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University of Wollongong

Research Online

University of Wollongong in Dubai - Papers University of Wollongong in Dubai

System design effects on social presence and

telepresence in virtual communities

Mohamed Khalifa

University of Wollongong, mkhalifa@uow.edu.au

Kathy Ning Shen

University of Wollongong, kathys@uow.edu.au

Publication Details

Khalifa, M. & Shen, K. 2004, 'System design effects on social presence and telepresence in virtual communities', Proceedings of the International Conference on Information Systems, ICIS 2004, 12-15 December, Washington, ICIS, USA, pp. 547-558.

Research Online is the open access institutional repository for the University of Wollongong. For further information contact the UOW Library: research-pubs@uow.edu.au International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS) ICIS 2004 Proceedings Association for Information Systems Year 2004 System Design Effects on Social Presence and Telepresence in Virtual Communities Mohamed Khalifa Ning Shen City University of Hong Kong City University of Hong Kong This paper is posted at AIS Electronic Library (AISeL).




Mohamed Khalifa and Ning Shen Department of Information Systems City University of Hong Kong Hong Kong, SAR iskhal@cityu.edu.hk ninshen@cityu.edu.hk Abstract The influence of presence on users attitudes and behavior is widely reported in the literature. However, we still lack a good understanding of the effects of system design on the formation of a sense of presence in computermediated environments in general and virtual communities in particular. In this research, we address this void.

More specifically, we examine the relationship between important system design characteristics and perceived presence. We adopt a multidimensional conceptualization of presence, distinguishing between telepresence and social presence. Deviating from the virtual reality literature, we apply new frameworks for the conceptualization of the main determinants of presence (i.e., interactivity and vividness) that are more relevant to the virtual community context. An empirical study involving 149 members of a virtual community specializing in health issues provided strong support for our model. Vividness and interactivity are found to be significant determinants of both telepresence and social presence. While the role of vividness is more important for social presence, that of interactivity is more important for telepresence. All interactivity dimensions (i.e., active control, communication, and synchronicity) are found to be significant for telepresence. For social presence, however, synchronicity does not seem to be as important as the other interactivity dimensions. The theoretical and practical implications of these results are discussed.

Keywords: Interactivity, vividness, presence, telepresence, social presence, and virtual communities Introduction The core of humans’ desire to use media is to break the limits of body and the sensory channels, thus the concept of presence has become one of the focuses in evolution of all media (Biocca et al. 1995). Although there is currently no clear consensus on how to define sense of presence, most researchers agree that presence describes a subjective perception of mediated interaction (Lombard and Ditton 1997; Stanney and Salvendy 1998). In the case of computer-mediated environments, most prior research focused on virtual reality applications, which are built specifically for the purpose of creating experiences with a high sense of presence (Davies 1995). Presence, in its different forms (i.e., telepresence, social presence), has been recognized as a significant factor in explaining user behavior and performance in virtual environments. Venkatesh and Johnson (2002), for example, report positive effects of telepresence and social richness (an important indicator of presence) on motivation, subsequently leading to increased systems usage. An enhanced sense of presence is central to the use, and, therefore, the effectiveness and profitability of new technologies (Draper et al. 1998; Lombard and Ditton 1997; Nash et al. 2000). Recent studies specifically examine the role of presence in Web-based applications. Telepresence is shown to be an important predictor of online consumers flow experience, contributing to increased participation, exploration, and positive attitude in navigating a website and resulting in enhanced learning (Li et al. 2002; Novak et al. 2000). Social presence, another dimension of presence, is reported to be a significant antecedent of perceived use of e-mail systems (Karahanna and Straub 1999).

Despite the importance of presence for user behavior and performance, we still lack a good understanding of the formation of sense of presence (Regenbrecht et al. 1998; Stanney and Salvendy 1998) in general and the role of system design in particular.

–  –  –

The purpose of this research is to address this void. More specifically, we examine the relationship between important system design characteristics and perceived presence. This study makes important theoretical and practical contributions. On the theoretical side, we draw upon a number of theories to develop a model explaining the effects of system characteristics on social presence and telepresence. We empirically test the model in the context of virtual communities. On the practical side, we identify important system features for presence formation and assess their relative importance, providing guidelines for system designers.

This paper is structured as follows. We first introduce a typology of presence, followed by a discussion of the relationship between system characteristics and presence. We then present the theoretical development and justify our research model. This is followed by a description of the empirical study and an interpretation of its results. We conclude the paper with a discussion of the implications, limitations, and future research directions.

Typology of Presence The research on presence proliferates in many fields, such as computer science, psychology, virtual reality, and communication.

However, the lack of a unified understanding and conceptualization makes it hard to successfully communicate among researchers from different disciplines (Lee 2004). For example, the conceptualization of “telepresence” in Steuer (1992) is similar to that of the broader construct of “presence” in Li et al. (2002). It is, therefore, necessary to define a topology of presence. This paper regards presence as an overarching concept (Lee 2004; Lombard and Ditton 1997), which is broadly defined as “the perceptual illusion of non-mediation” (Lombard and Ditton 1997). More specific conceptualizations can be derived from this overarching concept of presence. Lombard and Ditton (1997) identified six different types of virtual experience, highlighting the multidimensionality of presence. Ijsselsteijn et al. (2000) later collapsed these six types into two categories: physical and social presence. Physical presence refers to the sense of being located somewhere, while social presence relates to the feeling of being together. For mediated environments (e.g., TV, computer-based), the more specific term of telepresence is used for physical presence. Indeed, several researchers (Biocca et al. 2003; Heeter 1992) present presence as consisting of two interrelated dimensions: telepresence and social presence. Telepresence, also known as spatial presence or physical presence, describes the illusion of being physically present in the setting simulated by the medium (Lombard and Ditton 1997; Slater et al. 1994;

Venkatesh and Johnson 2002). Social presence captures the sense of “being together with another” including primitive responses to social cues, simulations of ‘other’s minds’ and automatically generated models of the intentionality of others (Biocca et al.


