This is one of a series of posts on Digital Lives: Three Themes … Formats, Privacy, and Presence.

As I learnt in my Communication Studies A Level, the person sending a communication encodes it into a medium, and it is then decoded out of the medium by the receiver. The choice of medium for a two-way communication might necessitate a time delay between sender and receiver, such as a pigeon carrier or a paper letter in the post. Or it might be instantaneous, such as semaphore or telephone. The terms we use to describe live and not live are synchronous and asynchronous. Of course in technical terms there might be a slight delay even in a live communication, such as long distance telephone calls or a live translator, but I will count them as synchronous.

Social media platforms combined with near-ubiquitous connectivity are particularly increasing the synchronous options. More platforms now support both synchronous and asynchronous, but they also support a blurry space in between, known as near-synchronous. Some platforms show you when someone is online to read your message, and even whether they’ve read your message. They might even show you when they are typing a reply. If you’ve ever had a tense conversation on WhatsApp you’ll know the frustration of watching the “…” disappear as someone decides to delete what they had been typing.

The negotiation of norms and expectations of these sorts of platforms is rarely explicit: people adopt it clusters, they grow, and multiple cultures develop. The etiquette of exiting a Facebook messenger group about a get-together I’m not going to is awkward every time. Perhaps others have better “socmed” skills than me.

So given the implicit and evolving rules of social media, I think the near-synchronous scenario is particularly challenging to establish norms.

Personally, I find myself using the phone less and less, and preferring asynchronous platforms because:

  • it gives me permission to think before replying
  • it gives me permission to be off-grid, off-line, unavailable without prejudice
  • emails can be saved as a more discrete time-stamped artefact

In a work context, me and my colleagues are using Teams more and more. However even amongst our team of 15ish there are “residents” and “visitors” so I can never assume that someone has seen a message.

See more about the Digital Visitors and Residents model (a great replacement for the Digital Natives and Immigrants concept).

When would you send an email, when would you send a message on Teams, or send a skype message or, if they are nearby, when would you walk over to them? What determines the boundaries of the group and the scope of the collective norms? Traditionalists would tell me that the organisational structure will determine boundaries: but it doesn’t work if the role of your function is to collaborate. There is a something organic about collective adoption of tools. I’d love for someone to point me to a conceptual model describing the different factors effecting adoption of something like Teams. I suspect it’s something like:

  • does it get traction with with a critical mass or does adoption have to be universal?
  • does it require notifications and follows to be set up? because that can put people off and gives reluctant participants an excuse to not keep up
  • does it match existing organisational units or is its value precisely that it cuts across the traditional structure?
  • does the Nielson 90/9/1 rule of participatory media apply, and is there enough participants in the 1% for it to be a discussion rather than a monologue?

There’s much more to say about the potential role of Teams in an educational context, I hope to come back to that in separate post.


There’s a common complaint that being glued to your phone on the train is “anti-social” but who’s say that’s not his poorly grandad he’s messaging with? We split our attention between physical presence and digital presence. What does it mean when someone is both present in the room and also present in a social media text chat and maybe even also listening to music in their headphones. They are multi-tasking and multi-present. How many channels can we cope with in one go, particularly social channels? And if its a choice between a slightly distracted social connection or no connection at all: what is best? In particular we parents are berated for not giving our kids 100% attention. But when did that ever happen? What period of history were children given all the parents attention? Maybe that mum sat at the park on her phone is helping a friend through a crisis?

So … what matters most: presence or participation? And do we sometimes set the bar for online participation higher than for physical participation? And is multi-presence a good thing?

This is one of a series of posts on Digital Lives: Three Themes … Formats, Privacy and Presence.







One thought on “Presence

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