Thursday, October 26, 2006

Feedback enabled presence

Alec Sanders deplores the rather crude state of today's presence systems where only a limited availability awareness is supported. I would add that, in the context of human communications, the mono-directional propagation of presence states without feedback does not help improve an already minimalist replacement for face-to-face communication.

In every day's life, people have an expectation that information about them is ephemeral and subject to the errands of human memory. This ambiguity gives people the ability to influence other's memory and manage the way in which they are perceived. With recording and analyzing of presence information, it becomes more difficult for individuals to adjust how they are “read”. Capture and propagation of presence states complicates one's ability to provide only the information reflecting positively on one's image. A presence system may be disclosing undesired information. Moreover, because distributed presence systems do not allow people to watch how others interpret this information, it decreases one's ability to detect variations in how others accept the image one is attempting to project.

I believe successful presence systems will be those dealing with this kind of “impression management” concerns by providing more control on people's self image projection and interpretation.
These systems will have to carefully balance the recipient's desire for control with the caller's desire to understand the recipient's context, while maintaining trust and usefulness. Today's approach of putting control of accessibility exclusively in the hands of the recipient is not consistent with face-to-face communication. In real life, the caller and the recipient share the context, and can both feel when starting or holding a conversation is not appropriate.

It is interesting to note that experiments conducted recently on awareness systems did not reveal a decrease in the frequency of interruptions. When callers take the recipient's context into account, it has been observed that they adopt a more polite approach to interruption. For example, a caller might say, "I see you're busy, but I have a quick question," or "can you call me when you're free?" At this point, a recipient has an opportunity to provide feedback on how appropriate the interruption is.
Real-time communication systems do not support the many subtle cues people use in face-to-face conversation to convey such feedback. Callers are unaware of the recipient's context and cannot be held accountable for any disruption this may cause. Providing presence information in return will allow some amount of accountability.

Overall, I believe a deeper understanding of how presence supports and breaks social feedback mechanisms would greatly benefit designers and architects.

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