This is a blog on computer mediated communication and online dating. The following sample research paper shows how those who engage in online dating undergo a sociological process of reducing uncertainty. Social networking sites have shown to be the main driving force behind online dating and much research has done been on this behalf to show how it is changing the rules of dating, so to speak.
Computer mediated communication: Online dating and uncertainty reduction
Technology has undoubtedly changed the way that human beings communicate with one another today. As the internet has expanded heavily in the last ten years, so have online products and services that utilize communication on a mass scale. As more users are using the internet, CMC is popular within the context of Social Networking Sites (SNS). Within the realm of SNS, online dating sites like eHarmony, Match.com and even Tinder have also become popular because they are tailored to individuals looking to meet potential mates. According to Gibbs et al (2010), over ten million Americans have a profile on at least one dating website (p. 71). Internationally, Match.com has over twelve-million members (Gibbs, 2006, p.153).
This new technological landscape of communication poses both risks and opportunities for the user who is looking to find a potential mate. Moreover, communication over the internet also offers great research opportunities regarding whether traditional studies of communication among humans applies in this online context. One such theory, Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT), predicted that there are seven factors in human exchange and three basic, yet essential, strategies that humans utilize in reducing anxiety when meeting another person (Twente, N.D., 1). While the implementation of social networking and dating sites have changed the way in which we communicate with one another, the rules of social interaction according to URT still apply, albeit in different contexts.
Firstly, it is important to define relevant terms and premises that will aid our discussion. Computer Mediated Communication (hereafter referred to as CMC) is any communication that takes place in an online setting, such as SNS’s, online dating sites like eHarmony and Match.com or E-Mail. Face to Face (hereafter referred to as FtF) interaction is the traditional face to face interaction that exists among humans where visual cues are present. A critical premise of our discussion is that people who use online dating sites via CMC are using it in the hope that it will lead to eventual FtF communication. Another important term will be self-monitor. According to citations in Gudykunst (1987), self-monitoring can be characterized as “self-observation and self-control guided by situational cues to social appropriateness” (Gudykunst, 1987, p. 196). The concept of being a self-monitor will be integral in our discussion of online dating because the information we choose to display online is usually highly selective and for the purpose of attracting a mate for a FtF interaction. Finally, URT will refer to the classic theory by Berger (1986) that theorized that humans use specific strategies and cues before divulging more personal information (p. 37). URT will be discussed more thoroughly later in the paper.
In our discussion, it is important to review relevant literature regarding technology, use of social media and relationships, communication and online dating in general. Firstly, we will discuss the original theories regarding FtF communication as outlined in URT. Berger and Calabrese (1975), (Dawkins, 2010) and (Gibbs et al, 2010) will give relevant background information and details. Moreover, Twente (N.D.) will outline the specific strategies and factors that influence human behavior regarding reducing uncertainty. Gudykunst (1987) will also discuss how URT applies within the contexts of different ethnicities and sex. This will allow us to get comprehensive background information.
Development of computer mediated communication
Next, it is important to have a basic understanding of how CMC developed and the early schools of thought that analyzed this interaction (Parks, 1996). While highly pessimistic, Parks offered evidence that online relationships can not only be successful, but can develop into eventual FtF interaction. Before diving into the online dating context, it is relevant to review how communication and URT applies within the realm of SNS’s like Facebook where users know each other. Sheldon (2009) will show that interaction on Facebook offers a wealth of information regarding how we deal with uncertainty within a network where we tend to know most of the individuals in person, or have at least met them on one occasion. Also, Sheldon will demonstrate that individuals in SNS use specific cues and elements of interaction alongside strategies of URT to predict their behavior.
Finally, we will investigate how online dating sites like eHarmony integrate scientific principles of communication and how well they apply to URT. A general view of the process of meeting individuals and how communication is facilitated will be offered by the eHarmony website (eHarmony, N.D). This will allow us to analyze exactly how applicable URT is to CMC settings and how well the dating service tailors to the different context of communication. Furthermore, we will look at case studies specific to online dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony. Gibbs (2006) will provide an in-depth study of Match.com members to show that in an online setting, members tend to practice similar uncertainty reduction strategies in anticipation of a FtF meeting. Another study by Gibbs (2010) will offer insight into how URT applies, or doesn’t apply, directly to online dating sites. Specifically, what strategies are mostly utilized and what cues are critical to the overall interaction.
