John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Sept 03

Presence in Cyberspace

I am Present Here:
Environmental Presence

Others Are Present Here:
Interpersonal Presence

Individual Differences

The Dimensions of "Here" and "Now"

presence in cyberspace

Be here now.

That's the advice from some people in humanistic psychology on how to form meaningful relationships and experience life fully. Be right here, in this moment, wholly aware of this place with your eyes, ears, nose, and skin, fully involved psychologically and emotionally with others - rather than have one foot here and the other sunk into the distracting thoughts, memories of the past, and anticipations of the future that fog our minds.

Be present.

That might be another way to put it. As Zen-like advice, it makes powerful sense. But this notion was born in a time and place before everyone started going online. So how do online relationships and lifestyles challenge the "Be Here Now" principle? How do we attain and experience "presence" in cyberspace? To answer that question, we need to explore two basic issues: I am present here.
Others are present here.

I am Present Here: Environmental Presence

How do we know that we have entered a place? How do we truly feel that we are somewhere in particular, that the setting at hand indeed engages us with some measure of meaning and consequence?

We rely on at least five cues for perceiving presence within an environment:

Sensory stimulation from the environment
Change in the environment
Interactivity with the environment
The degree of familiarity

Sensory Stimulation and Character

As a general rule, the more multimodal sensory stimulation we receive from our surroundings, the more that environment feels real and the more present we feel in it. If we can see, hear, smell, touch - as we do in the ftf world - we know we indeed ARE somewhere. Cyberspace environments currently fall short on the dimensions of smell and touch, but they are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in the visual and auditory stimulation provided. Each degree of added sensory complexity and detail can heighten our perception of environmental presence because the setting acquires more sensory character. So, for example, you will probably have a greater sense of environmental presence here than here.

We can feel present even within environments possessing low sensory character, such as no-frills text communication involving email, chat, instant messaging, weblogs, and message boards. Even though there may be no pictures or sounds, a rudimentary visual setting still arises from the very basic elements of text boxes, buttons, fonts, and overall window design. The simple rectangular window itself creates a visual sensation of place and a perceptual invitation to enter it. Even the word "window" itself conjures up sensations of entering a new cyberspace, thanks to the insights of the original architects at Apple. However, as experts who design software interfaces well know, the particular visual features within a window can make it more inviting - more like a psychologically coherent and meaningful location. Even simple design elements - like color, the use of space, and suggestive text - make a difference.

Change in the Environment

A well-constructed visual image, such as a painting, can draw the viewer into that setting. Adding movement, as in motion pictures, may intensify even more the sensation of experiencing a real place. After all, as Heraclitus noted when we step into rivers, the real world never stands still and never repeats itself exactly. So too a cyberspace environment embodying movement tends to be perceived as more life-like. One of the most popular additions to html language was the "blink". Then came animated gifs followed swiftly by Java, Flash, and other tools to give cyberworlds even more activity.

Repetitious movement can become monotonous, resulting in boredom and a somnambulant dulling of the senses, including the sense of place. More complex and subtle patterns of motion have greater clout in creating the feeling of presence within a setting. The human mind is drawn to unpredictability, which is why we spend so much time talking about the weather. As in the river cited by Heraclitus, when we step into online environments that change unexpectedly over time, we are more likely to feel that variable flow as evidence of life-like presence.

Interactivity with the Environment

We reach a fuller level of presence when we can interact with the environment rather than simply witness it. A very basic element of interaction involves the ability to enter, move within, and leave a setting. Any sensory or verbal cue that heightens the sensation of entering and leaving an environment enhances its presence as a setting distinct from other settings. A window that springs forward from the hard drive icon augments the feeling that you have entered that space. A voice saying "Welcome" when you sign on lets you know that you have crossed a threshold from one area to another.

So too the ability to move within the environment - to see it from different perspectives - adds to its spatial quality and power of presence. In a multi-page web site, a navigation bar on each page creates the perception of being in one "room" among many possible rooms. In sophisticated 3D graphical environments, the ability to look 360 degrees around a room, and to move around an object and see it from various viewpoints, simulates life-like perspectives and life-like presence.

