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New media such as email and mobile phones have made it easier to maintain relationships over distances. The present paper examines which media people use to maintain long-distance friendships. The main focus lies on the comparison of email and phone. Media choice theories like media richness theory assume that media can be classified according to their richness, and that people choose the medium which fits best to the affordances of a specific task. The phone as richer medium should be preferred over email in the case of maintenance of long-distance friendships because it is easier to express emotions and to give immediate feedback via phone than via email. Email is an asynchronous medium and communication via email is therefore independent of space and time. Therefore, it can also be argued that email is preferred over the phone because it makes it easier to communicate across different work schedules or even time-zones. In two studies (Study 1 conducted in the Netherlands, Study 2 conducted in Germany) media use in long-distance friendships was measured. Across both studies, email was the most frequently used medium. In Study 1, an interesting asymmetric influence of closeness of the friendship emerged. The closer the friendship, the more emails were written in total, but the less the relative use of email. Instead, the percentage of phone calls increased. Study 2 aimed to replicate and explain this finding and assessed also the content of the phone call or emails. Whereas the intimateness of the emails did not change with increased closeness of the friendship, the intimateness of the phone calls increased with increasing closeness of the friendship. This result indicates that people use email primarily for staying in touch, whereas important personal matters are still discussed on the phone.
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Media use in long-distance friendships
Sonja Utz
a
a
Department of Communication Science, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam,
The Netherlands
Online Publication Date: 01 October 2007
To cite this Article: Utz, Sonja (2007) 'Media use in long-distance friendships',
Information, Communication & Society, 10:5, 694 - 713
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/13691180701658046
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13691180701658046
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Sonja Utz
MEDIA USE IN LONG-DISTANCE
FRIENDSHIPS
New media such as email and mobile phones have made it easier to maintain
relationships over distances. The present paper examines which media people
use to maintain long-distance friendships. The main focus lies on the comparison
of email and phone. Media choice theories like media richness theory assume that
media can be classified according to their richness, and that people choose the
medium which fits best to the affordances of a specific task. The phone as
richer medium should be preferred over email in the case of maintenance of
long-distance friendships becau se it is easier to express emotions and to give
immediate feedback via phone than via email. Email is an asynchronous
medium and communication via email is therefore independent of space and
time. Therefore, it can also be argued that email is preferred over the phone
because it makes it easier to communicate across different work schedules or
even time-zones. In two studies (Study 1 conducted in the Netherlands, Study
2 conducted in Germany) media use in long-distance friendships was measured.
Across both studies, email was the most frequently used medium. In Study 1, an
interesting asymmetric influence of closeness of the friendship emerged. The closer
the friendship, the more emails were written in total, but the less the relative use
of email. Instead, the percentage of phone calls increased. Study 2 aimed to repli-
cate and explain this finding and assessed also the content of the phone call or
emails. Whereas the intimateness of the emails did not change with increased
closeness of the friendship, the intimateness of the phone calls increased with
increasing closeness of the friendship. This result indicates that people use
email primarily for staying in touch, whereas important personal matters are
still discussed on the phone.
Keywords Media use; interpersonal relationships; computer-
mediated communication
Modern (communication) technologies have changed people’s interacti on
patterns. They have made it easier to maintain relationships over distances,
and more and more social interactions are nowadays mediated by
Information, Communication & Society Vol. 10, No. 5, October 2007, pp. 694713
ISSN 1369-118X print/ISSN 1468-4462 online # 2007 Taylor & Francis
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/13691180701658046
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communication media: ‘The advent of modernity increasingly tears space
away from place by fostering relations between ‘absent’ others, locationally
distant from any given situation of face-to-face interaction’ (Giddens 1990,
p. 18). Relationships in modern societies are no longer confined to people
living in the same village. Instead, the networks of people are dispersed
and loosely knit, and many relationships are maintained with the help of trans-
portation (cars, planes) and new communication technologies (Wellman &
Gulia 1999). Even before the Internet, many relationships have been sustained
by media mainly letters and the phone. Letters and phone calls can easily
bridge geographical boundaries, but asynchronous forms of computer-
mediated communication (CMC) such as email constitute a fundamental
improvement. They are distance-independent not only in use but also in
cost; the messages are delivered rapidly, almost in real-time; and the com-
munication is unobtrusive because of its asynchronous nature. Communi-
cation partners do not have to coordinate their time schedules to be able
to interact (Boase & Wellman 2005). Modern communication technologies
have become so widespread that the boundaries between online and offline
contacts have blurred. People communicate with most friends, family
members and colleagues not exclusively face to face (FTF), but also via the
phone, email or other media; likewise, contacts with friends made online
often lead to FTF encounters (Parks & Roberts 1998; Wellman & Gulia
1999; Whitty & Gavin 2001).
In view of this development, the central question of this paper is not
whether media can be used to maintain friendships, but which media people
use to maintain friendships or, more specifically, which media people use to
maintain long-distance friendships. Study 1 was exploratory and focused on
email use among young Dutch adults, whereas Study 2 replicated and extended
the findings of Study 1 in a more heterogeneous sample and focused more
explicitly on the comparison between email and phone communication.
Long-distance friendships are a specific type of interpersonal relation-
ships. They are less intimate than romantic relationships, and less task-
oriented than work relationships. Many long-distance friendships have
evolved from local friendships they have turned into long-distance friend-
ships when at least one of the friends has moved to another place for study,
work or personal reasons. Thus, impression formation and relationship build-
ing are not the central issues; the goal is mainly relationship maintenance.
