Presence in IM

danah boyd just put up a post about different styles of using IM (instant messaging), contrasting those who use it in an always-on way versus those who turn it on only to talk. It’s an interesting reflection on the social cues that people lose when moving to an online world, and how it takes time to train newcomers to the new cues necessary.

One thought I had is that adding more contextual information might help to quicken the learning process. My friend Jofish just published a paper titled Communicating Intimacy One Bit at a Time, where he and his collaborators gave partners in a long distance relationship a piece of software that would light up a software LED on one partner’s screen when the other partner clicked a button. The LED’s brightness would slowly decay with time, indicating presence.

Perhaps a similar scheme could be implemented for IM, with different colors representing active communication versus presence, with a quick fade from active to passive. Idle time serves a similar purpose, but is perhaps ignored or unseen. Perhaps it’s just a matter of making idle time visible and contextual through color to help alert relative IM newbies to social appropriateness. Or perhaps a more active scheme is necessary, with the user indicating their openness for conversation by clicking a button. As one of the post commenters pointed out, there’s a wealth of contextual cues we use in real life, from eye contact to body position, to indicate that we want to talk. And such cues are limited verging on non-existent for current instantiations of online communication. I suspect that the people that get this right (and, no, AIM’s graphical smilies are not the solution) will sweep the online world (shades of The Black Sun in Snow Crash, where Juanita’s virtual facial expression work allowed patrons to “condense fact from the vapor of nuance”).

P.S. I commented on the post itself, but figured I’d post here as well because I haven’t gotten around to installing MovableType or some other blogging software that supports Trackbacks. Maybe I should just break down and pay somebody to host such software for me.

P.P.S. I actually wrote about five posts last night (Sunday night), but I’ll post them one a day this week, which works out well, because it’s a concert week so I won’t have time to write anything before Saturday anyway. Let me know which method of dispersal you prefer, the single drip mode or the burst mode.