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A Brief History of Online Presence

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Talking about presence online can be confusing, as the term has been applied to a spectrum of meanings, including at least these three:

  • There's the old concept of a presence as a persistent "place" online where a business or project can be found - a sort of euphemism for a website. ("We need an online presence" / "We need to improve our online presence"). Often said in a keeping-up-with-joneses sense in the turn of the millennium. (This sense is largely handled by the Identity patterns.)
  • The human equivalent of this is the interesting bit, since it relates to the sense in which a blog, for instance, can create an ongoing sense of a person and its currency can help create the sense that the person is actively "present" in that space and can be found there.
  • Next there is presence in the sense that instant messenger and twitter theorists discuss it. IM programs have an online presence indicator that indicates to the whole world or to one's connections or to those from which one is not hiding that one is currently online and available for communication, so present not in a physical sense but in an availability sense. This is synchronous, realtime presence. to be distinguished from the asynchronous sense of (1) and (2).

    Here we also get statuscasting (so beyond "Available" there start to be free-form choices - often with limited character counts - for indicating what we're doing or how we're feeling at the moment), and thus the phatic communication others have written about: "meaningless" at time bits of communication designed more to signal presence and connection and attention.

We’re mainly talking about sense number three in these patterns, and to a lesser extent number two. To bring this back down to earth a bit from the ream of philosophy, we can say that presence as prerequisite for real-time (or minimal-lag) communication, and that it can itself be used as a medium for phatic communication.


Some statuscasting may seem trivial. It can sometimes be the equivalent of (nonverbal) phatic communication, the sounds and grunts of acknowledgement we make toward each other to remind each other we exist.

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