Monday, May 11, 2009

The different theoretical approaches to the concept of presence. What is the best approach?

“Presence is a multi-dimensional concept; i.e., there are different types of presence.”1

The concept of presence is definitely one that has not yet been concretely and throughly defined or operationalized though many attempts at covering the different aspects of presence have been made by professional academics across many fields. Lombard and Ditton2 list six conceptualizations that have been developed to define the ambiguous concept of presence. Taken as a whole, these conceptualizations represent facets of an overarching definition instead of a complete and absolute explanation unto themselves. Utilizing this approach to develop a faceted classification scheme would then cover a significant amount of the intricacies of presence better than any individual conceptualization. However, a more concise listing of the facets would have to be developed.
Currently, those facets of presence listed by Lombard and Ditton, among others, are nonorthogonal with common elements overlapping between the groups. The International Society for Presence Research (ISPR) takes this grouping further and lists five groups of approaches, but this list can also be more tightly and exactly configured. For example, presence as social richness, as mentioned in Lombard and Ditton’s paper “At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence”, is incomplete because its defining parameters focus on the medium itself and not on the actual interaction. Measurements of “capacity for immediate feedback, the number of senses involved, personalization and language variety” do not necessarily represent the intricacies of presence when dealing with a mediated interaction. The social aspect of presence, in terms of a faceted classification scheme, would include this concept of social richness as well as some of the following conceptualizations that focus on social elements of interaction as mentioned by the ISPR: “social presence”, "social actor within the medium", "parasocial interaction" , "co-presence", "transportation: shared space", and "medium as social actor".
Presence as realism creates a bifold definition that can be taken as either “social realism” or “perceptual realism”. In this way, it also takes the interaction at a more superficial level than would a deeper, more expounded upon theory. However, from this concept we can take its two distinct definitions and add these to the vocabulary of a classification for presence. As defined by the ISPR:
"’Social realism’ occurs when part or all of a person's perception fails to accurately acknowledge the role of technology that makes it appear that s/he is in a physical location and environment in which the social characteristics correspond to those of the physical world.”

Perceptual realism is linked with the similar terms “sensory presence," "naturalness," "ecological validity", and "tactile engagement".
Presence as transportation starts to include more of the relevant elements of a mediated interaction. However, as these three elements are defined in Lombard and Ditton’s paper, the three types of transportation that occur are apparently considered mutually exclusive when this is not necessarily the case. In 1997, when the paper was written, perhaps these distinctions were more obvious. Currently, the borders between “You are there”, “It is Here”, and “We are Together” are slowly dissolving. This is especially true of online games where more than one live player joins together using microphones to communicate for missions and strategic planning.
Some of the aspects of presence as transportation are grouped with "spatial presence," "physical presence," "a sense of physical space," "perceptual immersion," and "a sense of being there". These occur when all or part of a person’s perception is submerged into a mediated environment. In other words, when they are “there”.
Lombard and Ditton list two more conceptualizations beyond the previously stated presence as social richness, realism, transportation, and immersion. Presence as social actor within medium was previously grouped with other social aspects. It is a voluntary willingness to “overlook the mediated or even artificial nature of an entity within a medium and attempt to interact with it” that becomes evident in environments such as Second Life and other games where characters, whether human-based or computer avatar, are treated with the same amount of care and consideration. Lastly, presence as medium as social actor is well-represented by “A Space Odyssey’s” Hal. This is also part of the social aspects already mentioned.
The International Society for Presence Research also includes another group of conceptualizations that include "engagement," "involvement," and "psychological immersion". This does not directly translate to one of the previously mentioned facets. However, this simply reveals one of the flaws of the current system. Engagement and involvement signify how much people get “sucked into” the medium and, therefore, become more closely tied to the occurrences therein.
Using these differentiations of experience does break the conceptualizations into only five categories, but these still involve a good deal of overlap. To be more concise, a listing should be made where a single experience can be “chopped up” into unique facets. For an initial foray into this realm, I would include essence of interaction (physical, mental), timeline of interaction (synchronous, asynchronous, one-time, continual), medium of interaction or senses involved (typing - touch, visual, auditory), and the intention of interaction (learning, gaming, etc.). This is very inchoate listing and more research would have to be done, but I believe this to be the most efficient direction for future presence research.
Denton, William. "How to Make a Faceted Classification and Put It On the Web" Nov. 2003.
Ditton, T. and Lombard, Matthew. “At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence.” JCMC 3 (2) September 1997.
International Society for Presence Research. (2000). The Concept of Presence: Explication Statement. Retrieved from