Prior research has dealt with the question of whether it is possible to
build up friendships via CMC at all and how friendships develop online
(Walther 1992; Utz 2000; McKenna et al. 2002) and has compared the
quality of online and offline friendships (Parks & Floyd 1996; Parks &
Roberts 1998; Cummings et al. 2002). However, the question of whether
it is possible to build and maintain ‘real’ friendships via email is not the
same as the question as to which media people actually use in social
MEDIA USE IN LONG-DISTANCE FRIENDSHIPS 695
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relationships. Studies on media use have mainly been conduc ted in an organ-
izational context (Daft & Lengel 1986; Schmi tz & Fulk 1991; Markus 1994;
Fulk et al. 1995; Haythornthwaite & Wellman 1998). If they have focused on
interpersonal relationships, they have often assessed media use across all types
of relationships (e.g. family members, friends, acquaintances, colleagues;
Cummings et al. 2002; Boase et al. 2006) or focused on one specific
medium (e.g. Baym et al. 2004). This makes it difficult to relate media charac-
teristics to the characteristics of a specific interpersonal relationship. There-
fore, the present paper examines media use within one specific type of
interpersonal relationships: long-distance friendships. The primary focus
will be on the comparison of the two most frequently used media: email
and phone (Baym et al. 2004; Boase et al. 2006).
Email vs. phone
Media choice models assume that media can be characterized on the basis of
more or less objective criteria and rank-ordered for example according to
their social presence (Short et al. 1976), media richness (Daft & Lengel
1986), or subjective perceived richness (Schmitz & Fulk 1991). People are
assumed to choose the medium that fits best with the affordances of the
task or type of social interaction.
One important dimension to characterize media is synchronicity. Syn-
chronous media are more close to FTF communication; they require both
interaction partners to communicate at the same time. Examples are the
phone or chats. A disadvantage of synchronous communication is that it
requires coordination of schedules. However, syn chronous communication
allows the giving and receiving of immediate feedback an advantage
when it comes to the discussion of socio-emotional topics such as problems.
Asynchronous communication is independent from space and time. Emails can
be read immediately after they have been received, but also minutes, hours,
days or even weeks later. Especially in long-distance relationships across time
zones or between people with different time schedules this aspect might be
important. Asynchronous media lack the possibility of giving immediate feed-
back, but they give people the opportunity to carefully compose their mess-
ages an asset for in-depth discussions of problems. McKenna et al. (2002)
found that those people who can better disclose their ‘true’ inner self via
Internet make also more friends online; and Bargh et al. (2002) found that
people actually could better disclose their ‘true’ inner self via Internet
than via face-to- face communication. With regard to the aspect of synchroni-
city, email should be favored over the phone in long-distance relationships;
especially if the distance is large and the time schedules of the interaction
partners differ notably (Boase & Wellman 2006).
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Media differ also on their recordability i.e. the degree to which the
interaction is automatically documented (Hancock et al. 2004). FTF communi-
cation and phone calls are usually not recorded although this is technologically
possible. Letters and emails can be re-read, saved and archived easily.
Especially in long-distance friendships with less frequent contacts, the record-
ability might be perceived as an advantage; consequently, email should be
favored over the phone.
An often used dimension to characterize media is the number of channels
FTF communication is then perceived as the richest medium because it
transmits information on all channels: audio, video, touch. In phone com-
munication, touch and visual cues are filtered out, and CMC is reduced to
verbal communication. The same rank order is proposed for social presence,
that is the degree of salience of the presence of another person. With regard
to friends who already know each other, cues regarding age, gender and
appearance are not important. Gesticulation, mime and intonation,
however, are helpful cues to judge the mood and emotions of the interaction
partner and support so intimate communication. In line with this argumenta-
tion, Whitty & Gavin (2001) report that switching from online communi-
cation to phone calls is often perceived as a more intimate step in the
development of the relationship. According to this logic, the phone should
be more appropriate for intimate communication than email.
More important than these objective media characteristics is how people
actually perceive media (Fulk et al. 1995; Schmitz & Fulk 1991). Several
studies have dealt with this question. Dimmick et al. (2000) examined the
gratification niches of email and phone. Forty-eight percent of their respon-
dents ind icated that they use the phone less since they adopted email, indicat-
ing that the two media compete. Email was found to be superior to the
telephone for keeping in touch with people who lived far away and in different
time zones. However, the phone had the broadest niche on the sociability
dimension. The first finding refers to the advantages of asynchronicity, the
second to the number of channels and therefore the degree of social
presence/media richness.
Cummings et al. (2002) report the results of a survey of 979 employees of
a national bank, and another one among 39 students in both studies, email
was judged as less useful for relationships than phone and FTF communication.
The latter two were not significantly different from each other. In another
study by Baym et al. (2004) the quality of FTF and phone communication
was judged as higher than the quality of Internet communication. This differ-
ence was not very large, and Internet interactions were still perceived as high
in quality. Nevertheless, CMC was judged primarily as ‘particularly useful in
maintaining long-distance relationships’ (p. 314).
Even if people consider the phone as more suitable for maintaining
relationships, this does not necessarily mean that they use it more often
MEDIA USE IN LONG-DISTANCE FRIENDSHIPS 697
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than email. Media richness theory has proposed that people choose media
according to their task-media fit (Daft & Lengel 1984, 1986), but empirical
research has shown that people often do not act as rational actors (cf. Rice
& Shook 1990). Several studies found that email predominates in long-
distance relationships, especially in weak ties (Hampton & Wellman 2001;
Quan-Haase et al. 2002; Boase & Wellman 2006). Based on these studies
it can be expected that email is used more frequently than the phone in
long-distance friendships.
