Absent presence in online interaction

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Source of image and more about Callum Innes whose work Exposed Painting Green Lake is currently on show at the Manchester Art Gallery Absent Presence Exhibition

What does it mean to be ‘present’ online? Presence, according to Oxford Dictionaries Online is defined as ‘a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen’ and by Cambridge Dictionaries Online as ‘a ​quality that makes ​people ​notice or ​admire you, ​even when you are not ​speaking’.

Is it possible to be noticed online if you are not visible and don’t speak?

I am intrigued by the idea of ‘absent presence’, the idea that we may be able to enhance our presence by being absent. My father always used to say ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ as he set off on his long trips away. I’m not sure I agree, but can absence have a positive impact on presence? I think we would readily accept the more obvious cases of the past having presence in our lives, departed loved ones being present and so on.

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Source of image

The suggestion that our presence may be stronger through being absent in lived time is more counter-intuitive for many of us, particularly in an age of hyper-connectivity and digital distraction where many people work hard at being continually present; where personal relevance is for some equated with the number, reach and always on, always present, always accessible, nature of our digital connections.

Like many others, particularly those who were young in the 60s, I have, in the past, explored meditation, yoga and other ways of avoiding distraction, stilling the mind and getting to know myself through solitude and contemplation. But that was not to be my path. My path was marriage, motherhood, work and increasing busyness and I loved it. Solitude, contemplation and coming face-to-face with myself in ‘stillness’ was harder than busyness in many ways and I was happy to leave that path whilst my family grew up.

A few years ago I came back to thinking about solitude and contemplation and its place in learning, through a set of unexpected circumstances. I attended a four-day face-to-face course which was ‘full-on’ from morning to night. Every minute of the day was timetabled and social events were arranged for the evenings. I found it overwhelming. The course leader asked me why I wasn’t saying anything or making much of a contribution, since he thought I had plenty that I could contribute, but the cacophony of voices and relentless activity silenced me. I simply could not find my voice. The next year I attended the course again, but this time I attended it from a distance as an online participant. What I discovered was that the distance allowed me to find my voice and establish a presence in the course. I was distant present. The course was designed so that online participants were projected into the face-to-face space via a synchronous video link, but the distance afforded a time difference, which meant that I didn’t have to join the room/course until midday. I had the whole morning to occupy a different quieter space, to walk, think and write in solitude. When I joined the course online at midday, I felt much more present than I had at any time during the previous year’s face-to-face experience. This started me thinking about the role of distance, solitude and contemplation in my learning and identity formation; the role of absence; the role of different spaces in online interaction and learning.

In those earlier days of online connectedness, I valued the distance and the asynchronicity it afforded. I didn’t have to respond immediately in an online discussion, I had time to think. I could choose how visible I wanted to be, whether to post a photo of myself. I could hide my reactions and feelings more easily and so on. But as time has gone on, this distance seems to be shrinking as everything becomes more synchronous; distance and privacy are losing out to public as the default. I find myself increasingly trying to maintain the distance I found so valuable in the early days of my online experience, but it is a dilemma.

I am aware of and value the advantages of online connection, of being able to find the information I need at the click of a button. Some of my closest connections are the result of online interaction, but my question is do I need to be always online for them to ‘see’ me or for me to ‘see’ them? I don’t think so, or I hope not. I value them not for being always available and always visible, but for ‘who’ they are, their depth of character, their integrity, their wisdom, their patience, tolerance and many other characteristics which have nothing to do with their online influence, their popularity, the number of Twitter followers they have, the number of friends they have on Facebook, the number of comments they get on their blog, or their instant availability. Some of my most valued online connections are the least visible. Effectively they are ‘absent’ to much of the online space. They are in a different space, a quieter space, and judging by what they say when we are in contact, a more reflective and contemplative space. Their presence is all the more evident for their absence.


These thoughts have been sparked by this week’s Networked Learning Conference Hotseat (Boundaries and Limits of Networked and Connected Learning ) hosted by Sonia Livingstone and in particular by a post made by Mariana Funes who drew our attention to a book by Michael Harris

(2014) The End of Absence. Reclaiming what we lost in a world of constant connection

This led me to this video where Michael Harris talks about his book.

