Presence is the new Dialtone

At today’s SocComm (Social Communications) event, I moderated the panel on “Presence as the new Dialtone.” (Thanks to Aswath Rao, Doug Levin, and Alon Cohen). What does this mean? Well, in one sense, Dialtone is a signal that you have the ability to communicate. Pick up a landline phone and you hear that reassuring tone that lets you know you may now make an attempt to get in touch with another person or group. (Cell phones don’t have that tone – but they have ‘strength indicators’ that give you odds on a call going through). Dialtone was almost always available – a consistent reminder of your ability to connect.

Dialtone was a 20th Century marvel, but in the last part of that Century, our ability to communicate online started to exceed the mere dialtone experience. Instant messaging programs such as ICQ, AOL IM, MSN and Yahoo messenger gave us the ability to see if friends were at their computers, and if they were available or busy.  Dial tone turned to ‘busy’ when a phone call couldn’t go through – but we has no idea if the line was busy due to error, a short call, or an extended conversation. When we do connect, as Aswath Rao noted “We often start our calls with ‘Am I disturbing you?’ or ‘Is this a good time to speak?’”
Eventually, IM programs let us share our status messages – a short line about what our free/busy/away data meant. Things like “Rushing to Finish a Project” gave context to our status. We knew more about the person on the other end of the computer – and the likelihood of conversation and connection in a particular timeframe.

As this century unfolds, we’re getting even more context about our friends and colleagues, and their presence in the world. In fact, for some early adopters, Social tools such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are creating a Presence that is as ubiquitous as Dialtone – if you know where and how to look for it. The good thing is, the network effect means more and more of us will be connected via our various networks, and will therefore have more access to each other’s status information. Just contemplate this – why do we need a static address book with phone numbers when you could just have a IM-type status list of your friends, updated live?

Alon Cohen also noted that today, the mobile is a single-person device. But there is an ability, with more advanced devices, to have both presence and persistence. In other words, we could have one device, and when it rang for me, it would have my settings, or if it rang for him, it would have his.
Location also changes the equation. Doug Levin noted that GPS and the ability to see the location in addition to the status and context would also change the things we think about in considering presence. We could crowd-source help or work in a specific area by knowing who was near us and available. This concept seems really powerful in an at-work context.

Presence is also changing the push-pull dynamic of communications. The other day I went to Philadelphia for a late afternoon meeting, but I knew I was arriving for lunch. I used Twitter and Facebook status to alert some of my friends I was coming to town. One sent a note suggesting a place for a lunch meeting, which we then re-broadcast these status messages to others. Some of my friends and some of their connections got the message, and when I showed up at the restaurant, about 15 people were there to meet up and connect. I only knew half of them. This shouldn’t be viewed as “Oh, Howard, he’s a popular social media guy, it’s easy for him to connect with people.” Anyone can do this – as long as they keep their connections with their friends live and active.

Chris Brogan discussed “Spook Country” by William Gibson – annotating the world around us by using things like BriteKite and Latitude – he rates a restaurant or hotel where he is, location based. We are able to be a fish in a small pond – and the way presence is moving, we’re able to take our pond with us.
At the end of the panel, when we were discussing ‘monetization’ of presence and location, Aswath noted a contrarian view – he doesn’t believe we need to share this information with the network or with the carriers. “I can send my presence, status and location to you via an IP network, and I don’t need a carrier or middleman.” To me this is similar to discussions about owning one’s own Social Graph (set of relationships in a social network) instead of trusting it to Facebook, MySpace, Google or another provider.

There is much more to this discussion, but I’ll save it for another day. Thanks to Jeff Pulver for getting me thinking along this line of reasoning. There’s a lot to digest. Your comments are welcome.

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