However, a recent study on media use of American teens revealed that
the phone the landline phone or the cellphone is still the central
medium of communication in daily life (Lenhart et al. 2005). Thus, prior
research reveals somewhat mixed results with regard to the preference of
media. One reason for these discrepancies might be the different samples
teens, students, or respondents selected by random digit dialing. Another
reason for these discrepancies might be the focus on media use across different
situations and different relationships (Dimmick et al. 2000; Cummings et al.
2002). This makes it difficult to draw inferences specifically about media
use in long-distance friendships.
Two studies deal with similar questions to those in the current paper.
Haythornthwaite (2000) examined what happens to relationships when FTF
communication is unavailable or limited. However, this study looked at class-
mates in a distance-learning class, that is, a more task-oriented type of
relationship. The theoretical background of the study was social network
analysis; therefore, the comparison between weak and strong ties was
central. Pairs of students with stronger ties used more media, and they used
email more than the phone. However, in case of a task-orientated working
relationship, email is also the medium that fits better with the affordances
of the task. Documents can be attached, and agreements are documented
and can easily be archived. Thus, there is no inherent conflict between conven-
ience of the medium and task-medium fit; consequently, the preference for
email is not really surprising. Baym et al. (2004) focused on interpersonal com-
munication via Internet, the phone and FTF. In the first study reported in the
paper, college students kept a diary about media use in their ongoing daily life.
Most interactions were FTF, and there were slightly more pho ne calls (18.4
percent) than Internet interactions (16.1 percent). However, type of relation-
ship has not been specified in this analysis. In the second study, the relative use
of three media (FTF, phone, Internet) in four types of relationships (acquain-
tances, friends, family members, partners) was examined. However, the
design was between-subjects. That is, there were 12 different versions of
the questionnaire, and people evaluated only the last interaction via the
respective medium. Unfortunately, there are no data available concerning
the preference for email or the phone in this specific type of relationship.
Instead, it was assessed which media participants used to communicate with
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members of their local and distant (close) social circles. Internet was used
more often in communication with members of distant circles than with
members of local circles. More importantly, within distant social circles
(close and less close ones), the phone was used somewhat, but not significantly,
more than Internet communication. However, the circles averaged communi-
cation with relatives, friends and work colleagues, and the question was with
what percentage of the respective circle they communicated at least some-
times via Internet, FTF, phone and mail. That is not the same as the question
as to what percentage of their communication within a specific relationship
was conducted via a specific medium. Thus, it is not possible to say which
media people actually use to what extent in long-distance friendships. The
main aim of Study 1 is to answer this question.
RQ1: Which media do people use to what extent in long-distance
friendships?
An open research question is formulated because contrasting predictions
can be derived. On the one hand it can be argued that most of the communi-
cation in a long-distance friendship will be conducted via email because email
makes it easy to bridge large distances and even time zones. Even within the
same time zone, email fits better in the time schedules of both communicati on
partners. An email can be sent at any time, even late at night, when it might
be impolite to call. Thus, if people choose media according to their conven-
ience, a high proportion of communication in long-distance friendships should
take place via email.
On the one hand it can be argued that most of the communication in a
long-distance friendship will be conducted via phone because the phone is
the richer medium more suited for intimate communication (Whitty &
Gavin 2001). Thus, if people choose media according to their richness, a
high proportion of communication in long-distance friendships should take
place via the phone.
Additional factors, which might influence media choice, are taken into
account as well. Studies on media choice have revealed that people are not
rational actors that choose media according to their appropriateness in a
different situation (Rice & Shook 1990; Markus 1994). Fulk and colleagues
(1995; Schmitz & Fulk 1991) suggested that perceived media richness is a
better predictor of actual media use than objective media richness. They
examined email use in organizations and found that email use is predicted
by email skills and perceived email richn ess. The same should hold true for
media choice in interpersonal settings, leading to the following hypotheses:
H1: The higher the email skills, the more the email use.
H2: The higher the perceived email richness, the more the email use.
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Perceived email richness refers to the usefulness of email to express
socio-emotional contents. According to the social information processing
perspective (Walther 1992), it is possible to verbalize socio-emotional con-
tents and compensate for the lack of nonverbal cues (Utz 2000). However,
another factor that might be important for the maintenance of interpersonal
relationships is immediacy of feedback. Therefore, it was also assessed how
important immediate feedback was for participants. It was expected that
people who do not attach much importance to immediate feedback show a
stronger preference for email communication.
H3: The lower the importance of immediate feedback, the mo re the
email use.
Additionally, it was expected that the availability of Internet access influ-
ences email use.
H4: The higher the availability of Internet access, the more the email use.
These hypotheses were tested in a survey among young Dutch adolescents
(aged 2035). In this phase of life, many people move to another town
because they go to university or start their first job. Additionally, this age
group is familiar with new communication media.
Study 1: Method
Procedure
A questionnaire was sent via email to young Dutch adults. The respondents
were asked to think of a friend who lives in another place and to answer the
subsequent questions with regard to communication with this specific person.
Measures
Media use
. People were presented with a list of seven communication modes
(FTF, phone, email, SMS, chat/IM, letters, other) and asked to indicate what
percentage of their communication with their friend was covered by the seven
categories. Additionally, the absolute number of emails exchanged with the
friend per month was assessed. The content of their emails was to be
judged on a five-point scale ranging from ‘very superficial’ to ‘very intimate’.
Characteristics of the friends hip . Distance, duration of the friendships, and
closeness of the friendship (five-point-scale) were measured.