Face to face interaction
In meeting new people FtF, we tend to engage in behaviors that reduce our uncertainty about the other person. Dawkins (2010), noting work from Berger and Calabrese (1975), remarked that “uncertainty reduction is a primary motivating factor for communication” (Dawkins, 2010, p. 136). The way in which we reduce this uncertainty is by utilizing the seven factors: “verbal communication, nonverbal affiliative expressiveness, information-seeking behavior, intimacy level, reciprocity, liking and perceived similarities and dissimilarities” (Dawkins, 2010, p. 137). This original URT was supplemented by Berger (1995) by including that humans tend to reduce uncertainty by utilizing one or all of the three strategies: passive, active and interactive (Dawkins, 2010, p. 138). Of the strategies listed, observing others where the person is likely to act natural is passive while being in direct contact with them is active (Twente, N.D., p.1). An interactive strategy, however, includes communicating with the person directly in an effort to find out more about the person.
The interactive strategy of engaging in information seeking behavior is by far the most important aspect of reducing uncertainty. According to Gibbs et al (2010), “uncertainty leads to information-seeking behavior,” the goal of which is to “[verify] the credibility of these potential partners” (p. 73). This means that as we meet new people, we want to find out more about them to reduce our uncertainty about them. However, studies suggest that we are also hesitant to divulge personal information about ourselves so easily. In fact, “interactants in initial traditional interpersonal encounters prefer symmetric disclosure, in which parties both seek and provide similar information at the same rate of exchange” (Gibbs et al, 2010, p. 73). This means that as we are looking for information about others, we tend to only divulge information at the same rate as other people do in FtF communication. This would make sense as we tend to fear judgment by other people that we do not know as well.
Uncertainty reduction theory
There also exist some demographic differences in URT. According to William Gudykunst and Mitchell Hammer in The Influence of Ethnicity, Gender, and Dyadic Composition on Uncertainty Reduction In Initial Interactions, there were differences among blacks and whites in their communicative behavior. Their study of 485 university students across different ethnicities and genders revealed how “blacks do not utilize interrogation as an uncertainty reduction strategy as widely as do whites” (Gudykunst, 1987, p. 210). Moreover, their results did not suggest that gender played a role in using uncertainty reduction strategies (Gudykunst, 1987, p. 206). This means that men and women tend to act similarly in reducing uncertainty in social situations. High self-monitors, however, “more confident attributions than low self-monitors” and “seek more information from people whom they intend to interact with in the near future” (Gudykunst, 1987, p. 206). Essentially, the URT strategy of information seeking was higher in those that were more self-conscious of their behavior. Other than that, ethnicity and gender did not affect URT in the FtF context that the study was researched within.
Next, it is important to understand the early schools of thought and development of online communication. Malcolm Parks, in Making Friends in Cyberspace, offered a very early study and analysis of CMC before the rise of SNS’s, online dating sites and heavy user flow. Parks remarked that one early school of thought claimed that online relationships are “shallow, impersonal and often hostile” (Parks, 1996, p.1). Parks’ early research also supported the notion that “positive personal relationships should occur infrequently in online settings” (Parks, 1996, p.2). His literature review argued that this was true because people within CMC settings exert more verbal aggression, blunt disclosure and negative behavior in comparison to groups in FtF settings (Parks, 1996, p.2). Despite the negative feedback from other scholars, Parks found evidence that online relationships can develop and people can adapt their behavior to account for the missing aspects of interaction, like physical proximity and frequency.