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10 thoughts on “Absent presence in online interaction

  1. Glenyan November 13, 2015 / 3:27 pm

    I love this post, Jenny. It touches on a lot of personal and work-related ideas that I’ve been thinking about deeply and working on. What I’ve learned about presence in online learning and teaching is that one way we can consider presence is by the various channels used within an online course, but also with respect to the course as a whole – as a facilitator there are some channels (email, phone, one-to-one interactions) when I maintain a high, and explicit presence, where as in places like a forum or a chat I try to reduce my presence, blend in more like another learner in the class.

    Personally, I often feel the pressures of this “shrinking distance”, and often need to remind myself again and again that a lot of the people I learn from online, that have been around for a while and built reputations as educational leaders, are naturally (and often very highly) extroverted and would have been drawn to social learning by default. It’s up to me to find my own place in this environment that (to some degree) has been settled as such, a reflection of their dispositions.

    For over a year now, I’ve kept a quote posted on my office wall: To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance.

  2. Lisa M Lane November 13, 2015 / 5:27 pm

    I have also been working to maintain the distance I need to be effective, but I cannot tell whether that’s a result of so many people maintaining an “always on” online persona. At first I was confused by people who weren’t online a lot, wondering how they could miss out on all this great stuff? But others seem tireless.

    I am also sensing (perhaps it is just me) that phenomenon that happens when you’ve had the same job a long time – certain issues seem to emerge again and again, get discussed as if they are New and Different, don’t get resolved, then submerge again till next time, when they might be renamed.

    Did you interact more because of the benefit of distance? or was it just more OK not to?

  3. @mdvfunes November 13, 2015 / 8:38 pm

    We have spoken.
    Here I wanted to say what a beautiful post and clear reflections. I found the book a real joy to read, it is a kind of like a poem. I had not seen the video so thank you for that find, watching it now as my first weekend activity.
    In class one of my students talked about this a ‘speaking from the tacit place’. I loved that way of talking about something that is beyond words.

  4. jennymackness November 14, 2015 / 10:15 am

    Glen – thanks for your comment and sharing your quote. It makes sense to me that different online spaces will afford different levels of presence and also different levels of noise. When Roy and I first started to talk about solitude and contemplation in open learning environments for our work on emergent learning, he pointed me to this post by Chris Corrigan, which I think is helpful when thinking about introverts online – http://www.chriscorrigan.com/parkinglot/designing-with-introverts-in-mind/ Perhaps you have already seen it.

  5. jennymackness November 14, 2015 / 10:27 am

    Lisa – I can relate very easily to this comment: “certain issues seem to emerge again and again, get discussed as if they are New and Different, don’t get resolved, then submerge again till next time, when they might be renamed.” I suppose this is inevitable in dynamic open learning environments, and sometimes we just need to articulate an idea to recognise it more clearly. The idea of absent presence has been around a long, long time, but it needed Mariana to point me to Michael Harris’ book for me to recognise it.

    You have asked > Did you interact more because of the benefit of distance? or was it just more OK not to? < Surprisingly to me and the face-to-face course, I interacted more from a distance, maybe because I felt more in control of my time and space. And maybe my sense of having more presence in the course from a distance was simply my perception which might not have been shared with others on the course, in the face-to-face space or online. It worked for me though!

  6. jennymackness November 14, 2015 / 10:32 am

    Thank you Mariana. Talking to you about these ideas certainly helped me write the post and I think there maybe more to come since I am now also reading The Circle by Dave Eggers, that you recommended in the Hotseat, and your Still Web site is causing me to reflect and think about absent presence on many levels – http://stillweb.org/

  7. Lisa M Lane November 17, 2015 / 2:08 am

    Jenny, oh! I didn’t mean to say that absent presence was a recycled idea (I don’t think it is, at least not in the online sense!), but rather that one can sit back more easily (and possibly cynically) and analyze what’s happening from a distance than in the room. It is at these times, attending from a distance, that I sense the repetition of ideas, which I often don’t catch when I’m in the room physically.

  8. jennymackness November 17, 2015 / 7:03 am

    Yes I think that’s true too LIsa. It is sometimes (quite often for me) much easier to see things more clearly from a distance. I suppose as in all things, its a question of balance.

  9. Glenyan November 17, 2015 / 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the link to the blog post, Jenny, I had not read that before.

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