) It was hard work scheduling time-tables, looking for suitable dates and hours, making reservations for computer labs, making agreements on dead-lines and remembering the holidays and the spring breaks in the curricula of both universities.

I began to feel annoyed when we couldn't find a time in common. So I made a table of all the times that are available for me during the next two weeks. I felt a little rude sending it to her. But [Name] thought that sending the table was an excellent idea and she had found it very helpful. I was glad that my action had not appeared rude. [13]

Toward the end of the course, the students were happy to find that they had had the patience to resolve their technical problems and to take the limitations due to the technology into account in the joint working process. Usually they had needed plenty of encouragement from one another in dealing with the technology.

[Name] and I are on the same wavelength in our opinions about the world becoming more and more technical. We have often sworn and laughed at the CUSeeMe when the technology decides what we can or cannot do. It is [Name] who always has the energy to encourage me if I am about to lose my temper. She is such a cheerful person, and so optimistic. [1]

2) Computer-Mediated and Face-to-Face Communication Compared

Aside from their practical problems in using the technology, the students did not make many unfavorable comments on the computers in their journals. For example, hardly anybody commented on computers as a cold or poor medium of communication or a limited means of developing a relationship. On the contrary: they usually valued their relationships with their partners as much as they would their face-to-face relationships.

We were able to build a friendship without communicating face to face and without hearing each other's voice. We talked a lot about our personal relationships and our lives as a whole. Talking in this way almost led us to forget about studying. [4]

It feels strange to call [Name] my friend after this short acquaintance, but that's what he is to me. You cannot measure everything in time. [16]

The students reflected on various explanations for their rewarding computer-mediated relationships. In addition to the grounds attributed typically also to a good face-to-face relationshipfor example, like-mindedness, the same view of life or phase of life, similar working habits the students gave reasons specific to satisfying on-line friendships. They reported that a great physical distance between partners prevented disagreements, a certain flavor of uninvolvement made the relationship easier, the partner's thoughts could be reached with less effort (or more profoundly) because there was no need to pay attention to each other's looks, and self-disclosure became more relevant owing to the lack of physical presence. The following excerpts reflect these perceived beneficial effects of computer-mediatedness on relationships.

Perhaps the best evidence of a friendship is that things go naturally and easily. There are no topics that have to be avoided. Or perhaps we just don't bump into such topics. Perhaps the distance prevents disagreements. [7]

Even though I am outspoken I wouldn't like to cause conflict. [Name] has become too important a person to me. However, it would be too much to solve crises in personal relationships through computers. [23]

Electronic discussions are actually an easy way to communicate, I mean that unlike face-to-face communication you don't have to be totally involved. [10]

It suits me to get to know another person e.g. through the Internet because we can immediately attain the level of thoughts. Of course it is interesting to get to know something about the other person's appearance, but the inner world is still the core of communication. [16]

The "friendship" between [Name] and I, if I can call it that, progressed quite rapidly to a deep level. It may be that because we are not together physically, self-disclosure and accommodation become over-emphasized. If that is the case, is our "friendship" a mere illusion, or what would be the starting point of our relationship if we met? [25]

Some of the excerpts above reflect mutual self-presentation which aims at creating favorable impressions, as described by Goffman (1959) in face-to-face communication. In computer-mediated interactions, optimized or selective self-presentation may be intensified (Walther and Burgoon, 1992; Walther, 1996).

Most of the students were very happy with their on-line relationships. Hardly ever did they complain in earnest of lacking face-to-face communication with their partners. However, there were two cases where some frustration was felt. First, if the partners felt very close, they would have liked to meet.

I think I'm going to leave for America! I want her alive! [23]

I've been thinking about the distortion caused by mediated communication... Would I tell another person "this much" this rapidly and would I feel I was on exactly the same wavelength as [Name] if a) she were here as an exchange student, or b) I were there as an exchange student, or c) if by some coincidence we were to meet in the Greek islands? All the same... we began to make plans for meeting... [25]

Second, in cases of an eventual misunderstanding or disagreement, they would have liked immediately to go and settle it face-to-face. At least they wanted to talk by phonewhich in fact they did.

We had a FirstClass meeting once again. We spent some time catching up with one another and mostly we worked on our joint term paper. It seems quite confusing to me and every now and then there are misunderstandings. I feel frustrated when I cannot speak face to face. [4]

Because of putting the clocks forward and changing to daylight saving time we were on FirstClass at different times. But in compensation [Name] called me by phone. I really have nothing to complain about! [16]

In contrast to rewarding relationships there were also those considered unsuccessful to a varying degree by the students. Not surprisingly, some student partners had differing attitudes to the basic idea of working in pairs and to the ensuing mutual dependence. In a computer-mediated learning environment, it is easy for the reluctant party to avoid contact with the other. Out of 31 relationships, three had major problems of co-operation, developing either into a number of conflicts or termination of pair-work. Instead of mutual discussions experienced as necessary and fruitful, this kind of "forced" relationship included frustration and disappointment.