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Accessibility/costs of email. Participants were asked about the type of Internet
connection (modem, broadband, etc.; at home, at work, etc.) and whether
they had to pay for their Internet connection themselves.
Email skills. Email skills were assessed by two items, typing skills and specific
email skills (
a
¼ 0.73). Answers were given on a five-point-scale ranging
from 1 ¼ very bad to 5 ¼ very good. Perceived email richness and importance
of immediate feedback were measured on five-point-scales (1 ¼ totally disagree,
5 ¼ totally agree). Perceived email richness was assessed by four items (e.g. ‘I
can express my personal feelings well in email’;
a
¼ 0.70). The scale import-
ance of immediate feedback had four items (e.g. ‘I think it is a disadvantage
that I do not receive an immediate answer from my friend’;
a
¼ 0.70).
Demographic characteristics. Participants were asked to indicate their age,
gender, and education level.
Participants
Eighty-three young adults participated in the survey. Two-thirds of the sample
were female, the average age was 24 years (range 2035). Most of the friends
(56 percent) were separated by more than 50 kilometers, and 43 percent of the
friendships had lasted longer than five years. The mean friendship intensity was
relatively high, M ¼ 4.03 (SD ¼ 0.67) on a five-point scale.
Results
Media use
Email turned out to be the preferred medium in long-distance friendships: 31
percent of the communication was done via email, followed by FTF (27
percent), phone (22 perce nt) and chat/IM (11 percent). SMS, letters and
other communication media were used barely. Email use was not significantly
higher than FTF communication, t(83) , 1, n.s., but email use was signifi-
cantly higher than phone use, t(83) ¼ 2.31, p , 0.05. The mean number
of emails was M ¼ 6.77 (SD ¼ 6.82), and the content of the emails was
judged as neither superficial nor very intimate, M ¼ 3.28 (SD ¼ 0.83).
Influence factors
Forty-three percent of the participants reported that they and their friend had
email access at home and at work/university, and only 7 percent reported that
one of them had only restricted Internet access. Participants estimated their
MEDIA USE IN LONG-DISTANCE FRIENDSHIPS 701
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email skills as high, M ¼ 4.17 (SD ¼ 0.57. Perceived email richness was
regarded as moderate, M ¼ 3.45 (SD ¼ 0.52), and the importance of
immediate feedback was relatively neutral, M ¼ 3.12 (SD ¼ 0.66). Email
skills correlated with perceived email richness, r(83) ¼ 0.41, p , 0.01.
Separate regre ssion analyses with percentage of email communication and
absolute number of emails written per month as criterion variable and
accessibility, costs, perceived email richness and importance of immediate
feedback as predictors revealed no significant results, both Fs (5,72) , 1.
Hypotheses 1 4 were therefore rejected.
Additional findings
Exploratory data analysis revealed that the absolute and relative number of
emails were independent of each other, r(80) ¼ 20.08, n.s. To further
explore this initially unexpected finding, the influence of friendship closeness
on email use was examined. There was a positive correlation between close-
ness and absolute number of emails exchanged per month, r(77) ¼ 0.24,
p , 0.05, but a negative correlation between friendship closeness and rela-
tive number of emails per month, r(77) ¼ 20.22, p , 0.05.
Discussion
Email is indeed the most frequently used medium in long-distance friendships
at least among young Dutch adults. Despite the phone’s ability to transmit
nonverbal socio-emotional cues such as intonation and to pro vide immediate
feedback, email is chosen over the phone. Instant messenger, which is very
popular with American teens (Lenhart et al. 2005), has not reached this
level of popularity in the Netherlands.
Interestingly, neither objective (accessibility of an Internet connection,
costs) nor subjective (perceived email richness, importance of immediate feed-
back) factors predicted email use. These results might partly be due to ceiling
ef fects most people had a broadband Internet connection at home and at uni-
versity/work, and email skills were estimated as high. It remains surprising that
importance of immediate feedback and email richness did not influence actual
email usage. Obviously, people choose email more for convenience reasons
email is available and does not interrupt the friend’s time schedule.
There was an unpredicted finding absolute and relative number of emails
were independent of each other. Closeness of friendship turned out to be a mod-
erating factor. The positive correlation between friendship closeness and absol-
ute number of emails exchanged might be explained by the fact that in close
friendships more communication takes place (Boase et al. 2006;
Haythornthwaite 2000; Haythornthwaite & Wellman 1998). The negative
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correlation between closeness and percentage of email communication would
then indicate that even if the overall amount of communication is higher in
close friendships email is less preferred in close friendships. Thus, despite
the fact that email is used most frequently in long-distance friendships, it
might be regarded as less suitable for the maintenance of close friendships. Con-
sequently, it should be used especially among acquaintances, but less so among
best friends. There was a positive correlation between closeness and percentage
of phone communication, r(77) ¼ 0.25, p , 0.05, which would support the
post-hoc explanation that richer media are preferred in closer friendships.
Another indicator that email might be a convenient, but not the most
suitable communication medium for the maintenance of friendships, is that
the content of the emails was not judged as intimate. This fact is puzzling
because emotional intimacy usually characterizes close friendships.
Obviously, intimate conversations take place via other media. Unfortunately,
the intimateness of the phone calls was not measured in Study 1. Study 2 was
designed to compare email and phone communication and to explicitly test
these post-hoc explanations.
Study 2
Study 2 aimed to replicate the basic findings of Study 1 in a more heterogeneous
sample, thereby examining the generalizability of the results. Moreover, it
focused on the comparison of email and phone communication and tested the
moderating role of closeness of the friendship. Based on the post-hoc expla-
nations of the results of Study 1, the following hypotheses were derived:
H1: Overall, email is preferred over the phone in long-distance friend-
ships.