We know we are somewhere when we can have an effect on the setting, when it reacts to our actions. Reciprocal reactivity between you and environment enhances your sense of presence in that environment. We might even add, as some philosophers have suggested, that objects reacting to other objects (including us) is what makes them "conscious" in a petit way. Conscious, and hence present. Even something as simple as being able to click on a button to make something happen enhances the feeling of doing and being in that space. As opportunities to interact with an online environment become more sophisticated and less predictably routine, the more fully present that environment feels.

To appreciate the power of movement and reciprocal interaction in creating presence within an online setting, notice what happens when your program crashes. Nothing responds to your mouse clicks. Everything freezes. The environment is suddenly dead and your sensation of presence in it evaporates almost immediately.

The Degree of Familiarity

The unfamiliar and unknown tend to make humans feel out of place, anxious. We are not sure what to do, resulting in confusion that may cloud the feeling of presence and compel us to leave. On the contrary, we tend to feel at home, present, in a familiar setting. We have "been" there before which makes it easier to "be" there now. Among the almost limitless choices of online environments to inhabit, we tend to stick to just a few - those familiar ones where presence has taken root in our consciousness. To the contrary, any setting that looks confusing or unintelligible, that doesn't make visual or linguistic sense, or that offers no meaning to us, will tend to scramble our feeling present there.

But let's not overstate the importance of familiarity, because novelty can pique our attention and curiosity. New environments create a challenge to explore, learn, and master them, thereby heightening immersion and presence. The fantasy quality of online games and communities also appeals to the unconscious: the human mind seeks out a dream-life. Although far from familiar, and sometimes even incredible, online fantasy environments can stimulate presence by addressing the basic human need for an altered state of experience and consciousness.

Balance is important. Settings that effectively blend the familiar with the novel - reality with fantasy - can be very powerful in engendering the feeling of fully "being there."

Others Are Present Here: Interpersonal Presence

How do we sense that other people are with us in a setting? How do we know that we are interacting with someone in particular, another human being with a unique identity and history, who thinks and feels and behaves in a distinct way?

As we will see later, the manner in which I have phrased this question already suggests ideas about the nature of interpersonal presence in online environments. But first, let's examine this issue by using a framework similar to that which we applied in understanding environmental presence. We rely on at least five cues for experiencing the presence of others:
Sensory stimulation from the other
Change in and doing by the other
Interactivity with the other
The degree of familiarity

Sensory Stimulation from the Other

As a general rule, the more multimodal sensory stimulation we receive about the other person, the more that person feels present and real. If we can see, hear, smell, touch - as we do in the ftf world - we indeed know someone is here. Throughout the life span, especially during childhood, humans rely heavily on the close stimulation of touch and smell in developing the awareness of, and intimacy with, significant others. Cyberspace currently falls very short on these dimensions - which is a limitation that cannot be ignored - but it is becoming increasingly more sophisticated in the visual and auditory stimulation provided. Each degree of added sensory complexity and detail can heighten our perception of the other person's presence because the person acquires more sensory character.

However, we also can feel very powerfully the other's presence within environments providing low sensory character, such as the text communication of email, chat, instant messaging, and message boards. The history of literature, journalism, and personal correspondence clearly demonstrates the human ability to create one's presence within the written word. Interpersonal presence involves more than seeing and hearing the other person.

Change In and Doing by the Other

People, like life in general, move. They DO. Any online environment that allows the person to move, change, or do something enhances that person's presence. Webcams obviously offer the opportunity to see facial expressions, shifting body language, and physical motion - but even much more simple indications of action and change can be effective in generating presence. In multimedia communities where members use real and imaginary pictures called "avatars" to represent themselves, the ability to move the avatar to different positions in a room mimics physical body movement. Switching from one avatar to another can create body language and a change in identity expression. Even in the pure text environments of chat, message boards, and weblog communities, your presence can be enhanced by the ability to move from one section of the environment to another, assuming other people are able to see your movement. In any environment, multimedia or text, the opportunity to add, remove, or change something enhances your presence in the minds of others who experience that alteration of the setting.

