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.

Footnote

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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