No mail from [Name]. I am sitting here alone with FirstClass. Nothing's happening! I've made a decision: tomorrow I'll go and talk to [the instructor]. I must do something. [ ] It is May Day eve and I am sitting in the classroom. There's no one else around. I am waiting for [Name] but she doesn't come?! [ ] I haven't heard anything from [Name]. I see no reason why I should write to her. I think that at least for the time being, our relationship is over. [ ] I believe she's a nice girl, but perhaps her problem was that she didn't like the course. [9]

[Name] doesn't appear very enthusiastic to work together. She said that she thinks we do not have anything much to work on together in this project. Well, perhaps not. But on the other hand I guess I myself don't seem to be too eager to cooperate either. So we are still having this working relationship. Because yesterday [on FirstClass] [Name] said again unexpectedly "Sorry, I have to go to a class" (she always does that), and our plans were left unfinished. This is why I sent her an e-mail once again, about my timetables and other plans, so that we could sort all this out. And again I find myself waiting. [28]

In addition to these few more or less broken relationships there were relationships that did not fully meet the students' expectations. Approximately half of the Finnish students would have liked a closer relationship with their partner "a real friendship" as they typically called their idealthan they actually had. They attempted a variety of strategies to nudge the relationship in a warmer direction (e.g. they asked personal questions to break the ice, gave more personal self-disclosure, or expressed a more positive attitude to their partner). If these students did not succeed in developing a close friendship, they presented a number of reasons for their failure: dissimilarity, unwillingness of the partner, insufficient self-disclosure, differing working habits, different native language, laboriousness of the course, use of technology, insufficient motivation, or lack of time.

Through these e-mails I have got the impression that she is very unlike me, and that she is far more "superficial". She doesn't tell me much about herself and doesn't seem willing to hear about Finnish culture from me. [ ] Little by little I'm beginning to think that I don't want too much involvement in this relationship. It seems to mejudging from her messages that we are interested in totally different things and she is not at all enthusiastic about this whole "forced relationship." [27]

We didn't become real friends as we didn't find it necessary to get to know one another very well. The reasons for this could be (at least on my part): 1) at first the course itself demanded so much e-mailing that there was not much interest/energy to start writing personal e-mails. 2) The goal was to produce a joint term paper. [ ] 3) My two partners didn't show any particular interest in discussing personal matters. [8]

When I compare my relationship with the US student with the other students' relationships, I realize that we met more seldom than the others did. Again it is a question of being in a hurry and having problems with timetables. This is why we didn't become close. [2]

My relationship with [Name] did not develop into a very close one, which is not so surprising if you think about the context and the situational factors. E-mail and FirstClass, as good as they are as communication channels, are so distant. Perhaps our relationship would have been closer if we had had a common language. [5]

It can be concluded that the students did not expressly accuse computer-mediatedness for their possible failure to maintain contact with their partners or construct a close personal relationship with them. Having to talk only through computers seemed to be a minor factor among the various others which could affect the perceived type and success of the relationship.

Aside from pondering on the successes and setbacks of their relationships, the students also explicitly analyzed their characteristics in more detail. They compared them to face-to-face relationships and came up with a number of similarities and differences. Those emphasizing similarities pointed out that the relationship developed through the same phases as in face-to-face communication (although more rapidly) and that they themselves had been the same kind of person as in their face-to-face life. Those underlining differences focused on the absence of nonverbal signs in written communication, over-consciousness in formulating written messages and managing personality impressions, difficulties in verbalizing nuances, as well as inaccurate perceptions of the other person's character. Overall, many students found it difficult to define and categorize their computer-mediated relationships:

Your communication is open to various interpretations and there are more possibilities for misunderstandings. On the other hand, now I notice that I'm comparing a net relationship to a face-to-face relationship. Why do I do that? Couldn't a net relationship be treated a category or a genre of its own in which there are different rules than in face-to-face relationships. [12]

When describing their written interaction with their partners through asynchronous e-mail or a synchronous conferencing program (FirstClass), the students customarily used terms relevant to face-to-face situations. For example, they 'came', 'met' and 'saw' one another (on FirstClass), they 'spoke', 'talked', 'laughed' and 'shouted' to one another (in E-mail or on FirstClass). If they were (on FirstClass) 'quieter' than usual, they couldn't 'open their mouths.' Although the students could not always categorize their on-line relationships as being similar to or different from face-to-face relationships, they seem to have experienced their partners almost in flesh and blood.

3) Asynchronous and Synchronous Computer-Mediated Communication Compared

As already stated, the student pairs used asynchronous e-mail, a synchronous (real-time) text-based conferencing program (FirstClass) as well as a synchronous (real-time) video conferencing program (CUSeeMe) in their interaction. These technologies were soon found to be useful for different communicative functions. Conventional e-mail with delayed feedback was used mainly for fixing meetings on FirstClass and CUSeeMe, for explaining and analyzing what had been said through them, for self-disclosing purposes, and for keeping in touch with partners.

[Name] didn't come [in CUSeeMe]. She thinks that the "lab guy" isn't there so she cannot get on-line by herself. [ ] [Name] hopes that this wasn't a disappointmet to me. Of course it was. She really wants to see me. She wants our term paper to be good. I immediately write back because I think [Name] will be reading my e-mail at once. I tell her that we could try without the lab guy right away. "It is not at all difficult." Besides, one of my classmates had reserved a CUSeeMe time just before me, so the connection was ready for [the US University]. [Name] answers just as I hoped. Good! [9]

However, as before, we try to avoid misunderstandings in every possible way. Also now, after our last FirstClass discussion we talked things through (= our hurry, our uptightness) in a constructive and understanding way by e-mail. It is so great that we talk about things!! [25]

[Name] had sent me an e-mail message right after we had met on CUSeeMe and she told me that it had been fun to meet. I answered right away and told her that I too had enjoyed it. [3]

Our last few discussions on FirstClass have been rather "matter-of-fact" because the time allowed for producing the term paper is running out and we don't have time to talk about "extra" things on-line. However, to counterbalance work, we have been in off-duty contact and chatted through e-mail. [25]

And again, before leaving FirstClass, she asked me to write an e-mail before I went home. Aargh! What could I find to talk about when we had just talked on-line for a couple of hours? Here I find some attitudinal differences between her and me. I am very comfortable with talking on-line but [Name] also wants e-mail on the same day. [18]

I sit up at night and send e-mail. Today I wrote about my childhood memories. I got an e-mail from [Name] that I am so happy about! It is too personal to reveal!!! [23]

Synchronous conferencing by writing served both social and task functions. It proved to be the best channel for working, i.e. for preparing term-papers, but it also encouraged the students to chat, flirt and have fun with one another and in this way to strengthen the relationship.