Building meaningful relationships online
For instance, even in early as 1996, Parks argued that online settings can foster the growth of meaningful relationships, despite the shortcomings of missing cues in FtF communication. In his study, Parks found that within newsgroups, “personal relationships were common” and that “[they] seemed to develop equally in all sectors that were examined” (Parks, 1996, p.6). Even more surprising is the notion that the relationships that developed online tended to expand to FtF communication over time:
Although nearly all respondents used direct E-mail (98.0%) in addition to newsgroup postings, a surprising number also supplemented computer-mediated communication with other forms of contact. About a third had used the telephone (35.3%), the postal service (28.4%), or face-to-face communication (33.3%) to contact their on-line friends. The average number of channels used was 2.68 (SD = 1.23), and nearly two thirds (63.7%) of our respondents with personal relationships had used communication channels other than the computer. These findings imply that relationships that begin on line rarely stay there (Parks, 1996, p.13).
Computer mediated communication fosters new relationships
This research implies that even as early in 1996, the internet and CMC did foster the development of new relationships that eventually extended out of the scope of online interaction. This had a lot to do with how users managed uncertainty with the tools they had. Since visual and aural cues were not always present, the use of smileys and other improvised cues were used to develop rapport with other individuals (Parks, 1996, p.3). Essentially, the way that people communicated online in 1996 involved an adaptation of visual cues to textual ones. By 2005, the growth of online dating sites resulted in services that were tailored specifically to meet the needs to people looking to find relationships online. These services were designed to facilitate, foster and encourage the growth of successful relations that extended outside of CMC.
Before evaluating the relationship between URT and online dating, it is important to first understand how it applies to SNS’s like Facebook. Pavica Sheldon, in “I’ll Poke You. You’ll Poke Me!” Self-Disclosure, Social Attraction, Predictability and Trust as Important Predictors of Facebook Relationships tackles how social attraction on Facebook influences our communication habits towards other people. Her study of 243 college students suggested that URT did apply cohesively in this CMC setting: users who interacted a lot tended to experience less uncertainty (Sheldon, 2009, p.1). Sheldon sought out to prove or disprove the original hypothesis by Berger and Calabrese (1975) that stipulated that “as uncertainty is further reduced, the amount of verbal communication will increase” (Sheldon, 2009, p.17). Indeed, from 1996 to 2009, not much has changed in terms of what is possible within the realm of CMC. While users can share photos, videos and other forms of multimedia, the factors of proximity and physical cues are still not there. Drawing on research from Walther (2008), Sheldon remarked that “people can develop online relationships that are similar to or better than normative FtF interactions” (Sheldon, 2009, p. 3). Essentially, CMC settings are successful in fostering relationships because visual cues are not requirements of interaction and when they are necessary, textual cues were seen to be comparable alternatives.
Facebook relationships thrive on the level of intimacy within self-disclosure. According to Sheldon’s first model, “predictability fully mediates the relationship between self-disclosure and trust” (Sheldon, 2009, p.16). This means that the more we disclose to others in terms of quality, not so much quality, the more meaningful the relationship becomes. This supports URT because as we disclose more and trust others, we develop stronger relationships. As we develop stronger online relationships, we reduce the overall uncertainty about the other person. Thus, interactions on Facebook appear more like FtF communication than meets the eye. Since “predictability is related to uncertainty in both Facebook and in a face-to-face context, and the more uncertainty that existed in the relationship, the less trust also existed” (Sheldon, 2009, p.17). As predictability was also a critical aspect of URT, the evidence would suggest that CMC relationships that developed on Facebook took on the same conventional characteristics of FtF interactions.
Consequently, while the context for communication is entirely different in an online setting, the means and social processes involved in developing friendships was still consistent. However, it is important to understand that Facebook offers an environment where we tend to know most of our connections in person, see their pictures and have the ability to seek out information and context clues from their activity. Therefore, it is also important to study how URT and the strategies apply in CMC when we do not necessarily know or have existing FtF relationships with the other person. Such a case study is other online dating sites.
eHarmony and uncertainty reduction theory
eHarmony offers a great example to understand how URT applies to a CMC setting where users may not know their connections very well. Dr. Neil Warren utilized his 35 years of clinical experience to launch a service that would utilize scientific research on CMC to help people develop meaningful relationships in a safe environment (eHarmony, N.D). Indeed, eHarmony uses a “guided communication process” to help users meet one another and reduce uncertainty. Their process uses the following guidelines: “(i) Help you break the ice with your matches (ii) Get to know your matches’ interests and habits (iii) Be real with your matches” (eHarmony, N.D). Essentially, the important aspects of information seeking behavior are met with this guided communication. Users can browse profiles based on relevant criteria and a controlled communication environment is there to carefully foster interaction, if any. Luckily, research has been done on behalf of online dating sites to analyze CMC in online dating communities.
