Summary of "Mediated Interpersonal Communication: Toward a New Typology"

Summary of

Mediated Interpersonal Communication: Toward a New Typology

by Robert Cathcart and Gary Gumpert

Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: "Mediated Interpersonal Communication: Toward a New Typology," in The Reach of Dialogue: Confirmation, Voice, and Community. Anderson, R., Cissna, K. N., and Arnett, R. C, eds. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1994.

When communication scholars describe the situations in which human communication take place, they speak of strategic relationships, signs and symbols, the sharing of experiences and achievement of goals, and the perceptions of the parties involved. Rarely, however, do they depict the "media" as an important component of human communication. Definitions have minimized the role of media and channel in the communication process. Instead, the focus has been on the number of participants, the relationship between source and receiver, and the forms and functions of messages. These definitions fail to take into account the influential role of media in interpersonal communication. The authors maintain that "media' should not be relegated solely to the category of "mass communication," nor should it be excluded from other categories of communication: interpersonal, group, and public.

The conception of human communication should be expanded to reflect the idea that there are interpersonal situations that require media for the purpose of communication. Media help to influence people's behaviors and attitudes. Their content is both a reflection and a projection of interpersonal behaviors, and they play a role in the development of individuals' self-image. Any communication typology that overlooks media technology ignores an increasingly significant aspect of human communication.

According to Cathcart and Gumpert, even intrapersonal communication involves media. There is the internal dialogue that occurs between "I" and "me" in virtue of which a self-image is formed. There can be no sense of self without interaction with others. But in addition to the feedback that we receive from others, there is feedback from television, radio, and film. The images provided by media reinforce, negate, and/or verify an individual's self-image.

Through the interpersonal communication process, people maintain and adjust this self-image. All acts of communication emerge from humans' need to connect symbolically, relate to others, and cooperate in decision-making. The paradigm of human communication is dyadic: two people have a conversation. However, humans have always sought means of extending and enhancing face-to-face communication. New technology as extended the reach of communication as well as altered the way human relate information to each other. First, media have had a powerful impact on people's initial perceptions of other interpersonal transactions. Second, they have influenced the manner in which information about other transactions is processed and interpreted. Third, media distracts persons from the gathering the kind of information they need for effective interpersonal communication.

The term "mediated communication" refers to any situation where a technological medium is introduced into face-to-face interaction. This includes interpersonal mediated communication, media-simulated interpersonal communication, person-computer interpersonal communication, and unicommunication. Modes of interpersonal mediated communication include telephone conversations, letters, electronic mail, and audio/video cassettes. The use of these technologies has altered relationships and made face-to-face contact avoidable. Although there is immediacy of feedback, there is also lack of privacy and communication control.

Another variation of mediated interpersonal communication is media-simulated interpersonal communication. This includes para-social interactions and broadcast-teleparticipatory communication (radio talk shows). Television personalities often speak to viewers as if they were conversing personally and privately. Para-social interaction is a staple of mass media "personality" shows, where audience members interact with celebrities. The broadcast audience's need for intimacy and the ability of performers to simulate face-to-face interaction explains the success of such television shows. However, here there is only the illusion of intimacy and friendship. There is no genuine interchange, but only a substitute for face-to-face relationships that is predictable, non-threatening, and easy to manage. Closely related is the radio talk show, which, despite its public aspect, is carried on as if it were a private conversation. For the audience, the radio talk show provides a safe environment in which members can communicate with public personalities. These media shape the public perception of an ideal interpersonal performance.

In person-computer interpersonal communication, on the other hand, one party activates a computer, which in turn responds appropriately (in a graphic, alphanumeric, or vocal mode). While the computer is programmed by a person, that person is not the sender or receiver of the message. Rather, the human interacts with the computer program, so that the computer is used as an interpersonal proxy.. Although such transactions simulate dyadic communication, the process and alternatives are predetermined.

Finally, unicommunication involves the use of such artifacts as T-shirts and bumper stickers fro interpersonal interaction. Also included are personal possession, such as houses, automobiles, and furniture, which people display to communicate their status, role, and self-esteem. This symbolic interaction produces sender-receiver relationships, and can reveal group affiliation, social status/role, and the values to which one adheres. Symbols are thus used to communicate explicit messages that are mass-produced and distributed by groups campaigning for certain causes. Persons displaying these messages become part of both the campaign and the transmission system. However, face-to-face interaction nor verbal feedback are neither expected nor desired in the communication of such messages. The effect is similar to that brought about by a billboard or a poster.

In short, there are various forms of communication that need to be included in an updated communication typology. The traditional division of communication study into interpersonal, group, public, and mass communication is inadequate because it ignores the pervasiveness of media.