The Internet has been a really fascinating medium and FirstClass has been working really well (not always technically) in carrying out our joint project. How easy it is to write/comment/add something of one's own directly to FirstClass for the other party to read. FirstClass is also very good for discussions. [6]

As a matter of fact, during these two hours there was 15 minutes of discussion about the topic and 105 minutes of social chit-chat and flirting. However I don't think the discussion was unsuccessful as my social relationship with my partner became stronger and greatly improved. Besides, it was great fun! [10]

Of course we talked much so called trivia in our meeting, too, like how animals make sounds in Finnish and then in English. But I think this is meaningful also on the relational level. It is good to communicate with humor to one's partner that "I want to spend time with you outside the task, too." Usually in later interaction this kind of trivia becomes an "inside code" that always carries a humorous flavor and creates a mutual sense of togetherness. [20]

Finnish university students are proficient in English. However, compared to ordinary e-mailing the tempo of interaction through the real-time conferencing program required quick responses. This in turn called for readiness to use inaccurate word choices and imperfect expressions in English. The students got used to this kind of "talk" surprisingly quickly:

Wow what an atmosphere! A couple of hours went just so quickly. We laughed a lot. The tension of the first chat [in FirstClass] relaxed right away. [10]

Nonetheless, the students expressed concern about misunderstandings that could have a harmful impact on their interpersonal relationships.

Somehow I feel that I should rattle off sentences as finished as possible on the screen. And while I'm thinking what to say and how, the discussion has progressed so much that there is no point in tapping out what I have to say on the screen. I think this kind of hesitation may harm the relationship itself. My partner may get the impression that I don't want to be with her because it takes me so long to answer. [12]

I asked [Name] to explain it because I didn't understand everything but she said that she hadn't thought about it in any more detail. I just wanted her to explain her thinking in other words because I didn't understand it because of the language. She misunderstood me. This was a conflict and it was left as it was. [1]

The difficulties described in the excerpts above demonstrate the entrainment dimension in synchronous computer-mediated communication (Walther & Burgoon, 1992; Walther, 1996). Compared to asynchronous on-line messages, synchronous interaction requires simultaneous attention to both the task and the other participant and may be experienced as highly demanding.

In spite of the possible perplexity of the real-time discussions through computers, they were regarded almost as face-to-face interaction by the students. For example, they felt that it enhanced their commitment to the relationship and to the task. Also the feedback behavior of the American partners resembled that of face-to-face conversations.

I feel it is more important to keep promises and agreements (my conscience bothers me... even now) after they have been made on FirstClass/CUSeeMe. Agreements made through e-mail are easier to break because your partner's feedback is not simultaneous. [6]

It was interesting to notice that she used the American-style "vocal" or verbal feedback after each sentence. Among others she used the expressions "yeah...", "go on", "really! what happened next?" and so on. [20]

However, the norms of this kind of new situation were unclear. Together with problems related to using a foreign language, the lack of established interaction norms created additional challenges for the interactants. There were no explicit conventions for ending a conversation, for expressing unanimity or for taking turns.

I was being exceptionally slow both in my English and in typing and I just wasn't able to be very fluent. All of a sudden my partner wrote that she had to go and was there anything I wanted to ask. While I was writing my second important comment (it took some time) I noticed "Bye, bye" on the screen and she was gone! So I was left there wondering and embarrassed and angry. I thought it was very rude of her to go away before I had said that we can finish. [29]

The funny thing in this meeting was that [Name] doesn't believe that I can understand in one go what I should do next. I had to repeat word for word what I am going to do for tomorrowa mere "yes" was not enough for her. [15]

There was one bad feature in our discussion: I was constantly the one who had to answer questions. Every time I had finished answering the previous question a new one came. On the other hand this time my partner tolerated my longer reaction times better than before as I had written to tell her that I am trying very hard to keep up but sometimes I find it difficult. [14]

4) Written and Audio-Visual Computer-Mediated Communication Compared

The synchronous (real-time) CUSeeMe video conferencing program was used to construct and maintain the students' interpersonal relationships during the course. The student pairs were left to decide by themselves when and how much to use the program, and it was tried out at least once by each pair. The students pondered on the most suitable timing for their first meeting with their partner on CUSeeMe: some wanted to see and hear one another as soon as possible, others did not want to use the program until they felt they knew one another well enough. They certainly wanted to see what the other person looked like, and often this was the only reason for using the program.

Fears of disappointment raised by seeing the face of one's on-line partner have been reported in a recent study by Walther, Slovacek & Tidwell (2001). Similar results were found here: some students had fears of feeling disappointed or being a disappointment for their partner. A few students even chose an older black-and-white camera so that their partner wouldn't see them so clearly, and they were glad if the picture proved indistinct. Seeing and hearing one another was an exciting experience for everyone.

We said to each other how amazing it was to look at and to talk to one another at a distance of thousands of kilometers. [1]

We opened CUSeeMe and I felt so nervous that I didn't want to sit down by the computer (and in front of the video camera). On the pretext of getting a better camera I switched to another one but the real reason was that it was black-and-white (and I thought it showed me in a better light). [11]

The video connection through CUSeeMe mostly served social purposes during the course. However, the students' opinions about its usefulness differed. There were pairs who felt at ease in visual contact from the very beginning and continued to use video interaction throughout the course. After the first meeting they had often had the feeling that their partner was closer than before, and now that they had seen one another they had a more responsible attitude to both the relationship and the course assignments. These were usually also the pairs who immediately after their first e-mail messages at the outset of the course felt that they had much in common.