Strategies to reduce uncertainty in online dating
The connection between URT strategies in online dating sites is thoroughly studied by Jennifer Gibbs’ 2010 article entitled First Comes Love, Then Comes Google: An Investigation of Uncertainty Reduction Strategies and Self-Disclosure in Online Dating. In this comprehensive study of 562 respondents who use at least one online dating site (such as eHarmony or Match.com), Gibbs sought to identify if URT strategies were utilized and if so, which ones. The most important one was surely “information-seeking strategies,” those which motivate another person to find out more information about the other (Gibbs et al, 2010, p.72). Because of the anonymous nature of CMC in online dating websites (like Tinder), “users must rely mainly on the self-reported data contained in the profile and any messages exchanged with potential dates” to make judgments (Gibbs et al, 2010, p.74). Even more interesting is the issue of privacy and security. Gibbs remarked that security issues were the most important factor that influenced uncertainty reduction behaviors (Gibbs et al, 2010, p.89). Basically, the extent to which URT applied to the results was based on security issues. As users were concerned with who they were communicating with, they engaged in more information seeking strategies. There were also other notable results.
In addition to information seeking behavior, users also tended to utilize warranting reducing uncertainty and overcoming security concerns. According to Walther et al (2009), “warranting refers to the capacity to draw a reliable connection between a presented persona online and a corporeally-anchored person in the physical world (Gibbs et al, 2010, p.74). This could be accounted for by the fact that within the realm of online dating, the users intend to develop FtF relationships over time. Indeed, this increased the overall use of uncertainty reduction strategies. For instance, almost one third (31%) of those who mentioned any additional uncertainty reduction strategies reported engaging in strategies with high warranting value such as information-based triangulation (relying on websites or public records) and social triangulation (relying on other individuals) (Gibbs et al, 2010, p.91).
Security in online dating
Consequently, these warranting practices mean that security was a major issue. In fact, these strategies were used as the middle step to “reduce privacy concerns and influence self-disclosure” (Gibbs et al, 2010, p.92). As expected, users who engaged in these strategies tended to disclose more personal information to the other user. Moreover, contextual clues were also used to reduce uncertainty and find out about the potential mates they were communicating with. Gibbs remarked that “online daters often interpret[ed] spelling mistakes as indicative of a lack of education or interest” (Gibbs et al, 2010, p.74). Thus, although visual cues were not there and users were communicating randomly, similar principles of URT still did apply. Users not only disclosed more information as they used more strategies, but they also tended to value privacy concerns more.
In fact, the issue of privacy is one of the major differences from CMC within other social networks like Facebook. Since in online dating sites, people do not know one another, “such concerns are likely to motivate behaviors to reduce uncertainty and verify the credibility of online partners” (Gibbs et al, 2010, p.71). This differs sharply from normal SNS’s because privacy and security are the pivotal concern. Gibbs also remarked that because users do not have access to mutual friends as they would in Facebook, considering potential partners required a much more in depth process of reducing uncertainty (Gibbs et al, 2919, p.72). Indeed, predicting the level of self disclosure that users participated in was directly correlated to the privacy-related concerns of online dating sites. Thus, since URT strategies mitigated these concerns, many users who reported success in online dating engaged in these strategies quite often. Consequently, we can see that while the Facebook environment is different from online dating sites, users still engaged in similar strategies, albeit in different levels of intensity.
