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How do you know someone’s present? In class, they used to call roll and each person would respond with “Here” or “Yo” (it was the 70s) or even “Present.” Usually you can just look around. But how about when someone is standing behind you and they clear their throat, not because they’re feeling hoarse but as a way of letting you know they’re standing there so they won’t startle you. In the real world we are tuned to all sort of indications of who is present (either in the immediate moment or the recent stretch of time) and who is absent.

If you see an unmowed lawn it may mean no one’s been home for a while or it may mean that the homeowner is an iconoclast at war with the neighorhood association, but if you notice a pile of uncollected newspapers on the stoop, that’s a pretty good sign of absence. Likewise if the curtains are open and they were closed earlier or a light is on that was dark before, that’s another sign that someone’s there.

Graffiti showing a nose peeking above a wall with the legend “Kilroy was here” may also tell you that someone has been by, perhaps recently.

In his fantastic anthropology blog, This Blog Sits At, Grant McCracken has written about statuscasting (broadcasting your status, we’ll get to that soon) as “phatic” communication:

When we status-cast, we're a little like animals. As I argued in my post on the "puzzle of exhaust data" I suggested that one way to think about exhaust data was to treat it as phatic communication. (In humans and other animals, phatic communication consists in non-verbal gestures and small, sub-linguistic noises. Murmurs, shouts, groans, all of these are phatic.) We can say that tiny posts on twitter are phatic, too. You may not care that I am "feeding my cat." But knowing this tells you I exist, my location, my condition, my, er, status. Twitter data are not "exhaust data" precisely because they serve this locational purpose

In an earlier blog post he discussed how phatic messages “stack nicely”:

The phatic messages "stack" nicely, each message presupposing and building on its predecessor. These messages are: 1. I exist. 2. I'm ok. 3. You exist. 4. You're ok. 5. The channel is open. 6. The network exists. 7. The network is active. 8. The network is flowing. When I use Twitter or Facebook to say that I am entertaining my cat, no one, I'm pretty, sure gives a good God damn that I am entertaining my cat. But they are reminded that they have someone called Grant McCracken exists in their network. This is not nothing. Facebook sustains social knowledge and networks that begin in conferences and then fade almost immediately until a couple of months later we have a hard time attaching a face to that business card still banging around in our briefcase. A "newsflash" about my cat helps keep the network node called Grant McCracken from blinking out.

So, while we may not be able to fully present across all sensory channels when we’re physically remote (hence the concept of “telepresence” or “online presence,” we do have a growing set of tools and traditions for simulating or modeling presence in the online world. For many of us, the first encounter with these sorts of presence indicators occur in instant message or other real-time communication applications.


what are the tools that enable remote or partial presence (not just indicators of availability but mindfulness, attention, and responsiveness)?