Yesterday we met through CUSeeMe. Somehow seeing her made me feel closer to her and more responsible for our relationship. I think our friendship gets deeper and more real when we see each other in a concrete way. [3]

Since we met each other through CUSeeMe, I think our relationship has become closer. [2]

Most of our discussion was just chit-chat. We told jokes and stories, and it was easier to laugh because we saw each other's faces. [ ] I must admit that I feel as if I had really met him. The atmosphere was not like that of a typical first encounter. The atmosphere was really nice. [ ] All his texts sound like voice now. I mean after that CUSeeMe session. Now it feels more like ordinary pair work than at the outset of the course. [7]

We were only a couple of minutes on CUSeeMe because there were many other reservations. [Name] wanted to see my engagement ring and I showed it to her. She showed me hers. The other Finns who were around were a little astonished. I realized that I had a closer relationship with [Name] than they had with their partners because we had so much in common. [21]

However, most of the student pairs did not adopt the video connection as their favorite channel for contact. They tested the system a few times and evaluated it as an fascinating experience as such, but did not find it a very practical tool for working together. These pairs had either constructed an effortless relationship already by e-mail and FirstClass and felt no need for an additional channel, or they considered their relationship too impersonal to be maintained by video. The device also appeared strange or inconvenient to them from a technical point of view.

I guess we are not going to use CUSeeMe much anymore. As a matter of fact I realized that the main purpose at least to them was just to see my face. Last time the audio connection was not so good. Of course it was interesting to see what they looked like. In practice our joint project goes better using FirstClass. [2]

On the other hand the superficiality of it was revealed in this kind of meeting between the two of us. As the text sharing didn't work we were able to communicate only by talking. It worked only by using short sentences and quite simple structures. More complicated structures got confused and we had to ask a lot of questions. Because we couldn't talk about the subject matter, i.e. the paper, we actually had no topics to discuss (!). We talked about the instructor and the weekend and so on, but our discussion was incoherent and it lasted 'only' for half an hour. [3]

Well yes, this was a bit like something we had in another course, I mean experimenting with video conferencing. There, too, it was more like watching television. You sort of have to look at the camera and not at the screen if you want to look directly into your partner's eyes. [7]

5) Type of Relationship: Workmates, Friends or More?

Although the students shared the same common ground (in the sense that this was an instructional context for all of them), they formed different kinds of interpersonal relationships with their partners via their computer-mediated communication. As judged by the Finnish students in their journals at the end of the course, these relationships could reasonably be laid out on the continuum task-oriented socially oriented.

First, a relationship could be extremely task-oriented, constructed and maintained only for the purpose of studying subject matter relevant to the course. Out of 31 relationships, ten are categorized as task-oriented.

Yesterday, [Name] began her message with "How was your weekend" but I didn't answer that because I had so much "relevant coursework" that I had to talk to her about. Our relationship is a working relationship. The amount of friendship stuff is minimal. [ ] We have a businesslike relationship. When she asks me something that is not relevant to the course, she points it out very clearly. [8]

The second type of a relationship was that between two acquaintances. Everything went "all right" and there was some mutual self-disclosure, but the Finnish partners did not experience the relationships as a friendship. The Finnish students made a clear distinction between an acquaintance (i.e. a casual friend) and a friend (i.e. a close friend). Six relationships are described as acquaintanceships.

As with [Name], pleasant acquaintances can be formed via technology. But at least in my opinion, more is needed to go deeper. [ ] I worked with [Name] for more than two months. That is not a long time. Our relationship was based on a common goal, the term papers. [ ] However, I got a positive impression about [Name] as a person. [ ] Yet, I don't feel I could now say to other people that "I have a friend in the US"I would say instead "I know someone in the US". [ ] There has been something between us, but it is difficult to know what that something is. Perhaps only a joint term paper with a pleasant, cheerful, yet unknown girl. I got to know her during the course, but I still don't know her. [1]

Third, there were relationships that were defined as true, close friendships by their Finnish counterparts. Eight relationships are described as true friendships.

It feels very natural writing to my partner and she has become a true friend to me. [ ] Our conversations are just like the conversations I have with my best friends. I feel that [Name] has become part of my world and my life and that I am also inside her picture of her life. [4]

Fourth, some of the students felt that the relationship they had with their partner was a romantic one or that it had a romantic flavor. Out of 31 relationships, four were experienced as romantic.

I wish Finnish men were as open and polite as [Name] is! [ ] I do not know how to interpret the longing tone in his e-mail. [ ] Our relationship is moving onto a level that just includes the two of us. [ ] We have found a mutual note on the emotional level. To think that a thing like this can happen in spite of the geographical distance. I do not have the courage to think about the future yet, but time will tell. [ ] Discussion and e-mails between [Name] and me don't feel at all distant; after all, we also keep in touch by mail and telephone. [1]

It is self-evident that the nature of the students' relationships cannot be strictly categorized. Many students described their American partners as both workmates and friends. This mixed relationship was often reflected in the parallel use of communication channels. For example, e-mail was utilized for social purposes and FirstClass for working purposes, or vice versa.

The hybrid nature of the relationship could also be seen in changes over time. As the weeks went by, the students began to compare the present stage of their relationship to its earlier stages. Many of them felt that the relationship had shifted either from a socially-oriented to a task-related one, or vice versa. Some pairs were woken up by almost running out of time to prepare their term-papers, and they moved from "chatting to hard work" or "from friends to both friends and co-workers."