H2: The closer the friendship, the more communication overall (in total,
but also separately for email and phone).
H3: The closer the friendship, the higher the percentage of phone com-
munication.
H4: The closer the friendship, the lower the percentage of email
communication.
If the phone is preferred over email in very close friendships because it is
better suited for the discussion of personal and intimate topics, closeness of
friendship should be related mainly to intimateness of the phone conversa-
tions, but less so to intimateness of the email conversations.
H5: The closer the friendship, the more intimate the content of the com-
munication.
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H6: The effect predicted in H5 should be more pronounced in phone
communication.
These hypotheses were tested in an online study among German Internet
users. A broader and more heterogeneous sample was used to examine the
generalizability of the results of Study 1.
Method
Procedure
An online survey was conducted among German Internet users. The study was
announced in several newsgroups and mailing lists. Participants were instructed
to think of the last person living in a different place to whom they had written a
private email, and answer all subsequent questions with regard to this person.
Participants
One hundred and fifty-three individuals assessed the first page of the online
questionnaire, and 120 completed (almost all) questions. Similar dropout
rates are reported for other Internet studies (cf. Musch & Reips 2000).
The n.s. in the analyses vary accordingly. Participants’ mean age was 31,
ranging from 17 to 59. Men were slightly overrepresented (55 percent vs.
45 percent women).
Measures
Media use
. Again, participants were asked to indicate what perce ntage of
their communication was conducted via FTF, phone, email, SMS, chat /IM,
mail, or other communication media (relative media use). Absolute media
use was assessed for emails and phone calls. Participants were asked how
many emails they wrote to the other person each month and whether the
content was superficial or intimate (1 ¼ very superficial, 5 ¼ very intimate).
The same questions were asked for the emails written by the other person.
Frequency and content of phone calls were assessed similarly. Frequency of
contact was assessed as a general measure of communication intensity. Partici-
pants were asked to indicate on an ordinal scale (once a year several times a
day) how often they communicated with this person.
Importance of immediate feedback and perceived email richness. Importance of
immediate feedback and perceived email richness were assessed with four
versus three items respectively (
a
s ¼ 0.70 and 0.83).
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Friendship characteristics. Participants indicated whether the other person
was male or female, how long they had known each other, and how long
they had already lived in different places. Closeness of the friendships was
measured by two items (
a
¼ 0.81), which were answered on a seven-point
Likert-scale: ‘How would you characterize your relationship to this
person?’(1 ¼ shallow acquaintance, 7 ¼ close friendship) and ‘How import-
ant is this person to you?’(1 ¼ not at all, 7 ¼ very).
Demographics. Age, gender, occupation and education were assessed.
Results
Descriptive
The mean distance was 964 km (SD ¼ 2710), and in 80 percent of the cases
the mean distance was 100 km or more. Sixty-nine percent of the friendships
had already lasted longer than five years, and the mean closeness of friendship
was M ¼ 5.57 (SD ¼ 1.18), indicating that a broader range of social relation-
ships was covered in this study. Seventy percent of the participants lived in
the same place as the interaction partner at the beginning of the relationship.
Participants wrote each other on average M ¼ 11.2 emails per month
(SD ¼ 14.7). The mean number of phone calls was M ¼ 4.4 (SD ¼ 7.5).
Media use. Regarding the relative use of media, the following pattern
emerged: email was the most heavily used communication medium (43
percent), followed by the phone (22 percent) and FTF (21 percent). Six
percent of the communication was done via SMS, 3 percent each via post
and chat. Thus, consistent with H1, email was by far the preferred medium
to maintain long-distance relationships. Again, absolute number of emails
and percentage of email use were independent of each other (see Table 1). Rela-
tive and absolute use of phone calls, however, was slightly positively related.
TABLE 1 Correlations between the measures of email and phone use (Study 2).
12 3 4 5 6
1. email relative (%) 220.54

0.06 20.37

0.23
20.19
2. phone relative (%) 220.05 0.27

20.11 0.45

3. email absolute (per month) 2 0.31

20.02 20.04
4. phone absolute (per month) 220.14 0.05
5. intimateness emails 2 0.27
6. intimateness phone calls 2
MEDIA USE IN LONG-DISTANCE FRIENDSHIPS
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Again, perceived email richness and importance of immediate feedback
did not predict percentage of email communication, F , 1. The regression
analysis with absolute number of emails exchanged as dependent variables
also failed to reach significance, F(2,119) ¼ 2.14, p ¼ 0.12, although
the Beta for perceived email richness was significant,
b
¼ 0.18,
t(119) ¼ 2.02, p , 0.05.
Moderating role of friendship intensity
First of all, the closer the friendship, the more frequent the communication
overall, r(133) ¼ 0.37, p , 0.001, Spearman’s rho. More specifically, close-
ness of friendship correlated with absolute number of emails, r(129) ¼ 0.21,
p , 0.05, and number of phone calls, r(126) ¼ 0.35, p , 0.01 (see Table 1).
H2 is therefore confirmed. Closeness of friendship correlated negative with
relative use of email (percentage), r(132) ¼ 20.43, p , 0.01, but positive
with relative use of the phone (percentage), r(114) ¼ 0.41, p , 0.01,
thereby confirming H3 and H4.
