She’s a Plain Jane: Impression formation via online comments

Watching people what they do and listen to what they say over time give us a pretty good picture of their personality and attitudes. When we form an impression of others, we usually rely on two sources of information: (1) knowledge about a person’s belonging to a category (e.g. male, gender, appearance), and (2) details about their personal, individual characteristics. Following Jonas, Stroebe, Hewstone, and Reiss (2014), characteristics or individualizing information cannot simply be derived from a person’s belonging to a category. It is a process ranging from category-based assessments at one end of the continuum to individualized responses at the other to form impressions about others, whereby it is a constant challenge for researchers is to determine which of sources of information lead to a particular impression. This is at least, what the continuum model of impression formation by Fiske and Neuberg (1990) tells us.

The meaning of impression formation for the deliberative potential of online comments

Communicating via text-based online comments is different than talking face-to-face (I know, it’s shocking). In many cases, we don’t have knowledge about a person’s belonging to categories like gender, age, origin or something else, we see at first sight or hear at the first words when we meet someone personally. What we have in online comments in particular on news websites is a name, even if it’s “unknown”, and the message itself. However, this can be enough to form an impression about personal, individual characteristics.

The study I presented on the annual conference of the group “Digital Communication” of DGPuK last week was about the perception of others in online communication. As I performed a study on emotional perception and reaction on text-based online discussions I noticed something interesting working with the material of guided interviews: People make very personal or intimate judgement about others they only knew from topic-centered chat communication. Participants judged others to be naive, touchy or a plain jane. Thinking about someone as a “plain jane” is not what I call an “agreement based on the best argument” (Ruiz et al., 2011, p. 478) or discussing social and political issues in a rational, reciprocal, and respectful manner – as Habermas (1982) would appreciate it.

This interesting observation gave me a new idea in the field of my PhD work about why online comments are often places for rude communication. Next to emotional language/visualizations, slant, and conversational prompts which demonstrably affect the deliberative quality of the discussions (Ziegele, Quiring, Esau, & Friess, 2018) as well as emotional contagion, I am so often writing about (Ferrara & Yang, 2015; Kramer et al., 2014, 2014), it seems important for the civility of online comments, what people believe who they are talking to and on what sources they build their impression on.

Do you like Ed Sheeran?

A few days ago, I was reading following comment about Ed Sheeran by an author called Gruingrass in the Guardian.



What do you think about this person? Either you like Ed Sheeran or not, you may imagine Gruingrass to be depressive and to handle dissatisfaction with sarcastic comments on great musicians or it makes you laugh and imagine him to be a funny man (of course a man – everybody knows that women are not funny at all). The position Gringrass has and the way he communicates it makes our minds unconsciously draw a picture about what kind of person he or she is. And this picture is very different between us. These are my two first realisations.

Two questions: What we formate impressions about and what sources of information lead to impression formation?

I do not care for Ed Sheeran. (Probably he’s no Morrissey, but that’s not the point here), but I was wondering, why I see Gruingrass the way I do. First, as already mentioned, it’s about my agreement or disagreement with Grinsgrass’ opinion, which means that it’s about myself. According to the continuum model, impressions are influenced by interpretation, motivation, and attention factors  of the recipient (Jonas, Stroebe, Hewstone & Reiss, 2014).

An example: In the study I performed there was a participant, who was male, a bit older and was very well informed about the topics of discussions. His written language was short and without mistakes. He needed a bit of time for typing, as he was not used to it. The others formed very different impressions about him. One, also male, middle age, had a positive image, which he reasoned with his knowledge  the clear, objective language style. Another participant, female, in her twenties experienced him as a robot-like, unpleasent person only willing to display himself and therefore needs a long time for thinking before writing.

In my example, the language style and the typing behavior were used as cues for the person’s character. This is in particular interesting for the difference between online comments and face to face communication: What are the relevant cues in online communication? How can the missing first impression be balanced? Next to language style and typing behavior, in my study people evaluated others mainly on the basis of statements. That does not necessary mean opinions, but anything which may give hints about peoples knowledge or experiences. Using the same cues, people thereby make different judgements. How people work with cues is called encoding. Encoding is the way of translating what we see into a processable format that is mentally stored (Jonas, Stroebe, Hewstone &Reiss, 2014). Encoding of course is closely related to the characteristics of the recipient.

Short Summary

When we communicate online and in particular in online comment sections, we unconsciously formate impressions about others, sometimes without even noticing. This impressions depending on (1) individual characteristics of the recipients and (2) cues, which we encode differently. The super interesting questions, which are not answered yet are:

  • What characteristics we form impressions about?
  • Which cues do we use?
  • On what is the encoding process depending on?

I am going on researching about this issue and let you know, what my results are going to be. If you have any questions, ideas or experiences with impression formation online, please let me know!



Ferrara, E., & Yang, Z. (2015). Measuring Emotional Contagion in Social Media. PloS One, 10(11), e0142390.

Fiske, S. T., & Neuberg, S. L. (1990). A Continuum of Impression Formation, from Category-Based to Individuating Processes: Influences of Information and Motivation on Attention and Interpretation, 23, 1–74.

Habermas, J. (1982). Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns: Band 1. Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung (2. Auflage). Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns: / Jürgen Habermas ; 1. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Jonas, K., Stroebe, W., Hewstone, M., & Reiss, M. (Eds.). (2014). Sozialpsychologie: Mit 25 Tabellen (6., vollst. überarb. Aufl.). Springer-Lehrbuch. Berlin: Springer.

Kramer, A. D. I., Giullory, J. E., & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(24), 8788–8790.

Ruiz, C., Domingo, D., Micó, J. L., Díaz-Noci, J., Meso, K., & Masip, P. (2011). Public Sphere 2.0? The Democratic Qualities of Citizen Debates in Online Newspapers. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 16(4), 463–487.

Ziegele, M., Quiring, O., Esau, K., & Friess, D. (2018). Linking News Value Theory With Online Deliberation: How News Factors and Illustration Factors in News Articles Affect the Deliberative Quality of User Discussions in SNS’ Comment Sections. Communication Research, 12(2), 009365021879788.

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