There was an intimate tone again in her message, even a romantic one. She wishes me a pleasant Easter vacation. [ ] Suddenly she has lost all her previous warmth and openness. She only writes short, nervous, formal messages that briefly sketch the present situation. [ ] Now I have received an extremely desperate message in which [Name] asks if I can write my part of the term paper by Sunday. [ ] Now the paper is finished. The relaxed [Name] is back again. We had some of our normal banter about her going to bed and me waking up at the same time. Ha-ha. [24]

There were student pairs who felt obliged to talk about personal matters and to get to know each other at the outset in order to be able to work successfully later on. In contrast, some pairs found themselves with plenty of time to orient their relationship towards greater intimacy only after finishing both of their term papers. This was accomplished by disclosing personal matters to one another:

Now that the job was done we could relax. I spoke about personal matters in more detail than before and I told her that I hoped to continue our friendship even though [Name] graduates this year and we would have to find a new way to keep in touch. I think it will still be e-mail, though. [Name] thanked me for co-operation and wanted to keep the relationship going. She also told me about her freetime. She signed her message "your friend, [Name]". I am looking forward to the future. [13]

Thus, important deadlines in the course schedule could alter the nature of the students' on-line relationships.

Some students displayed feelings of regret and even guilt over building a certain kind of a relationship. For example, they felt sorry (or disappointed) about having concentrated on the course-work instead of developing a friendship. The reasons for not having built up a friendship were various: I had no time; the communication technology took up all my energy; I only wanted to work; my partner didn't interest me very much; we did not find ourselves on the same wavelength; he/she was not my type; we were so different as persons; we had a different sense of humor; I already know a lot about American culture; we did not chat through CUSeeMe (with video and audio connection) right at the beginning; or, finally, my partner didn't seem to be interested in me.

Conversely, some students felt guilty about spending too much time in social chit-chat or in intimate flirtation with their partner. These activities were defended by comments on mutual laziness, not being an efficient student, the possibility of obtaining social support from one's partner in a difficult life situation, or just enjoying each other's company.

6) Self-Presentation and Attribution Processes

During their first contacts with their Internet partners, the students often presented an information package about themselves. They gave their name and age, and they stated where they were from and what subjects they were studying at the university. Some of them also described their looks (e.g. if they were blond, dark, or tall). They realized that gender is not always revealed by Finnish names, so they usually mentioned that, too. In addition, the self-descriptions often included possible romantic bonds and experience in traveling.

When the students got to know their partner's name, they used very active strategies to form impressions of him or her. Many of them went back to their e-mail files, if they had not deleted the messages, and attempted to develop an image of their partner on the basis of his or her earlier messages in the course listserv. If they had deleted the earlier messages, they attempted to recall their possible first impressions of their partner from the first moments of the course. After having talked to their partner, they described whether he or she corresponded to their expectations.

Later on, the students elaborated on their first impressions. There were many relationships that clearly reflected the complicated processes of impression formation. Favorable first impressions changed into unfavorable ones and vice versa. An example of the process of forming an impression is given below.

I got my first e-mail message from my partner. I checked her out right away from the earlier messages in the listserv. [ ] I got the impression that she has a strictly moral attitude to work, and I am just the opposite! [ ] Ha-ha, poor kid! I'll have to raise my sights so that she won't be totally disappointed. I'll do my best, of course, but I couldn't care less about how I'm graded in this course. [ ] My prejudiced assumptions about young Americans came true. [Name] seems to be the prototype of the ambitious career-oriented young American often seen in the movies. [ ] Now, after a couple of e-mail messages I believe that we'll get along fine. Luckily [Name] appears to have a good sense of humor. Perhaps this will make up for a lot. She also seems to be empathetic and friendly. [ ] We met through CUSeeMe. [Name] appeared to be quite a personality, off the beaten track, not the average American. [ ] Every now and then she seems very grown-up and mature, and then there are moments where I find her young and insecure. But I'm so glad she's my partner! [ ] How come I had such a negative first impression about her! It has proved totally wrong! [22]

Clearly, reciprocity of self-disclosure was a strict norm throughout the course of the relationship. The students expected their partner to give in his or her next e-mail message the same information as they had given themselves. This is what normally occurred. Otherwise the initiator could feel disappointed or offended:

And yet, I felt disappointed. I had told her several things about myself but [Name] didn't tell me anything about herself in turn. [3]

There were pairs who stayed as task-oriented workmates for the duration of the course. In these relationships there was almost no self-disclosure at all.

Again straight down to business... She didn't tell me anything about herself, neither did I. Actually she didn't even greet me. I tried at least to be polite but she passed over all that and began to talk about the subject matter. After the meeting I was quite confused, even annoyed. I wondered what was going on. Had I been somehow rude myself. What was this all about. [31]

Apparently I am so set in my ways that I don't even want a very deep relationship on the net. For me it is a medium through which I give rather impersonal information. I don't want to discuss deep thoughts on the net... I wouldn't do that even with my closest friend either. [12]

Nevertheless, most students wanted to get to know one another. If the first mutual self-presentations were successfully exchanged, the acquaintance-making process was considered rapid. The students typically compared it to face-to-face conversations in the following way:

We exchanged our lifestories. Indeed, people rarely give so much away about themselves during their first face-to-face conversations with a new person. [1]

The students occasionally reported having a moral hang-over after "excessive self-disclosures." There were a few students who clearly had a hyperpersonal relationship (Walther, 1996) with their partners. Nevertheless, they were completely conscious about the exceptional nature of their experience.

