In existing models of impression formation, the perceiver is the person forming an impression, while the target is the person about whom the impression is formed. People form impressions about others based on primary (or direct) and secondary (or indirect) sources of information. Primary sources of information include personal interactions (face-to-face or otherwise) including both verbal and behavioral cues. Secondary sources of information include sources such as hearsay (opinions expressed by others), photographs, voice recordings, official records, news articles, biographies, and others, now including Web-based information.
Traditional models are grouped into two main categories: trait-based and stereotype-based. In the trait-based models, such as Asch’s Configural
Model and Anderson’s weighted-average model, various traits of the target come together in the perceiver’s mind to form a unified impression (Brewer, 1988). According to Asch, there are two type s oftraits-central traits (traits that have a strong effect on interpretation of other traits) and peripheral traits (traits that do not significantly affect subjects’ impressions of the perceived personality) . Other researchers have found a primacy effect where traits that appear first have more impact in final impression (Widmeyer & Loy, 1988). On the other hand, stereotype-based models theorize that people rely on social categories, or stereotypes, to form impressions since stereotyping reduces the amount of information to which perceivers must attend. Using a stereotype, a perceiver may infer the person’s personality attributes without having to attend carefully to that person’s behavior (Sherman, Lee, Bessenoff & Frost, 1998).
These existing perception models provide the foundation for a model of Web-based perception that recognizes the Web as a new medium that “changes the game.” The uniqueness of the Web as a source of information and medium of communication can be seen in emerging studies of impression formation in the digital age (Han
cock, 2001; Jacobson, 1999; Markey & Wells, 2002; Walther, 1997; McKenna & Bargh, 2000). Venkatsubramanyan and Hill (2007) describes this model of ePerception (Figure 1) that extends traditional models of perception to account for differences effectuated by the digital information domain, specifically, by the way Web-based search impacts our perceptions of others.
As shown in the figure, there is a perceiver and a target as in traditional perception models (Brewer, 1988). The characteristics of both the perceiver and the target feed into a traditional impression formation process. In the digital domain, perceiver characteristics go beyond traditional notions of personality, emotional state, and social characteristics to include factors such as level of information literacy, online experience and comfort level, and search skill expertise. For instance, a study conducted by Ford, Miller and Moss (2005) concluded that cognitive styles, levels ofprior Internet experience and perceptions, study approaches, age and gender affect retrieval effectivenesses in face-to-face contexts, existing stereotypes may also influence perceivers though some research suggests that this influence differs in the digital sphere (Lee, 2004).
The target and the ePersona are shown as separate entities since the ePersona may also be affected by factors beyond the characteristics, behavior and control of the target such as the perceived currency and aesthetic of information sources, links between pages, and production quality of the information (e. g. picture clarity of images or videos).
The searchability effect refers to the impact of the search process itself (apart from the results) on the impression being formed (and subsequently the decision being made). Filtering search results then plays into searchability as cognitive effort is theorized to impact the impression formation process and outcome. Perusing the search results themselves then impacts the process through the target information, influenced by the characteristics of the information sources themselves. The perceiver considers all these factors to finally form an impression of the target, which then flows into the decision making process (such as hiring the target for a prospective employment position).
The theoretical model (Figure 1) provides a framework for empirical investigation of the impact of the Web on impression formation. The central research questions raised by this model are – (a) How do characteristics ofWeb-based search results impact impression formation? (b) How does the search process, by itself, affect impression formation? (c) How do the characteristics and skills of perceivers influence their perceptions of ePersonas? and (d) What characteristics oftargets are most influential in the creation of an ePersona and perceivers’ impressions ofthat ePersona? Our study of the literature revealed that the first question is currently being studied in some quarters (e. g. Vazire & Gosling, 2004). Studies related to the remaining questions, however, are lacking in current literature. In this study, we investigate the roles of perceiver and target characteristics, specifically gender and social networking presence, in the formation of ePerceptions.
Our research question is thus: How do differences in perceiver gender and target gender affect the impressions formed based upon an ePersona’s social networking activity?