So too entering, leaving, and reentering an environment - which is possible in almost any online setting - signifies your movement, doing, and presence. Similar to the peek-a-boo game that delights children, cycles of appearing and disappearing reinforces your existence in the minds of others. When you vanish, the other's anticipation of your return sustains in his or her mind your being continuous over time - what psychologists call "object constancy." For example, whenever you send an email or post to a discussion board, your presence emerges and is felt anew by others. Only after a sustained period of no longer reappearing does your being and anticipated presence begin to fade in the other's consciousness.

Interactivity with the Other

We experience the presence of others more fully through their experience of our presence. Human presence is reciprocal and interactive. The more ways an online environment allows people to interact with and affect each other, the more present they will feel to each other. Conversing is one obvious method of interacting. When people respond to what we say in an online group, their presence tends to brighten and spring to the foreground, compared to the more faded background presence of those people who do not. Although limited compared to all the various ways we can interact ftf, online environments also enable file sharing, touring the web together, allowing another person to remotely control one's computer, playing games, and creating something together - for example, in an avatar community, creating a garden.

If others do not react to your being and doing, your subjective sense of your own presence tends to wane. As indicated in object relations theory and Meade's concept of "the looking glass self," our identity is affirmed in the eyes of others. When ignored, that sense of self and presence fades, perhaps resulting in feeling lost, powerless, frustrated, angry, lonely, or depressed. People whose presence is not acknowledged may avoid the environment or act out in negative ways to attain some kind of attention. Lacking eye contact, hand shakes, and hugs, people in text-only environments may be especially susceptible to feeling overlooked. If no one replies to your email or post, your very existence in that setting comes into question. Your sense of the others as being real and present also may fade, because people - REAL people - respond to each other's presence.

Any person's identity and the ways to convey it are highly complex. People feel more present to others - and even to themselves - when they are able to express a wide range of thoughts, memories, emotions, and motives. An online environment providing tools that maximize these expressions of personal identity will enhance the experience of someone in particular really being there. A simple example is the opportunity in some online communities to create a bio page. A more sophisticated example is the weblog, in which a person controls an almost limitless range of personal expression.

As the widening expression of identity becomes interactive, when others can give and receive feedback, the sense of presence intensifies. The more comprehensive the mutual exploration of each other's background and personality, the more people sense each other truly being there. Within any particular person's weblog, his or her presence acquires more power than those people visiting the site, in part due to the wider range of that person's expression of self - which is why, to equalize presence, webloggers often form social clusters in which they visit each other's site to offer comments.

Our ability to explore and interact with the presence of another person enhances our knowing not only THAT someone is here, but WHO that someone is. A person is saying nothing, but you see their avatar in the room or their name in the chat room user list. You may feel uneasy about that person because you are not sure who he or she is, or even if that person is a he or a she. You may not even be sure if the person is present at all. A sense of the "uncanny" arises when we can't be certain if someone is here, and, if indeed they are here, who exactly that person is - a common situation in cyberspace. Films about "monsters" draw on this sense of the uncanny because anxiety arises from this uncertainty about the presence, identity, and intentions of the other. Interacting more and knowing more about the other provides the remedy to that apprehension.

The Degree of Familiarity of the Other

As with environmental presence, we tend to feel more at ease interacting with people we know. Upon meeting them again, we quickly slip into the sense of their presence because they are familiar to us. Just a few simple cues - verbal, auditory, visual - can trigger the memory of who they are. On the contrary, when we encounter people whose behavior seems strange, erratic, or meaningless, we have a harder time forming a coherent impression of them. For this reason, people detract from their presence when they choose to express them selves in a peculiar or chaotic fashion - for example, with unusual images, incomprehensible web pages, or very loosely constructed and terse phrases in chat or IM.

