Will Users Really Manage their Presence?

December 5, 2006 at 3:19 pm | Posted in Attention Management | Leave a comment

In my blog entry on Presence: Potential and Questions I asked the question “How practical is this?  Can technology do this well enough to be, on the whole, beneficial?  Will people ever take any effort to manage their presence?”

There is a hypothesis, shared by other attention shielding technologies such as spam, anti-virus, and popup blocking, that users will not expend manual effort to help themselves.  They will purchase a product and put it on their PC, but after that it had better do what it does without any help from the user. So these apps should do what they can in an automated fashion and plan on targeting a very small niche of techies and attention activists that may want something better.

Intuitively this makes sense.  I don’t even use the simple manual available/away selection on my instant messenger very often, so the automated idle detection is all that runs for me.  But …

That is because I’m not getting lots of annoying IMs.  I never looked at the rules capabilities of my e-mail program (Eudora) either until I starting getting several daily spams from the same sender.  After that went on for 6 months (did I wait too long?) I finally got a burst of energy about it, spent 5 minutes learning how to filter all emails from that sender to the trash, and was never bothered by it again. 

My point is that there is a threshold that people (and enterprises in aggregate) have on attention shielding.  Yes, spending focused time on attention shielding is not something people want to do.  But people will act when the cost of inaction exceeds the cost of action.  And by cost I mean cost in terms of time, money, mental energy, and “psychic cost” such as getting annoyed, aggravated, or stressed.

The cost of inaction is affected by how good your automated shields are, how many annoying communications you are getting, and how sensitive you are to the interruptions. Things have to get bad enough to drive one to action.  Another way of putting this is that things will get worse before they get better, as Alec Saunders said in his blog entry Email spam isn’t much of a problem, yet.

The cost of action is affected by technical proficiency, the capabilities of your attention shielding technology, the ease of use of your attention shielding technology, the monetary cost (if you have to buy a product or subscription), the ease of maintaining it over time and is modified by risk (false positives, missed negatives).

The trend over time is that the cost of inaction is increasing (the number of spammers, people on IM, and skill at getting people’s attention is increasing) and the cost of action decreases (software gets better, software prices decrease). 

This doesn’t mean everyone will be playing with rules in the future, but it does mean that inaction is not inevitable and that, over time, an increasing number of information workers will use the capabilities of improving presence software to shield their attention.


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