Social Presence Theory & Second Life


Avatars dancing

Social Presence Theory (SPT) was developed by the social psychologist John Short (1976). He conducted examinations of different media to see to what extent users experienced each other as ‘real’ people (rather than just vague presences) at the other end of impersonal communication devices.

The intensity of our sense of the social presence of others depends on the particular media in use. This, in turn influences our behavior by how much we experience others as breathing, thoughtful, emotional beings with whom we might share some degree of empathy. When Short was first developing this theory he was largely pre-occupied with the influence of the telephone! Today, social presence is a term that pops up in the area of computer-mediated communications (CMC) and distance education.


Avatar closeup

So, how does Second Life stack up as a media form in terms of social presence theory? How does it compare to the phone, Skype or instant messaging? How much information can we gather together to feel a sense of social presence through our strange blinking avatars and IMs?

My new (but limited) understanding of SPT gives me the sense that the more we can add up a picture of each other, then the more comfortable we can potentially feel in the communication, and thereby with each other. The social presence ‘fragments’ we draw together tell us whether the other person is a sympathetic or an aggressive presence. The more information we can add up, the more we experience the social presence of each other, but in SL there is the added dimension on drawing these elements together through avatars. (A human representation of the media itself?)


Singed Angel dancing

These SL avatars can have an uncanny ‘human’ appearance. The avatar moves around as though it was alive, fidgeting, moving its eyes and adjusting its posture without you controlling these subtle movements. As you move around your computer screen your avatar studies your movements, following the trail of your thoughts as you move your mouse through on-screen menus. The avatar certainly seems to take on a life of its own.


Two avis chatting in a birdcage

One observation is that Second Life by-passes many of the natural reservations and constraints that we would have in ‘real life’. It intensifies communications and can convey a sense of ‘closeness’ with others through the use of avatars and text. SPT notes the fact that people select media for its degree of social presence and its particular suitability for the task they wish to accomplish. That is, we decide whether to meet, speak on the phone, or send an instant message depending on what we want to say and how we want to say it. Well, now we can add virtual reality and avatars to our list of media options. Second Life does convey a strong sense of social presence that readily puts people at ease. This is a peculiar phenomenon considering we are fully aware we are communicating via the artificial facial expressions and body language of avatars. Sometimes these avatars are striped tigers, exotically dressed humans or creatures that are part human and part animal (furries). Perhaps then, a large part of Second Life’s social presence is due to sharing the same joke?


Dance-pole tiger

Short, J. Williams, E. Christie, B. (1976). The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. London.

External Link to this post:
Social presence theory – Wikipedia

8 thoughts on “Social Presence Theory & Second Life

  1. Very interesting post! Adding your blog to my RSSfeed 🙂
    SecondLife is definitely a platform where “presence” of the human at the other side can almost be felt. *wonders if she should strike the word “almost”* I still support the quotation in my SL-profile: “it’s happening in your head, but does that mean it is not real?”

    For people who are involved professionally it may be one of the many ways of communication to choose from. But tmho for the majority it is “only” entertainment and a place to meet new friends. And sometimes we choose to use other ways of communications with our SL-friends after meeting 😉

    And concerning the look of our avies: even though they may look funny or exotic to some people, I think they tell a lot about the operator at the keyboard. Particularly the established residents are putting a lot of work in their appearance. It’s a way to express yourself, more than just dressing up. Being a neko myself, I tried to analyse that a while ago on my own blog:

  2. Thank you for your comment Zippora. SL ‘fast forwards’ us towards a surprising sense of the ‘social presence’ of others. We are using SL and avatars mainly for fun as you say but it’s intriguing to think of other uses SL can be put to. I also agree that the avatar is an expression of its operator and can sometimes become an extension of our personality. But avatars can be very misleading too! We need to be cautious because there is this ‘jet propelled’ intimacy yet it is based upon avatars that could be described as nothing more than rather glorious emoticons!

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