Once again, let's not overstate the importance of familiarity, because novelty can pique our alertness, senses, and curiosity, while chronic familiarity leads to inattentiveness, boredom, and a dulling of presence. Relationships feel more alive as we discover new things about our companion. People seem more real when they occasionally act in ways we did not anticipate. This is why software" robots" and other forms of artificial intelligence possess more presence in the early stages of encounter, but tend to lose some or all of it over time. Even if the "being" they create possesses high sensory character, most AI programs are not complex enough to sustain their presence as a human-like entity. They become too predictable, too mechanical. A present machine, yes. A present sentient being, no. As research on the Turing Test shows, some people, in a controlled text environment, may not at first be able to tell the difference between a machine and a human - but over time, very few if any programs can sustain the wide range of complexity, change, and interactivity that we interpret as human presence.

As along as an online environment is flexible enough to allow people to express the complexities of their identity - and as long as people use that flexibility - they can maintain as well as enrich their presence. People also may apply the fantasy features of online games and communities to enhance the presentation of their identity with a dose of imagination. It is the effective balance between the familiar and new - between reality and vision - that raises presence to new levels. With all its numerous options for manipulating and combining text, visuals, sound, movement, change, and interactivity, cyberspace offers many possibilities for the creative expression of presence.

Individual Differences

All of the variables described so far interact in highly complex ways to create the sensation of presence. Adding to this complexity is the very important effect of individual differences in how people create the impression that they are here, and in how people perceive that another person is here.

Some people are more skilled in making their presence known, in projecting themselves into an environment. For example, people experienced in text communication know how to write clearly to express themselves, as well as employ creative keyboarding techniques that convey body language and "subvocal" thoughts and emotions. In constructing their emails, web sites, weblogs, gaming characters, and avatar collections, people differ in how well they implement sensory character, change, interactivity, and the balance between familiar and novel. These skills often rest on an empathic attunement to the other person, on understanding how others might react to one's style of expressing presence. The savvy online communicator pays attention to the crucial interaction between self and other that generates the synergistic sense of mutually being here.

People also vary in their ability to sense the other person's presence. With only a minimal amount of text or a brief glance at an avatar, one person may know it is Joe while another has no idea. Empathic attunement to the identities and expressive styles of other people plays an important role in sensing presence, as does the need and desire to connect to another person. Prisoners in isolated cells contact each other with muffled taps on a concrete wall. Despite this extreme minimalist communication, they sense each other's presence intensely. These same needs and desires, operating at many levels of intensity, surface in all online environments, whether they offer simple or complex communication features.

The ability to establish and discern presence arises from a complex interaction among self, other, and environment. Due to differences in personality and cognitive style, people prefer some online environments over others because they feel more able to express their presence the way they would like to, as well as sense the presence of others the way they would like to. Hopefully, others in those environments also are well-suited for the setting and the particular people who dwell there. If any element is amiss in the optimal match between self, other, and environment, the quality of presence on all three levels may decay.

Adding yet another dimension of complexity, we must also consider the person's level of "object relations." According to various psychoanalytic and developmental theorists, people vary in the extent to which they have established a sense of separation and individuation from other people. So far, this article rests on the assumption that people have the ability to see themselves as a distinct, unique person separate from those people they encounter online. However, this is not necessarily true for everyone.

People who operate at a developmentally primitive level of object relations experience others as an extension of themselves, as merged with their self. In-person or online, they do not sense the presence of the other person as a separate being, but rather as a part of themselves. In fact, some online settings - especially text communication that lacks the visual cues to help establish a separate physical body - may exacerbate this poor self/other differentiation. For example, a narcissistic person in a message board or email group may experience the presence of others primarily as a source of attention and admiration to bolster his or her own sense of self. That person may not experience others as distinct individuals with their own ideas, needs, and feelings.

For people with deficient object relations, "presence" of self and other means something very different than for people with well-established object relations. In what has been called "selfobject transferences," others exist to mirror one's needs and feelings, to provide a twin that bolsters one's sense of self, or to serve as an idealized figure to merge with. Generally speaking, online text communication may encourage a blending of the minds of self and other - a blending of presences - which magnifies the poor self/other differentiation that is a chronic problem for people with poor object relations.