To better illustrate these findings, the sample was divided into four
groups via a quartile split on closeness (Ms ¼ 3.78, 5.20, 6.18 and 7.00,
accordingly). A 4 (closeness)2 (medium: email vs. phone calls) analysis of
variance with repeated measurement on the last factor and absolute number
of emails versus phone calls respectively per month as dependent variable
revealed a main effect of closeness, F(3,121) ¼ 5.11, p , 0.01. As already
shown in the correlational analyses, the closer the friendship, the more
communication took place (see Table 2, first two rows). There was also a
main effect of medium, F(1,121) ¼ 26.95, p , 0.001, indicating that
people communicated much more via email (M ¼ 11.14) than via phone
(M ¼ 4.36).
Relative use of email and phone was also analyzed by a 4 (closeness)2
(medium: email vs. phone calls) analysis of variance with repeated
TABLE 2 Absolute and relative use of email and phone and intimateness of
communication as a function of closeness of the friendship (Study 2).
closeness of friendship
1 (low) 2 3 4 (high)
emails per month 7.81 7.93 12.88 15.93
phone calls per month 1.12 2.50 4.56 9.25
relative email use 64% 48% 38% 37%
relative phone use 11% 19% 26% 29%
intimateness emails 2.70 3.12 3.24 3.04
intimateness phone calls 2.84 3.11 3.66 3.89
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measurement on the last factor. The main effect of medium was again signifi-
cant, F(1,110) ¼ 52.02, p , 0.001. Much more communication was done
via email (M ¼ 47 percent) than via phone (M ¼ 21 percent). More interest-
ing, this effect was qualified by the interaction between closeness and
medium, F(3,110) ¼ 7.42, p , 0.001. As can be seen in Table 2, the pro-
portion of email dro pped from 64 percent to 27 percent with increasing
intensity of friendship. In contrast, the proportion of phone calls increased
only slightly from 11 percent to 29 percent. Simple comparisons showed
that group 1 and 2 communicated significantly more via email than via
phone, whereas this difference was only marginally significant in group 3
and not significant in group 4.
Content of communication. A 4 (closeness) 2 (medium: email vs. phone
calls) analysis of variance with repeated measurement on the last factor and
content of the communication as dependent variable revealed three significant
effects. The main effect of medium indicated that the content of pho ne com-
munications was judged as more intimate (M ¼ 3.37) than the content of the
emails (M ¼ 3.09), F(1,110) ¼ 4.11, p , 0.01. The main effect of closeness
revealed that the content of communication became more intimate when the
friendships were closer (Ms ¼ 2.91, 3.11, 3.45 and 3.46, respectively),
F(1,110) ¼ 3.24, p , 0.05. H5 is therefore supported. However, only the
difference between the two groups with close and very close friendships
and the group with the superficial friendships was marginally significant.
Again and in line with H6, these main effects were qualified by an interaction,
F(3,110) ¼ 4.21, p , 0.01. As can be seen in Table 2, only the content of
phone calls became deeper and more intimate with increasing closeness.
Group 3 and 4 discussed significantly more intimate content in their phone
calls than groups 1 and 2 did. The content of emails did not differ between
the four groups communication via email always tended to be neither
superficial nor intimate. When the differences within the groups are the
focus of analyses, it turns out that phone conversations were not always
more intimate than email exchanges. This was only the case in (very) close
friendships (group 3 and 4). That is, people with less close friendships com-
municate relatively superficially via both media. People with close friendships
use email for the more superficial conversations, but they discuss really inti-
mate things via phone.
Discussion
Study 2 replicated the basic finding of Study 1 in a different sample: email is
the most widely used medium in long-distance friendships at least in
Western Europe. Thus, even in a more heterogeneous sample, email
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turned out to be preferre d over the phone. Again, attitude towards asynchro-
nous media and perceived email richness did not significantly predict email
use, indicating that task-medium fit does not determine media choice.
Email is probably chosen for convenience reasons email as an unobtrusive
communication medium that does not disturb the interaction partner. Com-
munication in emails was found to be neither really intimate nor entirely
superficial. Phone calls, on the other hand, were used for really intimate con-
versations but only among (very) close friends; in less close friendships the
content of phone calls did not differ significantly from the content of emails.
General discussion
Two studies showed that email is the most popular medium for the mainten-
ance of long-distance friendships. The first study focused relatively narrowly
on close long-distance friendships of young Dutch adults. The second study
examined close and less close long-distance friendships of German online
users the second sample was therefore more heterogeneous with regard
to the sample (age, education), the closeness of friendships, and the distances
covered by the long-distance friendships.
Email is preferred over the phone, despite the fact that the phone is the
richer medium. Prior studies on media richness theory have shown that
people often do not choose the medium that fits best the affordances of the
task (e.g. Markus 1994). In line with these findings, attitude towards asyn-
chronous media or perceived email richness did also not predict email use
in the current research. Study 1 showed that the preference for email is
also not predicted by accessibility of email or email skills. However, accessi-
bility and email skills were high. Thus, the results mainly demonstrate that
email has become a part of everyday life communication.
The popularity of email might primarily be due to its convenience as an
asynchronous medium. Phone calls require that both communication partners
have time, and scheduling of phone appointments is especially difficult if
friends live in different time zones. An email can always be sent, it does
not intrude on the communication partner and he or she can answer whenever
it is convenient. Other studies have already shown that email is suited for
keeping in touch despite different work schedules and time zones
(Dimmick et al. 2000; Baym et al. 2004; Boase & Wellman 2004).
An interesting finding of the prese nt study with important methodological
implications is the zero correlation between absolute and relative email use.
Focusing on absolute email use leads to the opposite conclusions of those
focusing on relative email use thus, to fully capture the phenomenon,
both measures are needed and possible moderator variables have to be
taken into account.