Where does this feeling of immense trust come from? It is so very easy to disclose your feelings, to talk about yourself. I really understand people who get hooked on computer-mediated communication; it is so intense. [ ] I find it quite amusing but through e-mail I have now given away things that I would never tell anyone else. The reason must be that it is a more neutral form of disclosure; I do not have to face immediate reactions and feel embarrassed. On the other hand, if anything goes wrong, these messages sent to the other side of the world cannot influence my life here. [ ] Nowadays I do nothing but think what I am going to tell my partner next. My friends are about to find me irritating. When I meet them I always begin to tell them about this wonderful experience of mine. On the other hand I get irritated myself because I am so much involved in this. It makes no sense anymore. [ ] I feel a totally different person than I was three months ago. [23]

In pondering on the character of their partner, the students usually expressed evaluative comments on his or her personality, studying habits, and similarities and differences as compared to themselves. There were two contextual factors that were intertwined with partner evaluations: communication technologies and cultural aspects.

First, the students felt uncertain about the effects of the communication technologies they were using on their communication with their partner and on the impressions they formed about him or her. Here are some examples:

[Name] gave me the impression of being a quiet person. But I cannot interpret the quiet moments as anything because the pauses could be made by the computers [FirstClass]. [7]

Through e-mail she appears to be a warm person. E-mail is the only way that I have communicated with her so far. On the other hand I wonder if the many warm expressions that I have read in her e-mails are only American small-talk, or does she really think what she says? [2]

Have I used my imagination to shape my partner in a way that appeals to me? I do not really know her, after all. [23]

Second, the students spent plenty of time reflecting on cultural matters, especially on similarities and differences between the two cultures. In particular, first impressions of partners were formed and interpreted in a cultural context. Many of the students were well aware of various cultural stereotypes. They described their own attitudes to these cultural stereotypes and either commented on their own independent thinking or admitted their dependence on certain stereotypes.

My American partner [Name] wrote to me for the first time. The message was quite formal. [ ] I'd wanted to hear more about her. [ ] I answered her in my typical style: I told her a lot about myself and my feelings. [ ] I feel as if the idea of the silent Finn and the open-minded and talkative American has been turned upside down. [25]

Frankly, after our first meeting I didn't know what to think about her. Her overwhelming friendliness seemed quite ridiculous to me, as I am a reticent citizen here in the far North. It was certainly interesting to meet face-to-face [through CUSeeMe] but I didn't find it such an earth-shattering experience as [Name] seemed to do. Did she really have so many loving feelings or was it a sign of this well-worn thing called American small talk? [18]

According to the students' comments, most of them were not overly serious in evaluating their partners' individual characteristics in relation to cultural stereotypes. Some students, however, tended to make judgments about their partners as representatives of the American culture. These stereotypical inferences based on limited information about the partner are in line with the SIDE model (social identification/deindividuation model) presented by Lea and Spears (1995). Later on the students found that either they had to revise their opinions or they were "forced" to retain their stereotypes as valid. The "verified" stereotypes included e.g. abundant use of small talk, politeness, openness in self-disclosure, superficial attitudes, being party-animals, dependence on parents and church. The "falsified" stereotypes comprised overwhelming friendliness, openness in self-disclosure, outspokenness, and tendency to seek personal rather than impersonal contact. In all, the students' reflections on cultural stereotypes were lengthy and detailed, often resulting in a total re-evaluation of the idea of cultural conformity and thus emphasizing the immense variety found among individuals.

7) Maintaining the Relationship

The students reflected in their journals on maintaining their relationships in various ways. There were a few maintenance behaviors that in the students' opinion would not be included in face-to-face interaction but were self-evidently part of computer-mediated communication. For example, the students felt obliged to contact their partner every now and then "just to make sure she is still there even though we don't have any course assignments to do at present." They also tried to avoid delays in answering their partner's e-mail messages.

We are in contact on a daily basis through e-mail. [Name] is keen on asking questions and I don't always have the energy to answer them, for instance, if I would like to have children one day or not. Perhaps I should take a more positive attitude to such questions and not think about the answers too much. It is certainly most important that we keep in touch. [16]

Our messages may sometimes be shorter, if either of us is busy and only wants to send a couple of lines just to show that she has read the other's message. But even the shorter messages always includes the sentence "I'll write more later on", and the longer message may come the same day. [4]

Most of the students closely monitored their own maintenance behavior. For instance, they expressed concerns about their skills in the English language, in expressing nuances, and in talking fast enough in synchronous chatting sessions (for their partner not to get bored). There were moments when they were worried about having been excessively flirtatious, rude, outspoken, dominant, or too focused on the term-paper, and they were concerned about the impact of their behavior on the relationship. Humor was one of the communicative elements that caused worries. Here are some examples: "I wonder if it was wise to tell so many (daring) jokes?", "Dare I use irony?", "She didn't understand my joke perhaps this happened because she didn't expect me to tell jokes in a foreign language." Moreover, the students apologized to their partner if the technology had failed even though they knew it was not their fault.

The students had varying attitudes to openly expressing their opinions about the joint work. Most of the students felt safe revealing their concerns or doubts regarding the project:

Now we know each other better and this is shown also in the way we express our opinions. At least I say/write my thoughts openly because I do not assume that we agree in everything. [16]

However, some students very clearly tried to avoid disagreements and even the slightest differences in opinion. They did not criticize their partners and they did not give them disagreeable feedback on their work. They did not even ask questions which might appear too personal. Indirectness was the most apparent means for them to maintain good relations with their partner, especially in the initial phases of their relationships.

