Being there together via presence and activity traces

by Lilia Efimova on April 15, 2010

I’ve been playing with this idea for a long time and it’s far from having any definite shape, but, as usual, writing about it should help. [This post is another round of thinking on What a coffee corner provides, how to call it and a research agenda and an attempt to integrate bits of thinking that I don't have a name for, but tagged PAT for a time being.]

The “problem” line:

  • in many of the professional activities sharing physical space is an essential ingredient
  • shared space provides opportunities for various types of interactions – goal-oriented ones, but also informal, unstructured and those that we probably wouldn’t even call interactions – like observing or overhearing others
    • non-goal-oriented interactions are essential for the things that create a foundation for working together (and goal-oriented interactions) – common ground – developing shared understanding and building relationships
  • when work moves into a technology-mediated realm, things start to break
    • non-goal-oriented interactions tend to disappear
    • where existed, common ground shrinks; new teams get into problems of establishing it
    • goal-oriented interactions weaken

In this case we tend to think of f2f as a solution, but it’s very resource-intensive and is not always feasible. So, I’m looking at how the effects of “being there together” could be achieved in a technology-mediated way.

There seem to be several essential ingredients for it:

  • a shared space that provides
  • excuses to be there that are not necessarily involve working towards a shared goal or being intentionally social,
  • opportunities to see what’s going on and to be seen in a non-intrusive way,
  • easy switching between inward- and outward-oriented activities.

[This list is heavily based on the ideas about conditions for emergent social activities in urban public spaces from Life between buildings by Jan Gehl. I also used similar terms to explain how weblogs support relationship-building across boundaries, see Blog as an edge zone.]

Now to what I believe is at the core of it: tools to support sharing, observing and interacting around presence and activity traces. Think of instant messaging, (micro)blogging, social networks:

  • while to various degrees those tools support communication, all of them make it acceptable or even essential to broadcast various statuses and update
  • seeing those updates from others is often similar to observing them in a physical space (Lilia is here/awake/recovering from a flu/thinking about presence and activity traces), reinforcing the feeling of being connected and finding where ideas coming from different people overlap
  • updates might trigger interactions, that take relationship building and developing shared understanding further

So, that would be an alternative/additional to f2f way of “being there together”. That’s said there is lots of unanswered questions around it. For example:

  • The balance between manual and automatic updates. Manual updates take effort, but they are likely to be more relevant for others (partly because the effort that goes into it signifies the importance); not everyone wants to/has time to blog or twitter. Automatic updates are easy, but we can easily get overloaded with irrelevant stuff and they raise lots of privacy issues.
  • Number of channels and critical mass of relevant others. There is way too many tools already that work around presence and activity traces, creating a whole “how do I manage my presence and activity in all those places” issue. At the same time, to use them as a reliable substitution of f2f encounters all the right people have to be there (ideally in the same channel), which hard to expect.
  • F2f spaces are organised around specific contexts (meeting, shared office, coffee corner, home, sport club, etc.) and moving between those physically correspond to switching between various types of activities and people associated with those activities. This is possible in a technology-mediated way, but not easy and natural, since in the most cases it requires a range of strategies and additional activities to make that work (e.g. LinkedIn for work and Facebook for friends, switching Twitter client off when focusing on getting things done, etc.).

And now I’m off for dinner wondering how much all of this makes sense :)))

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