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The initially surprising zero correlation can be explained if closeness of
friendship is included as a moderator variable. The closer the friendship,
the more communication in total across all media. That is, closer friends
write each other more emails per month than less close friends do; and
they also phone each other more often than less close friends do. However,
the closer the friendship, the larger the preference for richer media. That
is, the relative preference of email over the phone becomes smaller and
even not significant with increasing closeness.
Taking into account the content of the communication shed further light
on this asymmetry. Prior research has shown that it is possible to build up
friendships or to convey socio-emotional contents via CMC (Walther 1992;
Parks & Floyd 1996; Parks & Roberts 1998; Utz 2000; Whitty & Gavin
2001). However, it turned out that people did not use emails for real intimate
conversations. Instead, they preferred the phone as a richer medium when it
comes to the discussion of really personal matters. This finding could also
explain why participants in Baym et al.’s (2004) study judged the quality of
phone conversations to be higher than the quality of Internet interactions
people simply described different types of interactions. In Study 2, even very
close friends used email for communication that was neither superficial nor
intimate. Whereas the simple compari son of the content of emails and phone
calls led to the conclusion that phone calls were always more intimate than
emails, the closer analysis with closeness as moderator variable showed that
even phone calls were not necessarily used for intimate and deep communi-
cation either. Phone calls with acquaintances were rather superficial as well;
the intimateness of their content did not differ significantly from emails.
Thus, people might discuss intimate topics via the phone, but they do so
only with close friends. It is also interesting that the intimateness of emails
was not influenced by closeness. That is, even close friends did not discuss inti-
mate and personal topics via email. They might use email to keep in touch, to
schedule the time for the next phone call or FTF meetings, to send each other
pictures or jokes. The present study did not examine why people favor the
phone for more intimate conversations. The phone could be favored because
of its higher media richness and social presence fewer socio-emotional
cues get lost. But the phone could also be favored because it is a synchronous
medium and allows people to receive immediate feedback, advise or offer con-
solation. Future research is needed to explore this issue further.
Strengths and limitations
Although the main findings of Study 1 were replicated in Study 2, there are
also several limitations. First and foremost, one should be cautious in
generalizing the results. The samples were not representati ve of Dutch as
opposed to German Internet users. In the first study, students were
MEDIA USE IN LONG-DISTANCE FRIENDSHIPS 709
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overrepresented. In the second, participants were recruited via mailing lists
and newsgroups thus, experienced and heavy Internet users are probably
overrepresented. However, at least within this sample, the percentage of
email was not correlated to duration of Internet use, r(121) ¼ 0.04,
n.s. The exact percentages to which the different media were used in com-
munication with lon g-distance friends should therefore not be generalized
to other populations. However, the basic finding that email is the preferred
medium should also hol d for other samples, at least in Western Europe.
Online surveys are less controlled settings than laboratory studies, but
research has shown that Internet studies are reliable and valid research
methods (e.g. Gosling et al. 2004).
Another limitation is the interpretation of the percentage ratings. Do
they relate only to quantity (number of phone calls, emails, SMS, visits,
...), is quantity somewhat weighted by the length of the email or the
phone call, and how can length of an email be compared with the length of
a phone call? Time is not a good indicator because it takes lon ger to type
than to talk. Number of words would be a better indicator, but people are
probably not good at estimating the number of words written in an email
or spoken during a phone call. Do people also include quality (superficial
vs. intimate) of the communication when making percentage judgments?
Interpretation was left up to the participants and participants might differ
in how they interpreted it. However, this measure was chosen because it
assesses people’s actual perception of their friendship as rather email-sup -
ported or phone- supported the variable of interest in the present research.
However, to get a more objective picture of the two media central to this
research, email and phone, number of emails/calls and content of the
emails/calls were assessed additionally.
A strength of the current research is that it measured email and phone use
in absolute and in relative terms, as well as the intimateness of the emails and
phone calls. Prior studies have often focused only on one of these measures
(Haythornthwaite 2000; Baym et al. 2004). If only relative or only absolute
use of emails were assessed, the present study would have come to different
conclusions. Thus, one of the main implications of the paper is a methodologi-
cal one: It is necessary to measure quantity of communication in absolute and
relative terms; otherwise, contradictory findings might emerge.
Another strength is that the paper focused on a very specific type of
relationship. Long-distance friendships are social relationships, but less inti-
mate than romantic relationships. They are also less task-oriented than
relationships between classmates or work colleagues. The geographical separ-
ation makes it necessary to use media for at least parts of the communication.
Other studies (e.g. Baym et al. 2004; Boase et al. 2006) have often assessed
media use over several strong or weak ties, thereby mixing up communication
with different partners (family members, partners, friends, colleagues ...)
710 INFORMATION, COMMUNICATION & SOCIETY
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and different purposes (social, task-oriented), which made the results more
difficult to interpret. The present paper focused on one type of relationship
but replicated the main findings of Study 1 in a more heterogeneous
sample, stressing the validity of the analysis.
To summarize, email is the medium used most frequently in maintaining
long-distance friendships. However, for really intimate conversations
which occur only among close friends the phone is preferred. Absolute
number of emails sent was not related to percentage of email communication;
and concentration of only one measure would have led to different con-
clusions. An important piece of methodological advice for future studies is
therefore to use several measures of media use and to take into account poss-
ible moderators such as closeness of friendship.
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Barbara Blok, Judith van Droffelaar, Angela Groeneveld,
Marieke Meijer and Yasinda Tjin-Kim-Jet for the data collection in study 1.
