85 Social Presence Theory

Social Presence Theory

What is Social Presence Theory?

“Social presence was originally defined as the sense that another person is “real” and “there” when using a communication medium (Short et al., 1976). Over the years, online educators have found that social presence is important in online education because it sets the climate for learning to take place (Caspi & Blau, 2008)” (Dunlap et al., 2016, p. 170).


Lowenthal (2010) feels that definitions of social presence tend to lie on a continuum where a focus on the interpersonal emotional connection between communicators is on one end and a focus on if someone is perceived as being ‘present’, ‘there’, or ‘real’ at the other end. Lowenthal (2010) also goes on to state that most researchers tend to lie in the middle of the road, with both ends of that continuum retaining some focus.


In an influential article (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997), social presence was found to be a significant predictor of audience satisfaction within a computer-mediated form of communication, contributing about 60% of the variance. Richardson and Swan (2003) also found that overall perceived learning was predicted by the perceived social presence in online courses.


Key Concepts and Dimensions 


According to Short, Williams, and Christie (1976), social presence as a construct was primarily composed of two main concepts: intimacy (Argyle & Dean, 1965) and immediacy (Wiener & Mehrabian, 1968).



Argyle and Dean (1965) posited that intimacy in a communication medium is influenced by a number of factors, such as physical distance, eye contact, smiling, and personal topics of conversation.



Immediacy was conceptualized by Wiener and Mehrabian (1968), as paraphrased by Cobb (2009), as a measure of psychological distance that a communicator puts between himself and the object of his communication.




There is still little agreement on how to measure social presence (Lin, 2004; Stein & Wanstreet, 2003). Below we provide three examples of instruments:


The Social Presence Scale (SPRES) was developed by Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) to measure the “immediacy” concept. On this scale, the respondents were asked to complete fourteen Likert items to indicate their perceived social presence at an inter-university “GlobalEd” computer conference. The scale can be found in Table 2 of the article. The instrument has been found to be both valid and reliable and is continually used in research today (Cobb, 2009).


The Social Presence and Privacy Questionnaire (SPPQ) was developed by Tu (2002), distinguishing three dimensions: social context, online communication, interactivity. SPPQ was created based on two instruments: CMC attitude instrument (Steinfield, 1986) and perceived privacy (Witmer, 1997). The content validity and the construct validity of SPPQ was tested with factor analysis. The final version of SPPQ contains 17 social presence items and 13 privacy items, rated on a five-point rating scale. However, specific items were not listed in the paper.


A self-reporting Social Presence Scale was developed by Kreijns, Kirschner, Jochems, and Buuren (2011). The scale consisted of five items with an internal consistency of .81. The scale can be found in Table 1 of the article.



Argyle, M., & Dean, J. (1965). Eye contact and distance affiliation. Sociometry, 28(3), 289-304.

Cobb, S. C. (2009). Social presence and online learning: a current view from a research perspective. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(3), 241-254.

Cui, G., Lockee, B., & Meng, C. (2012). Building modern online social presence: a review of social presence theory and its instructional design implications for future trends. Education and Information Technologies, 18(4), 661-685.

Dunlap, J. C., Bose, D., Lowenthal, P. R., York, C. S., Atkinson, M., & Murtagh, J. (2016). What sunshine is to flowers: A literature review on the use of emoticons to support online learning. Emotions, technology, design, and learning, 163-182.

Gunawardena, C. N. (1995). Social presence theory and implications for interaction collaborative learning in computer conferences.International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1(2/3), 147-166.

Gunawardena, C. N., & Zittle, F. J. (1997). Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer mediated conferencing environment. American Journal of Distance Education, 11(3), 8-26.

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A., Jochems, W., & Buuren, H. (2011). Measuring perceived social presence in distributed learning groups. Education and Information Technologies, 16(4), 365-381.

Lin, G.-Y. (2004, October). Social presence questionnaire of online collaborative learning: Development and validity. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Chicago, IL.

Lowenthal, P. R. (2010). The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning. Online Education and Adult Learning: New Frontiers for Teaching Practices, 124-139. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(1), 68-88.

Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. London: John Wiley & Sons.

Steinfield, C.W. (1986). Computer-mediated communication in an organizational setting: Explaining task-related and socioemotional uses. In M.L. McLaughlin (Ed.), Communication yearbook 9 (pp. 777-804). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Tu, C.-H. (2002b). The measurement of social presence in an online learning environment. International Journal on E-Learning, 1(2), 34-45.

Wiener, M., & Mehrabian, A. (1968). Language within language: Immediacy, a channel in verbal communication. New York: Appleton.

Witmer, D.F. (1997). Risky business: Why people feel safe in sexually explicit online communication. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 2(4).



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