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. Continue reading