Telepresence refers to a projection of human consciousness into a computer-mediated environment. It is defined as a mental state in which a user feels physically present within the computer-mediated environment (Draper et al. 1998; Kim and Biocca 1997;

Sheriden 1992). Kim and Biocca (1997) show that telepresence experienced by TV viewers is associated with arrival and departure feelings. Arrival refers to the sensation of being in the virtual environment created by the medium, while departure describes the feeling of not being in the physical world.

Social presence is the degree to which the medium facilitates awareness of the other social actors and interpersonal relationships during the interaction (Fulk et al. 1990). It can also be defined as “the degree to which participants are able to project themselves affectively within the medium” (Garrison 1997). Earlier studies focused on socio-psychological constructs describing the extent of social presence felt by users, for instance, intimacy and immediacy (Biocca et al. 2003). The use of media with high social presence makes for greater intimacy (Short et al. 1976). Social presence is also a correlate of immediacy, a measure of psychological distance that a communicator puts between himself and the object of his communication and his addressee (Mehrabian and Russell 1974; Short et al. 1976). Some IS researchers used the socio-psychological perspective to argue that computer-mediated communication lacks non-verbal cues, therefore reducing intimacy and immediacy, and resulting in low social presence (Sia et al. 2002). However, the social information processing theory of mediated communication (Walther and Tidwell

1995) contends that, despite fewer cues, participants are still able to build interpersonal impressions, build mental models of their colleagues, and develop relationships marked by affective exchange,through the adaptation of their language behavior to fulfill the functions of missing nonverbal cues. Indeed, Internet users have developed a variety of paralanguages substituting or enriching the non-verbal cues (e.g., :) represents a smile). In addition, online relationships are developed similar to face-to-face situations, sometimes becoming more socially oriented (Walther 1993).

Although distinct, the constructs of telepresence and social presence are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the social cyberspace created by the Internet can induce both the feeling of social presence and that of telepresence. Venkatesh and Johnson (2002) found both types of presence to simultaneously exert significant effects on user motivation.

548 2004 — Twenty-Fifth International Conference on Information Systems Khalifa & Shen/Social Presence & Telepresence in Virtual Communities System Effects on Presence Presence, as a subjective perception of the virtual environment, depends upon the objective nature of media, i.e., the technological characteristics (Short et al. 1976). Although the determinants of presence include task, individual, and system characteristics, the literature covers predominantly the system effects (Ijsselsteijn et al. 2000; Lombard and Ditton 1997; Nash et al. 2000). A possible explanation of the literature’s focus on technological characteristics of media is that system factors are controlled by designers, while other factors are accepted as given. Lombard and Ditton (1997) and Nash et al. (2000) provide comprehensive reviews of technological features influencing presence. Most prior studies adhere to Steuer’s (1992) conceptualization of these technological features into two constructs: interactivity and vividness. Interactivity is defined in terms of three dimensions: speed (update rate of the controls and displays), mapping (ability of a system to map its controls to changes in the mediated environment in a natural and predictable manner), and range (number of attributes of the mediated environment that can be manipulated, and the amount of variation possible within each attribute). Vividness, on the other hand, is defined in terms of sensory breadth (number of sensory dimensions simultaneously presented) and sensory depth (resolutions within each perceptual channel). Using this framework, several studies empirically investigated the effects of system characteristics on presence. Coyle and Thorson (2001), for example, conducted an experiment to investigate the effects of interactivity and vividness of marketing websites on telepresence. In their experiment, vividness is manipulated by adding audio or animation to the websites, while interactivity is manipulated by providing choice availability and mapping functions. Their empirical results show significant positive effects of these added website features on the development of a sense of telepresence. In another study, Li et al. (2002) use Steuer’s framework to compare 3-D and 2-D online product catalogs, stipulating 3-D websites to be stronger in both interactivity and vividness. Their results show that 3-D websites can elicit a higher level of telepresence.

Most prior studies investigated the effects of interactivity and vividness on telepresence in particular or presence in general without distinguishing between telepresence and social presence. Such a distinction, however, is very important, given that telepresence and social presence may affect the user attitude and behavior differently. Furthermore, Steuer’s framework, which was originally developed in the context of virtual reality, may not be directly applicable to web-based interactions. In virtual communities, most interactions are among users rather than between the users and a simulated world. Therefore, a different conceptualization of interactivity is required.

Theoretical Development To develop a better understanding of the relationship between system characteristics and presence in the context of web-based interactions in general and virtual communities in particular, we distinguish between social presence and telepresence.

Furthermore, we also adapt a more relevant framework for the operationalization of the interactivity and vividness constructs.

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