Making Sense of Presence in Communication

February 22, 2004

in Skype Journal


Douglas Galbi
in his comment links to his fascinating paper Sense in Communications: Note Douglas is an economist with the FCC and his paper an in-depth study 190 pages on “Presence”. He states that: “To avoid disaster, the telecommunications industry needs to shift from providing telephony to providing means for making sense of presence.” I wholeheartedly agree!

Summarizing elements from his paper is both quite a challenge and really doesn’t do justice to the depth of thinking, historical perspective and gorgeous photos provided. So this blogspeed entry tries to make some small sense of presence. My favorite pages 6, 7, 126, 127, 128, 130, 133, 136, 137, 141, 142. Direct quotes are in italics.

Key Insights:
“Presence” is fundamental to creating future communications value. We are a a critical point where the interaction of photography (pictures) and telephony (calls) will radically reduce the cost of making sense of presence and create new opportunities for value creation

  • What makes a letter a joy, or a voice from an object (a telephone headset) a comfort, rather than a horror, depends on the sense of another’s presence, despite that person’s physical absence. The way this sense is activated, and at what cost, directly relates to sensuous choices in communication.
  • Three models of communications illustrate why: 1)information transfer (under different sensory circumstances eg face to face to new forms of social software), 2)storytelling (shared interpretation and different sensory economics), and 3)sense of presence (an element of real-time presence detection and participation). Of these only “Presence” provides the sensory opportunity to radically redirect strategies for mobility and social networking.

  • Since most demand for information is for textual information, information transfer offers relatively little scope for comparative advantage in sensuousness. In storytelling, high-production cost, streaming audio-visual stories dominate other feasible sensuous forms. At the other end of the technological spectrum, the extraordinary advantages of paper and ink as a storytelling medium – low-cost, highly portable, widely accessible, and durable – make it difficult for a sensory alternatives to create a competitive advantage.3
  • Providing means for persons to make sense of presence in the absence of physical proximity is a business in which sensory innovation has enduring opportunities to create value. Making sense of presence in social interaction among friends and family has long driven demand for telephony and photography.
  • Making sense of presence also drives demand for use of e-mail, instant messaging, mobile short messaging services (SMS), and camera phones. Making sense of presence is a good not constrained by conventional distinctions between content and communication.
    (my bold)

  • Communication services have enormous opportunities for innovation, differentiation, and
    commercial competition in organizing sensory modes to support production of this highly valued good. Not understanding this good could be disastrous for major, well-established organizations.
  • Linking Photography and Telephony is natural and complementary. Thus camera phones get their comparative advantages by developing an enhanced sense of presence rather than information transfer or storytelling. Note: Mobile camera phones are rapidly becoming the most prevalent photographic devices.

    Communicating using photographs and communicating by telephone calls are related in a fundamental sense: the sense of presence. The predominate uses of both photography and telephony involve actively recognizing another despite that person’s physical absence. A photograph and a telephone conversation each provide only one mode of external sense of another person. Nonetheless, using a photograph or using a telephone call, bodily work can create a sense of presence. The complementarity of photographs and telephone calls suggests that persons complement voice-only experiences of presence with image-only experiences of presence.

    Providing a sense of presence at low cost is inconsistent with text messaging, which has a higher cost of making sense of presence than voice and images! This certainly gels with my early intuitive feel that “voice-centric” IM will kill “text-centric” IM systems. Thus Skype is winning on voice, and Flickr for the moment wins on text / photo-sharing. Neither of these manage effectively to handle audiovisual messaging. Similarly, the learning is that Orkut and similar social networking services that fail to provide a sense of presence will be of limited long-term value unless they somehow plug-in to or provide additional value by combining with a “presence provider”.

    The emerging “broadband industry” will obsolete the telephone company and has probably already killed Kodak who remains focused on digital photography and albums. Similarly, contextualizing voice and presence provides new opportunities for security companies, reputation management etc. The implications for emerging companies like Skype is to keep the trade-offs of photo vs video in mind when developing additional funcitonality and assessing bandwidth implications. Thus Skype voice to WiFi PDA’s is more important than adding real-time video. Concurrently adding pictures that can be shared during conference calls and providing interesting aspects for presence could add significant value quickly with little impact on quality. A simple example is pictures change when status changes. These elements are far more important to conferencing and mobility than live video streaming which can already be achieve by using Skype and Yahoo concurrently. Skype’s real opportunity is when the application becomes completely mobile. Concurrently the mobile handset and PDA makers better get their skates on. It is just becoming obvious how much can be made here. In a crude sense every dollar currently made on telephony in the future will be made in the service of presence.

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