Monday, October 23, 2006

The three legs of presence

Several researches have largely explored the fields of "social presence" and "awareness". However, in my opinion, the emergence of "social networking" and "virtual community" requires adding the concept of “connectedness” to the features mix of any effective real-time communication system. I believe important to review these concepts and see how they inter-relate. These relations will have to be considered carefully when building what is commonly called "presence" into these communication systems.

The concept of "awareness" has been used in many ways. Fifteen yeas ago, academics defined it as

an understanding of the activities of others, which provides a context for your own activity.

Awareness is usually classified into four types:

  • availability awareness, which relates to the availability of people and objects.
  • contextual awareness, which includes physical, social and mental context.
  • group awareness, which promotes the feeling of belonging to a group.
  • workplace awareness, which is knowledge of tasks within the virtual environment.

In these definitions, awareness is used in the sense of feeling what is believed to be an external perception, whether synchronous or near-asynchronous. It encompasses both a perception of the users of a system, and a feature of a system that facilitates that perception.

The concept of “social presence” is more ancient. Thirty years ago Short et al. in “The Social Psychology of Telecommunications” defined it as:

the degree of perception of the other person in a mediated communication and the consequent perception of their interpersonal interaction.

More recently, in “Criteria and Scope conditions for a Theory and Measure of Social Presence”, Biocca et al. depicted social presence as pertaining to the user, but closely related to the interaction and the medium:

it is a temporary judgment of the nature of interaction with the other, as limited or augmented by the medium.

Social presence theory studies efficiency and satisfaction in the use of different communication media. Short et al consider social presence a subjective dimension of a medium in its capacity to transmit information about facial expression, direction of looking, posture and non-verbal cues as they are perceived to be present in the medium. This dimension affect the level to which a medium is perceived as sociable, warm, sensitive, personal or intimate when it is used to interact with other people. Social presence varies between different media, it affects the nature of the interaction and influence the choice of a medium by an individual wishing to communicate.

The concept of “connectedness” is one of the basic principles which underlie social behavior. In psychology, the fundamental needs for belonging and connectedness are described as powerful drivers to promote social relationships.

Virtual multi-media communication can create a sense of connectedness or “feeling of being in touch”. In awareness systems this may be more important than the content of the communication. Even without direct information exchange, people want to maintain connection with others. Look how instant messaging users monitor the availability of their buddies, and exchange greetings without any need for a real information exchange. Similarly, witness how mobile phone users exchange SMS and share a common, although asynchronous, experience.
There are also situations where connectedness does not imply direct awareness of another person, but rather of an object. Receiving a post card may create a feeling of connectedness although there is no direct awareness of the other person.

Real-time communication systems aim at reducing the spatial constraint in peoples' conversations. Presence has the capacity to convey additional context attributes pertaining to a conversation. If the experience of connectedness is a basic human need, it may help design communication systems enabling connectedness without imitating face-to-face communication, and facilitate "immediacy" and "intimacy" while minimizing intrusiveness.

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