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Sonja Utz (PhD, Catholic University of Eichsta
¨
tt, psychology, 1999) is an assist-
ant professor at the Department of Communication Science, VU University
Amsterdam. She was previously a postdoc at the Social Psychology Department
of the VU University Amsterdam, and an assistant professor at the Department of
Organizational and Social Psychology at Chemnitz Technological University. Her
research interests include social processes in virtual communities, social net-
working sites, social dilemmas in cyberspace, trust in cyberspace (e.g. eBay),
and knowledge management. Address: VU University Amsterdam, Department
of Communication Science, De Boelelaan 1081, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The
Netherlands. [email: s.utz@fsw.vu.nl]
MEDIA USE IN LONG-DISTANCE FRIENDSHIPS 713
... Another objective is to examine the impact of the choice of the channel through which these requests are sent. Research shows that individuals tend to choose different communication channels for different contacts and purposes (Agosto, Abbas, & Naughton, 2012;Cummings, Butler, & Kraut, 2002;Utz, 2007;Van Cleemput, 2010. Therefore, people have developed norms of channel usage for seeking help from weak ties. ...
... Subsequent research largely supports these results. Utz (2007) found that the percentage of email in total communication reduced as the closeness with the communicator increased. While phone conversations with strong ties were more intimate than those with weak ties, the intimacy level of email communication remained the same regardless of whether the recipient was a weak or strong tie (Utz, 2007). ...
... Utz (2007) found that the percentage of email in total communication reduced as the closeness with the communicator increased. While phone conversations with strong ties were more intimate than those with weak ties, the intimacy level of email communication remained the same regardless of whether the recipient was a weak or strong tie (Utz, 2007). Based on these findings, Utz (2007) argued that email may be more appropriate for weak-tie communication while phone may be more appropriate for strong-tie communication. ...
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Thesis
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... The closer the friendship, the more media are usually used (Haythornthwaite, 2000). Utz (2007) found that closer friends had more contact via the phone and sent each other more emails than less close friends. Interestingly, the level of intimacy in the emails was uncorrelated to friendship strength; the content remained relatively superficial. ...
... Graham, Barbato, and Perse (1993) echo this as they show that (1) communication with weak and strong ties fulfils different psychological needs and (2) triggers substantially different styles, breadths and depths of communication. Utz (2007) intertwines this with MRT as she finds a preference for phone calls over text-based communication to discuss important matters in long-distance friendships when particularly close friends are involved. While the usage frequency of emails also increases with closeness, the intimateness of the information shared via email does not. ...
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The European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) enables competent authorities to introduce interoperability obligations also for number-independent interpersonal communications services (NI-ICS) such as Facebook Messenger, LINE, Skype, WeChat and WhatsApp. Under such an obligation, consumers could interact not just with users of the NI-ICS where they have a user account themselves, but also with users of all then interoperable NI-ICS. While with traditional electronic communications services (ECS) economic theory and consumer interests align as regards interoperability since multi-homing across various operators is the exemption, it is not yet clear whether that is also true for NI-ICS for which multi-homing is the norm. Our paper draws on an online survey of n=2,044 consumers in Germany covering traditional ECS, email and 22 other NI-ICS to address this issue from a consumer point of view. We find that people proactively use the boundaries between communications services to compartmentalize their social contacts according to relationship closeness. Our finding echoes indications provided in a rich stream of computer-mediated communication (CMC) research and in particular psychological theories of relationship development. Specifically, people appear to follow a finely tuned cultural code implying a hierarchical order of communications services used depending on the closeness of the contacts. Consequently, our results provide a complementary explanation of how and why certain groups of social ties converge to a specific (set of) communications service(s) beyond network effects and shed a critical light on current policy debates around an interoperability obligation for interpersonal communications applications. They highlight that an interoperability obligation for NI-ICS would likely not be in line with consumer interests.
... Graham, Barbato, and Perse (1993) echo this as they show that (1) communication with weak and strong ties fulfils different psychological needs and (2) triggers substantially different styles, breadths and depths of communication. Utz (2007) intertwines this with MRT as she finds a preference for phone calls over text-based communication to discuss important matters in long-distance friendships when particularly close friends are involved. While the usage frequency of emails also increases with closeness, the intimateness of the information shared via email does not. ...
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The European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) enables competent authorities to introduce interoperability obligations also for number-independent interpersonal communications services (NI-ICS) such as Facebook Messenger, LINE, Skype, WeChat and WhatsApp. Under such an obligation, consumers could interact not just with users of the NI-ICS where they have a user account themselves, but also with users of all then interoperable NI-ICS. While with traditional electronic communications services (ECS) economic theory and consumer interests align as regards interoperability since multi-homing across various operators is the exemption, it is not yet clear whether that is also true for NI-ICS for which multi-homing is the norm. Our paper draws on an online survey of n = 2044 consumers in Germany covering traditional ECS, email and 22 other NI-ICS to address this issue from a consumer point of view. We find that people proactively use the boundaries between communications services to compartmentalize their social contacts according to relationship closeness. Our finding echoes indications provided in a rich stream of computer-mediated communication (CMC) research and in particular psychological theories of relationship development. Specifically, people appear to follow a finely tuned cultural code implying a hierarchical order of communications services used depending on the closeness of the contacts. Consequently, our results provide a complementary explanation of how and why certain groups of social ties converge to a specific (set of) communications service(s) beyond network effects and shed a critical light on current policy debates around an interoperability obligation for interpersonal communications applications. They highlight that an interoperability obligation for NI-ICS would likely not be in line with consumer interests.
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