Self-disclosure leads to success
Gibbs (2006) also reported that although higher self-disclosure in online dating led to greater perceived success, her findings suggest that there are numerous key distinctions in the type of self-disclosure that was utilized. Gibbs’ article, entitled Self Presentation in Online Personals: The Role of Anticipated Future Interaction, Self-Disclosure and Perceived Success in Internet Dating, consisted of 349 active Match.com members. As a basic premise, the “mediated nature of online dating gives participants more opportunities to present themselves positively and deliberately” (Gibbs, 2006, 153). As users have a choice as to what information they divulge, they can monitor the image that they project on potential partners. Gibbs’ results supported the notion that “individuals with long-term goals of establishing FtF relationships engage in higher levels of self-disclosure in that they are more honest, disclose more personal information, and make more conscious and intentional disclosures to others online” (Gibbs, 2006, p.169). Interestingly, users did not always portray themselves in the most positive light as originally anticipated.
In fact, while many users reported to be frankly honest for negative traits, this was detrimental to the perception of the other person. This was accounted for by Gibbs with the hypothesis that users anticipated a future FtF interaction and did not want to take the risk of being caught lying (Gibbs, 2006, p. 169). Self Presentation success, on the other hand, was attributed to positive self disclosure. In relation to URT, we see that users who perceived successful relationships did in fact disclose more information as the interaction went on. However, the type of disclosure was the major distinction. Users who portrayed themselves more positively experienced more success in contrast to users who were more honest with negative characteristics.
Conclusion and Discussion
To recapitulate, the realm of online dating gives wonderful opportunity to research how FtF interaction theories like URT apply in CMC contexts. Drawing on early research from Berger and Calabrese (1975), information seeking and predictability are strategies that helped people reduce uncertainty about people they meet in person. Moreover, Gibbs et al (2010) also argued that since users tend to divulge information at the same rate as the other person, more open communication is the result of successful strategies that have reduced uncertainty about the other person. In a demographic context, Gudykunst (1987) argued that there were no major differences in how both men and women reduced uncertainty. However, research papers did suggest that blacks tended to practice more interrogation than whites.
According to Parks (1996), CMC before the rise of SNS’s resulted in the development of friendships and relationships in online settings. Despite unflattering research about how the internet fostered a hostile environment, the development of online relationships was quite common. Many of these even eventually led to a FtF interaction. As visual cues were absent, users improvised by offering textual cues like smileys. This made the overall impersonal experience much more humanesqe. According to Sheldon (2009), Facebook interactions applied well to URT. As users interacted more, their level of uncertainty decreased. Furthermore, URT was also supported by the fact that respondents claimed that they could predict the behavior of their Facebook friends whom they interacted with the most.
In terms of online dating, sites like eHarmony were devised with scientific principles of human interaction in mind. Their Guided Communication process allowed for introductions based on compatibility criteria. Communication was also heavily mediated and private so that users could carry out their uncertainty reduction strategies with ease. According to Gibbs (2010), CMC on Match.com was highly relevant to URT. Because privacy and security were primary concerns, users tended to utilize uncertainty reduction strategies to get to know their matches. For instance, users tended to disclose more information as the other person divulged theirs. Another common practice was warranting, or using third party tools like Google searches, other friends or the internet in general to find out more about their potential partners. This information seeking strategy also heavily supported URT.
Finally, users who used these strategies tended to have more success in developing better relationships. However, it is important to note that the type of information shared was also important in online dating success. According to Gibbs (2006), users experienced higher levels of perceived success when only positive information was disclosed. This was most likely true because users that interacted with one another anticipated a FtF encounter in which their lies would potentially be exposed.
As technology has forced how we communicate and find mates to change rapidly, classical theories on interaction like URT still apply. Even with the absence of visual cues, users within a controlled environment still tended to exhibit behavior similar to FtF interaction. Most notably, information seeking strategies and disclosure based on mutual openness were highly consistent trends. This suggests that even though we communicate in different contexts, the same basic premises still apply. People still use relevant cues and specific strategies to reduce uncertainty and decide if they want to pursue interaction with individuals. Finally, the help of mediated environments like eHarmony and Match.com offers support that meaningful relationships can be found using CMC.
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Gibbs, J., Ellison, N., & Heino, R. (2006). g Self-Presentation in Online Personals : The Role of Anticipated Future Interaction, Self-Disclosure, and Perceived Success in Internet Dating . Communication Research, 33(2), 152-177. Retrieved April 15, 2011, from http://crx.sagepub.com/content/33/2/152.
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