Behavioural Engineering
PSFK Conference: London 1st June

Continuous Partial Presence


[Image by pshab - facebook offices]
So I finally joined Facebook and immediately became addicted, just like everyone said. So I've been thinking about it and trying to work out exactly why it's so compelling.

Apart from the obvious, vaguely disguised "how many friends can I get" game that's inherent to social networks - although facebook is distinct from myspace in this as it is actually people you know, not random bands from Utah who are now your friends - there seems to me two aspects to Facebook that make it so compelling.

Firstly, everyone is always there. The most important feature of instant messenger programmes, in some ways, isn't the actual messages - it's the buddy list. With your buddy list there, you're always in a group, you're friends are always present, whenver they're online. This is why it was so compelling, to begin with, to younger people - kids are far more likely to hang out in large social groups. This continuous partial presence is oddly satisfying, and also a feature of services like Twitter and Jaiku and that.

Secondly, it allows for phatic and asynchronous communication. The best thing about email is that you don't have to interrupt someone - it's timeshifted communication.  The poke feature is the ultimate online expression of a phatic communique - it has only social, not semantic, value.

The confluence of these two aspects seems to be why suddenly I find myself back in touch with people who I've not spoken to for years, despite having email addresses or phone numbers. It's just easier to say hi when you can see them right there and poke them.