A new theoretical construct, known as the warranting construct, was introduced in the previous edition of the Handbook of Interpersonal Communication (Walther & Parks, 2002). Warranting pertains to the perceived legitimacy and validity of information about another person that one may receive or observe online. Individuals often come to learn quite a lot about each other through discussions in topical online discussion groups or through online role-playing games (see Parks & Floyd, 1996; Parks & Roberts, 1998), as well as from personal homepages and other forms of online interaction and self-presentation, including online dating sites (see Ellison et al., 2006). However, as Donath (1999) explained, it is widely suspected that the information one obtains through interaction in such venues leaves open the possibility for distorted self-presentations and outright deception with respect to participants’ off-line characteristics. As a relationship develops online, there may come a point at which it becomes very important to interactants to have information that they believe reliably describes a partner’s off-line characteristics. This may become especially acute if they decide to initiate an offline meeting, as many online friends and prospective romantic partners decide to do (Parks & Roberts, 1998).
The introduction of the warranting construct argued that an individual is less likely to distort his or her self-presentation when the receiver has access to other members of the sender’s social circle, since others can corroborate the individual’s real-life characteristics and hold that person accountable for misrepresentation. To increase a partner’s confidence in one’s self-descriptions, an individual may make efforts to put an online partner in touch with members of the individual’s off-line network.
The greater value of the warranting construct is found in its definition of what kind of information provides more confidence to receivers about the potentially true nature of an individual’s off-line self. From this perspective, receivers are expected to be more confident about their impressions based on information that is more likely to warrant, or connect, the online persona to the off-line body and person (see Stone, 1995). Information is more likely to be seen as truthful to a receiver to the extent that the receiver perceives it to be “immune to manipulation by the person to whom it refers,” according to Walther and Parks (2002, p. 552). They argued that CMC users may take deliberate steps to provide online partners with information having relatively great warranting value by using links to individuals in one’s social network or hyperlinks to websites or archives containing information about the user over which the user himself or herself has no control.
Recent research has provided several empirical tests of the warranting construct. Although warranting was originally conceptualized in the context of relationships originating in text-based online discussions, recent research has applied and extended the construct to contemporary multimedia websites in interesting ways. The first reference to warranting came in a study of impression management in online dating sites. Ellison et al. (2006) reported that online date seekers warrant their claims about their proclivities or participation in certain activities by including photographs on their user profiles that depict them engaged in the activity they are claiming. Showing oneself rock climbing, for instance, would be difficult to manipulate or manufacture if it was not an individual’s actual activity (see Donath, 1999, and below). Other research from an online dating context (Toma et al., 2008) found that individuals who used online date-finding services distorted their online self-presentation to a lesser extent the more their off-line acquaintances knew they were using these services. Similarly, Warkentin et al. (2010) investigated whether individuals’ displays of information that could be used to hold them to account for self-presentations affected the frequency and degree of deception they displayed with respect to their claims about demographic characteristics and personal tastes and preferences. Although chat systems featured more deception than was present in social network profiles and e-mail, the presence of cues to offline identity in any of these platforms reduced the level of deception in that medium, according to Warkentin et al.
Walther, Van Der Heide, Hamel, and Shulman (2009) tested warranting experimentally by juxtaposing flattering versus unflattering statements about an individual on mock-up Facebook profiles. The comments were made to appear to have been posted by the profile owner or by the owner’s Facebook friends. Facebook provides a format in which an individual can indicate qualities about himself or herself via “about me” descriptions, favorite quotations, current activities, and so on and where one’s acquaintances can also post comments reflecting the activities and characteristics of the profile host via postings on the host’s “wall” (and other commenting systems). When individuals’ suggestions about their own physical attractiveness (either positive and selfpromoting or negative and self-denigrating) were contradicted by the cues contained in wall postings from friends, observers’ ratings of the profile owner significantly reflected the friends’ comments more than the profile owner’s selfclaims. A replication focusing on profile owners and friends’ assessments of an individual’s extraversion provided more ambiguous results. In related research, an experiment that varied only the coefficients representing the number of friends a Facebook profile owner appeared to have found a curvilinear relationship between the number of one’s friends and the observers’ ratings of the profile owner’s popularity and social attractiveness (Tong, Van Der Heide, Langwell, & Walther, 2008). Although the sociometric friend coefficient did not contradict any particular self-generated claim of the profile owner, its effect nevertheless reinforces the influential nature of online information about a user that is beyond the immediate reach of the user to manipulate. A similar study by Utz (2010) examined observers’ ratings of a profile owner’s popularity and social attractiveness via the Dutch Hyves social network site. Profile mock-ups reflected variations in self-claims for extraversion, the photographically depicted extraversion of nine of one’s friends, and the number of friends a profile owner had. An interaction effect between the number of friends and the apparent extraversion of friends significantly affected the social attractiveness ratings of the profile owner. The warranting principle remains a relatively new construct at this time, although its empirical application in contemporary multimedia systems suggests that it is likely to see additional rather than decreased use. Concerns about the legitimacy of others’ online self-presentations has been a pernicious issue related to CMC since before the widespread diffusion of the Internet (see Van Gelder, 1985), and sensationalistic accounts of identity deception and manipulation still attract headlines (Labi, 2007). Likewise, as systems for meeting new friends and lovers shift from the casual discussion site to purposive online dating sites, concerns about others’ online authenticity continues (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Theoretical structures that help explain how CMC users assess the veridicality of others’ online self-presentations may increase in value.