I had finished my part many weeks ago. During the week [Name] had succeeded in preparing only a couple of sections so I would have had every reason to be a little angry. But I didn't want to show my frustration to [Name]... [5]

[Name] said that I am a really great partner as I have sent files to her. I said politely that she is great too, although I thought "Help! When will you begin to write your share?" [21]

The students described a variety of additional maintenance behaviors in their journals. The behaviors that the students themselves reported having performed are listed below, and clearly bear many similarities to those used to maintain face-to-face relationships in everyday situations. They cover a large variety of interactive behaviors, practices and routines.

Accommodation (e.g. adopting one's partner's style in answers, using phrases thought to be typical of American people, bringing up topics that would interest the partner)

Apologizing for violating expectations (e.g. for not being in contact for a while)

Asking/doing a favor (sending recipes, recording talk-shows from radio)

Asking out (for a date or to a party tonight, jokingly)

Assurances ("You are my best e-mail partner ever!", "Don't leave me!""I'll never leave you!")

Being non-judgmental, avoiding disagreements ("I found her contribution to our paper rather cursory but I didn't say anything.")

Catching up, debriefing

Clearing up misunderstandings, settling disagreements

Complaining, expressing negative feelings

Current events talk

Decision-making

Empathizing, comforting (e.g. when the partner is stressed or the technology fails)

Encouraging the partner (e.g. to do the class assignments)

Expressing affection, commitment, positive feelings

Giving/getting advice or instructions, helping (e.g. with the technology or the term paper)

Gossiping (about the other students taking the course)

Greeting intimately, intimate farewells ("A big hug from Finland", "Hello my love!")

Having fun

Information talk (finding out about class assignments, course material)

Joking

Making plans for the future ("When you come to Finland, shall we dance together?")

Making arrangements to meet (either via conference programs or face-to-face)

Praising successful co-operation

Problem talk (one tells about his/her problems and the other tries to help)

Promising to share tasks

Questioning intensively, "interrogation"

Recapping the day's events

Relationship talk (talking about the nature and state of the relationship)

Reminiscing (about events experienced together during the course)

Self-disclosure, asking personal questions

Similarity talk (searching for things in common, e.g. traveling to the same places, way of life, musical taste)

Small talk, routine talk

Using pet names more or less jokingly ("Light of my life", "The sunshine of my life").

 

Plans for maintaining the relationship in the future either by keeping in touch by computer-mediated communication or even meeting one another face-to-face were dependent on whether both parties had feelings of something in common or togetherness. In this sense the relationships differed widely. To some students it was clear that their relationship had come to an end, while some started to make plans for common activities in the future. Others hoped for future connections or felt more or less indifferent about it.

The relationship between me and my partner has turned out to be a strictly working relationship and I don't think it is going to last after this course. We are so different. Every now and then I have had the feeling that I'm communicating with a 13-year-old teenage girl. I am not a mature grown-up either, so it is funny that I feel so grown-up with her. [17]

We exchanged postal addresses but this probably wasn't anything more than a formality. [10]

Today we had our last contact. The actual work went all right. The job is finished. The social part took much longer. When I was writing the last goodbye I was really moved. It would be so nice to see her or still hear from her. [10]

He is coming to Finland in June. I do not know about the future, but at least we have built a strong relationship. [1]

Discussion

It is important that certain limitations of this study be recognized. First, the data consist only of the experiences and reflections of the Finnish students, i.e. one side of the relationship. As Baxter and Montgomery (1996, p. 226) and Metts (1998, pp. 109-110) have pointed out, conclusions drawn from one-sided individual-level data in interpersonal communication research can only be tentative. However, keeping a journal could not be included in the class assignments of the American students.

Second, it is self-evident that on the basis of the data no conclusions about what actually happened between the pairs during the Internet courses can be drawn. For example, it was noticed that the journals often do not reveal the reasons for particular instances of behavior or further explanations for interaction events. Interviews could prove a useful means of gathering such data. In addition, the importance of comparative data derived from actual interactions has to be recognized (see Sahlstein, 1997; Traynowicz Hetherington, Curtin-Alwardt & Gullickson-Tolman, 1997).

The journal data have been obtained from students of Speech Communication. A convenience sample like this can be justified in a study of this kind. Among people using the Internet for academic purposes, these students were probably more cognizant of interpersonal communication than any other group of university students in Finland. With their skills in observing and analyzing on-going communication, the participants were able to make notes on numerous relevant phenomena and even nuances of communication behavior rather than e.g. providing general descriptions or irrelevant details of what happened during the courses. Beforehand, the students were asked to write the journal "as they are", i.e. as students who possess a knowledge of interpersonal relationships. For these students, pretending to be a tabula-rasa when writing a journal would simply not have been possible. However, they were asked not to seek for knowledge about relationships in text-books but to concentrate on their own relationship. Nevertheless, their theoretical knowledge was reflected in the journals, and some of them occasionally commented on interpersonal theories in a professional way.

The results of the present study indicate that the students formed different kinds of long-term interpersonal relationships with their partners via computer-mediated communication. The relationships could be laid out along the continuum task-oriented socially oriented. Thus, the students could function as peers working simply on a joint paper, acquaintances, friends, true friends, or romantically involved.

For a few students, developing an intimate relationship electronically was a strongly-felt experience. These students became soul mates with their partners. The hyperpersonal nature of these close relationships was reflected in feelings of reciprocal self-disclosure and deep personal understanding. The primary reason these students gave for their intense experience was that they had an unreal feeling of not being responsible for the intimate self-disclosures that they made. They did not have to face the reactions of their partner. The nature of these relationships is in line with Walther's (1992, 1996) theory of hyperpersonal interaction and its essential dimension, self-presentation (see also Tidwell & Walther, in press). In addition, reciprocal self-disclosure implies positive feedback from the partner, which in turn may lead to "an intensification loop" in mutual affection (Walther, 1996, pp. 2728). There may also have been a place for a highly intimate and romantic personal relationship in this phase of some students' lives.

