Presence: More than just a green dot

January 26, 2007 at 9:00 am | Posted in Attention Management, presence | Leave a comment

I just got back from vacation and was pleasantly surprised that the email backlog waiting for me was less than I expected. Still, I’m only halfway through it, but I thought it would be worse.  When I look at the email pattern, it seems there was a flurry of emails the day after I left, and then it died down from there.  And today the email spigot has been turned back on and I’m getting quite a few. 

Could be chance. But I think this is a pretty typical pattern, although I’ll leave it to this blog’s readers to tell me if I’m wrong.  It demonstrates the broad definition of one’s presence indicators and the difficulty of creating a unified presence indicator.  When I think of presence indicators, the first thing that jumps to mind is the green or red circle on my IM tool. 

My IM presence indicator certainly let people know I was out, but that’s not the only way they knew.  There is also my Outlook out of office message, my out of office voicemail message, my response rate to emails or phone calls (in case the out of office slipped the sender’s notice), my calendar blocking for vacation, and word of mouth (like telling client services I would be out for a week and to forward messages to my research director).  If I was in an office my physical presence (or lack thereof) would come into play as well.

I see four kinds of presence at play:

  • Explicit presence: Presence indicators in a system called “presence” (e.g., IM)
  • Implicit presence: Indicators of your presence in non-presence systems (e.g., out of office e-mail and voicemail)
  • Behavioral presence: Actions (or lack thereof) that indicate your presence (e.g., quickly responding to or not responding at all to voicemails)
  • Physical presence: Seeing or hearing one’s presence in the real world (I’ll lump hanging a “gone fishin’” tag in the window here too since it’s physical)

So what does this mean for unified presence and its role in attention management? 

First, it shows why making one’s availability known is difficult and requires several efforts across explicit and implicit presence indicators. 

Second, it shows why a true unified presence system is unlikely.  Unifying explicit presence is easiest, implicit presence a bit harder, behavioral presence starts becoming more art than science, and physical presence gets into audio/video sensors that won’t be used in business settings.  Presence can be more unified than it is today, but won’t reach the extreme of a single unified presence system. 

Third, it’s interesting to note the degree that non-technical factors – behavioral and physical presence – begin to feed into overall attention indicators.  People have natural, organic attention management systems that supplement or fill in when the electronic ones are not enough.


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