Even people at a developmentally advanced level of object relations may at times have difficulty establishing an accurate perception of the other person's presence. You may feel that another individual is here, but elements of that person's identity may be distorted by your own needs and feelings. These transference reactions tend to be magnified by the ambiguity of text communication. The mind-merging that sometimes occurs in text communication may even cause developmentally advanced people to dip into periods of selfobject transferences.

The Dimensions of "Here" and "Now"

Relationships in cyberspace encourage us to reexamine many of the traditional assumptions about presence implied in the Be Here Now maxim. As we have seen, the very notion of "here" is called into question. The environmental presence of "this place" always manifests itself, at least in our current state of technology, via a computer screen. All of the many "here's" we can experience online emerge from that screen. Our actual physical location has not changed at all, which points to the power of the mind to shape sensory character, change, and interaction into a psychologically real and meaningful environment. In fact, a very evocative "here" may be nothing more than an email message. The Be Here Now principle encourages us to let go of our mental cogitations so we can experience the here more fully and clearly, but as we sit and look into our monitors, cyberspace reminds us that what we see and experience is always shaped by what we think and feel.

Despite the powerful possibilities for presence online, we must remind ourselves that indeed our body sits in a room, in front of a computer, in a setting that is quite different from the online encounter. We may not even be consciously aware of that setting around us, which points to the importance of dissociation in allowing us to experience presence online. To fully immerse ourselves into the environments and relationships of cyberspace, we must be able to minimize awareness of the setting around us - at least for a time. If the phone rings or the dog barks to go out, we shift our attention back to our physical surroundings. We cannot immerse ourselves fully into cyberspace and in-person presences simultaneously, no more than we can completely immerse ourselves into different online settings or relationships simultaneously.

With practice, we learn how to manage a multi-tasking of presence. We can be here and now in one particular online system of environmental and interpersonal presences, while keeping an eye and ear open for something that might call our attention to another system - either the in-person setting or another online setting. Usually it is a change in one of the other environments that signals us to attend to it. For example, while fully engrossed with an email companion, part of us notices an IM icon blinking, the call to presence of another companion. The process resembles mindfulness meditation in which we focus our presence on and with one thing, but also allow another part of our mind to silently notice and then shift concentration to other things that might arise from the wide range of possible presences in the periphery of our field of awareness. Rather than being one-dimensional, presence involves shifts in magnitude, direction, and juxtaposition as we balance and redirect our awareness from here to there.

So too the "Now" of Be Here Now is multi-dimensional. Those humanistic philosophers advise us not to live in the past or present, but to be here in this very moment. In the synchronous communication of chat and instant messages, we remain true to that idea - and some people claim they sense intensely the companion's moment-by-moment presence in the exchange of typed text. But is presence less developed in asynchronous communication? When reading e-mails or weblogs, do those other people seem less like they are with us NOW? We know that they probably will not react, at least not immediately, to what we say, so interactivity is delayed - and some might say weaker - compared to synchronous communication. Yet in many other respects we sense that they are here now, just as writers of poems, stories, and essays create the sense that they are with us in the moment. When we open an e-mail message or enter a discussion board, we open the Now.

If this study of how to apply the "Be Here Now" principle to cyberspace tells us anything, it tells how the sense of presence arises from the objective cues of sensory stimulation, change, interactivity, and degree of familiarity - but that the impact of those cues is heavily influenced by the subjective interpretation of the individual. The worlds and relationships of cyberspace remind us that the being, here, and now of presence resides in the human mind.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

The basic psychological features of cyberspace
Cyberspace as a psychological space
Networks as "mind" and "self"
Cyberspace as dream world
The online disinhibition effect
The Two Paths of Virtual Reality
The black hole of cyberspace
Identity management in cyberspace
In-person versus cyberspace relationships
Personality types in cyberspace
Transference to one's computer and cyberspace
The psychology of avatars and graphical space
Full cyberspace immersion

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