The wide range of relationship types and contents imply that technological systems per se determine neither the type of personal relationship created nor its characteristics. The students in this study utilized computer-mediated communication to form and develop the kind of relationship they wanted, provided that their partner also wanted it. At best, the relationship was developed to accomplish the communicative functions that were important to both students at that time. This perspective on computer-mediated communication could be defined as functional. It implies that people take advantage of communication technologies as part and parcel of their ordinary lives. They simply offer one additional means of making contacts and interacting with other people.

Expectations play a major role in people's interpersonal lives and in the evaluation of interpersonal relationships (Burgoon & LePoire, 1993). In computer-mediated relationships both expectancies and expectancy violations may be of crucial importance. The students' satisfaction with their on-line relationships depended on whether their expectations were met. At the outset of the course many students had high hopes for a certain kind of a relationship: a mere working relationship, a friendship, a true friendship. Usually they anticipated quite a close friendship, and if their wishes came true, they were very satisfied. If this was the case it didn't matter if the joint task the term papers were less successful. However, there were also relationships that were considered wholly enjoyable in spite of a focus on producing the term papers rather than becoming friends.

The relationships process was found rewarding as long as both parties had the same kind of relationship in mind. However, expectations sometimes clashed. If this happened, the nature of the relationship seemed to require constant negotiation. This was reflected, for example, in an unequal amount of e-mails or asymmetric patterns of self-disclosure, for example.

The computer-mediated relationships which were considered successful were characterized by the same criteria as those often used to describe good face-to-face relationships. According to the students, their partners shared with them a similar view of life, life situation, sense of humor, study habits or attitudes to the course. By committing themselves either to their shared course tasks and learning or to their partner (or both), both parties were motivated to endure the technical difficulties involved in developing their relationships. Motivation was often the key word for achieving a rewarding interpersonal relationship.

Frequently the students seemed to be uncertain as to what kind of relationship they should try to construct with their partners. Moreover, they had no clear conception about how to behave in the various new situations and interactions that occurred through the different technologies. Such uncertainties resulted from vague assumptions about the norms governing an Internet course of this kind or relationships formed in a new kind of learning environment. For example, in a face-to-face environment chatting or flirting with peers or, alternatively, intense concentration on the task at hand would hardly invoke feelings of guilt or regret. There are studies on the formation of group norms in computer-mediated communication (e.g. Postmes, Spears, & Lea, 2000). Relationship norms, however, need further investigation.

It should be taken into account that the participants of this study were quite skilled in using computers even before the course started (see Hurme, 1997; 1998). They were already confident users of e-mail, and they very easily learnt to use the synchronous conferencing programs as well. Thus, students with more limited experience of computers might have been more dissatisfied with communicating by electronic means only. However, maintaining a computer-mediated relationship caused plenty of frustration even among these students because the network broke up quite often. Being in contact with one's partner sometimes called for real motivation. Hence it was relatively easy for a few unmotivated students to blame the computers for the difficulties that arose in the relationship process.

Quite surprisingly, however, neither the computers themselves nor the technical problems encountered were the focus of the students' attention during the course. Most of the them were mainly occupied with the development of the mutual relationship, the importance, type and depth of the relationship, the personal characteristics of their partners, their own communicative behavior, and the class assignments. The students were apparently able to ignore computer-induced problems because of the exciting experiences they were enabled to enjoy. The attraction of novelty, which is often referred to as the virtual honeymoon effect (Scott, Timmerman, Sage, & Quinn, 1999) in computer-mediated contexts, certainly also applied among the students of the present study.

The students did not use the word "virtual" in their journals, even though, as communication students, they were well aware of the word. In their experience, their relationships and interactions with their partners were not virtual in contrast to real life. As described in their journals, their relationships were clearly part of their social life. Neither did the interactions take place in "cyber-space." (See Chenault, 1998; Baker, 1998) The students seem to have experienced their partners almost in flesh and blood even before seeing and hearing them via the CUSeeMe program. For the students, their interpersonal relationships were real-life, not virtual. However, they were not face-to-face. Thus, in research on computer-mediated communication, close attention should be paid to conceptualization and the theoretical underpinnings. Computer-mediated communication is not the opposite of real life, but computer-mediated communication and face-to-face communication while both being real-life and social-life experiences should be treated as conceptual opposites.

Without computer-mediation the many-sided intercultural relationships described in this paper would not have come into existence. Yet, they were experienced as only one, though captivating, slice in the communicative life of the participants. Speech communication will certainly remain the principal and most significant way of forming interpersonal relationships for most people. However, mediated relationships through written and audio-visual asynchronous and synchronous contacts have provided and will continue to introduce new dimensions into our everyday communication. Further qualitative research on these relationships is needed, in order to deepen our knowledge about interactants' own insights into the formation and development of computer-mediated relationships as well as the use of different technologies in their maintenance.

[1] The author is Professor of Speech Communication in the Department of Communication at the University of Jyvskyl, Finland (address: P.O. Box 35, 40014 Jyvskyl, Finland; e-mail: valo@jyu.fi). The study was financially supported by the Academy of Finland, which is gratefully acknowledged. The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Earlier versions of this manuscript were presented at the Southern States Communication Association Convention (New Orleans, March 29April 2, 2000) and at the 86th Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association (Seattle, November 9-12, 2000).

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