Summary: The symbolic interactionism of Erving Goffman provided a powerful and illuminating encyclopedia of what "happens" during face to face social encounters. He was particularly insightful in his analysis of the handling requirements of social occasions, most of which he described as various forms of talk. What then does online talk look like? How does it refer to face to face talk? How does it reshape it? What is left outside the frame of talk, and how well does talk function when embodied interaction is impossible?
It's one of those terms that can mean so much that it comes to mean nothing at all: presence. It appears throughout the history of philosophy. It scratches at something transcendental while connoting something physical. It describes what separates us while offering connection at the same time.
Theories and histories of media, communication, and technology often use the contrast of presence and absence to convey the tension between our physical proximity to each other and our ability to maintain relations even when we're apart. It's understood that communication technology provided a major breakthrough by lifting us out of physical space, enabling us suddenly to communicate across increasingly vast distances. Until the telegraph, all distance communication took place only at the speed with which a message could be physically transported from one place to the other. What the telegraph began, we continue today with a network spun of wires and transmissions, connected increasingly to work, home, and elsewhere.
It's one thing to get connected, and another to be present. Are networking technologies really connecting us? Does the internet age provide more connections? Or do we pursue these technologies more often to soften the feeling of disconnection, and of absence, we experience in our physical nomadism? Either way, of course, the technology is here to stay. It's become central to the very organization and operation of our economies, if not most sophisticated systems. What interests us here is where presence becomes tangible and real for technology's users. How it is comes into play when we go to communicate, as when we try to limit communication. These new communication technologies place claims on us as material and as demanding as hallways, chalkboards, and desks place claims on students. They are our means of access to others, and others' gateways to us.
So what does presence mean, and how do we show others that we are available to them for interaction? Ordinarily, our presence among others is physical, and our interest in becoming engaged in conversation or other interaction is a matter of making our disposition obvious to those around us. This is how we have always negotiated our presence availability to others. And how we have found socially acceptable ways to turn into or away from their company.
Communication technologies complicate matters. They not only provide others with access (to us), they create expectations that we might have difficulty dealing with gracefully. We are fundamentally oriented towards keeping the peace with others, meaning that we have others in mind when it comes to our interactions with them. Having lost access to use of our eyes, face, and body, how do we convey our need for privacy, or our desire to get involved, with the subtlety that we're accustomed to? In face to face situations, we can negotiate these shifting interests without putting others on the spot. In mediated circumstances, we lose recourse to our characteristic style of negotiating an interaction. The results can be messy, and provocative. In either case, the intervention of communication technology changes a great deal of the social contextuality of interaction.