The meaning of presence


I’ve been meaning to write about presence for some time, but Mark Childs beat me to it. I agree with a lot of his points, but disagree that immersion and presence are the same thing. Presence is only realised in relation to others, whereas immersion is a personal state/construct. I like Mark’s analogy in terms of being immersed in water; immersion is also an important aspect of ‘flow’.

So what is presence? Some dictionary definitions:

  • The state or fact of being present; current existence or occurrence.
  • Immediate proximity in time or space.

Neither of these really captures what I understand by presence. I think it is something more than this. This definition comes closer: ‘the bearing, carriage or air of a person; especially stately or distinguished bearing’.

I am interested in the difference between presence face-to-face and online. In a face-to-face context presence is related to a number of factors. It’s about someone’s aura, their stance. It might be that someone has presence because they are tall, attractive, have a deep voice or it might be related to their intellect. We have all experienced the feeling of being effected by someone, being very aware of them, feeling a connection with them on a sub-conscious level.

In the digital world presence is very different, it is conveyed primarily through text. Presence is channeled through your words and associated emoticons, etc. I often wonder how I am perceived online. What people make of the things I say, the pictures I post. What is my digital personality and how is it different from the way I interact face-to-face. As I said in my previous post I find online interactions liberating and different to the interactions I have with people face to face.

Of course technology plays a part. The affordances of different media enable or disenable certain types of interaction. So facebook is a good medium for sharing multimedia, Twitter requires you to speak in a certain way, with its limit of 140 characters. Virtual worlds provide a bridge to face-to-face interaction, via your avatar. The avatar you choose says something about you. Mine is very much the girl next door, with brown hair, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Although I must admit I also have very nice wings ;-) Don’t know what this avatar says about me. Our digital presence is fragmented across these different media. The collective self is a culmination of these individual utterances. The way I speak on my blog is different to the postings I put on facebook or Twitter. They have different purposes and audiences. So what does ‘presence’ mean in a digital context? I think it is about how you are perceived by others through your interaction with them. Presence only has meaning in relation to others. It’s a social construct. For some people you will have presence, for others you won’t. It is all to do with whether your interactions have meaning for others.

10 Responses to “The meaning of presence”

  1. Lenandlar Singh Says:

    Very nicely expressed. I have one personal thing to add on Presence as it relates to my own experience. Presence for me is about being able to inspire in a natural way - well perhaps not natural but through your body of work, inspiration, personality etc. It is about inspiration for me. If i cannot inspire or be inspired then the idea of presence means little.

    Just my personal take (might defy all the dictionary and research perspectives on the matter)

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Good point Lenandlar yes I agree it is about inspiration. I remember hearing Diana Laurillard speak when I first started in e-learning. I had just read her book ‘Rethinking teaching and learning’, it really inspired me and I was totally taken by her talk and her ideas. She definitely had presence for me!

  3. Maria J Spilker Says:

    Hi Gráinne,

    My 2 cents about this post of yours. But in advance: although I always read your posts, there is a small barrier that has to be initially overcome, the one about writing fluently in English.

    I cite your papers. I read your posts. I follow you on Twitter and Facebook. I enjoy your 1Pic-a-day. And I had the pleasure to get to know you “in person” in Aveiro. I must say that the one you are online, the small pieces from you online, formed my idea of you as a “real person”. And that real person was the one I got to observe in reality. I think that, in a middle to long term, the real and virtual presence tend to blur and get to one. Perhaps they seem to influence each another, but they are more like the two sides of a coin.

  4. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Maria! Thanks for this, nice to know my digital and real identity link up! I think it is fantastic the ways in which social media enable us to all communicate through so many rich channels. I have met lots of people online and become friends with them and so it is always a pleasure to then meet them face-to-face. These media are truly democratising, they break down barriers and make people more human and approachable somehow. The old fashion hierarchy is no longer present or relevant!

  5. Mark Childs Says:

    You can tell a lot about someone by their wings.

  6. Gráinne Says:

    Really? #looks worried They are electric blue ;-)

  7. Sue Beckingham Says:

    I think for me there is still this wonder of having an online presence and the opportunities it presents to converse with people across the globe. Despite the busyness it’s possible to listen first and then join a conversation and be welcomed. The same opportunity may never happen face to face as even where you overhear a conversation you may not feel you have the open permission to join it.

    However whilst many online interactions do develop into dialogue and even debate, there are some who are either very selective with who they engage with or simply broadcast, don’t ‘listen’ and don’t respond. Observing how people interact therefore can change my perception of those individuals. Their online presence can seem aloof, disinterested and cold, yet it may be they are simply busy.

    Perhaps we are still finding our feet to some degree in terms of how open we should be. What one may read into an individual’s presence could be perceived differently by another. What I have found is that online interactions have actually positively changed my perception of people I know (but not well) face to face in so much as because their online presence has been more open it has provided a virtual bridge to the sharing of mutual interests, we may never have realised we have in common.

  8. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Sue good points and yes it is interesting how different people present themselves online. I am also amazed by the opportunities social media provide for interaction with others and feel that I am part of a global, vibrant community of peers. It is a shame that more people don’t see the power of this, I fear we are in the minority. For example, how many high profile researchers do you see interacting in fb or Twitter? How many of them are active bloggers? Ok there are a few like Terry Anderson and George Siemens, but not enough sadly. Think how we could take the field forward if more of these people participated online!

  9. Sheila MacNeill Says:

    Hi Grainne

    Really good post, something I think about often too. I think a key element is confidence and comfort in different spaces too. I wonder if some high profile researchers don’t see the need to interact in different spaces and so that’s why they don’t participate. The don’t get them same recognition in vast online space? Working across different spaces, transliterate spaces, came up in the recent #edcmooc too. I know I have my favourite online spaces as well as f2f ones.


  10. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks Sheila good points. I think it is a shame more high profile researchers aren’t interacting in these spaces. Those of us who do totally see the value. As I have said before social media have transformed the way I do research. I think they are unaware of what these spaces offer and of course we all know you don’t ‘get’ social media from a definition, you have to live it, experience it, find your own Ah Ha moment!

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