A friend recently pointed me to a well-crafted post on the blog of Danah Boyd, the person I consider the preeminent guru of social aspects of interactive, community, and collaborative experiences on the web. Danah's writing delved into the diverse and often conflicting approaches many users take with respect to 'presence' particularly in instant messaging applications. ('Presence' is often defined as a user's ability and preference to communicate and be communicated with at any given time.) Her ideas, which were later echoed in the comments to her post as well, centered around the struggle many users encounter when trying to find balance between IM as a productivity enhancer and IM as a distraction and how disparate approaches can exacerabte the chasm.
The 'adults' I know who use IM during the workday have a diverse range of strong opinions about which levels of urgency necessitate IMing and how to manage presence. Some, as Danah noted, only turn on their IM clients for urgent outbound communications, but do not leave them on for anyone to reciprocate. (I will preempt your comments and admit I often guilty of this.) Others leave their clients open all day and actively manage their away messages to let interested folks know where they are. Whatever the case, most grown-ups I know are very protective of their time and, if they are so bold as to use the presence features of an IM client at all, they utilize them to restrict their availability and otherwise ward off would-be interrupters.
On the extreme other end of the presence continuum are kids. Kids these days will do just about anything they can to invite more communication and relish in the interruption. The kids I know very adroitly manage their AIM away messages to provide extensive information about where they are and how they can be reached. When available to chat, kids can actively manage a dozen or more simultaneous one-on-one chat sessions without issue. They love to type away with friends and friends of friends, and thus see presence as a social lubricant that facilitates more and more interaction.
So, it is in this context that I recently got a tour of the new MSFT Office Communicator client. While I was not impressed by the UI at all (Y!M takes the cake in this category), it was interesting to learn a bit more about the presence document that the client will populate within MSFT's Live Communications Server. In addition to the traditionally customizable away message that AIM and others offer, the presence document provides the foundation for a layer of presence-based extensibility that could become quite powerful. For starters, the client is integrated with the calendar functions of Outlook such that the client will provide information about when to expect a user's return and will route incoming calls to a user's desk phone or mobile depending upon location data and follow-me preferences. MSFT also promises to offer APIs that will allow read and write access to the presence document.
I am most interested to see how the developers' community treats presence in the apps they will develop based upon this platform. On one hand, LCS and the Office Communicator are both targeted at the enterprise, and therefore adult users. Will those users continue to use presence prophylactically, that is, as a way to gate communication? Or, as the granularity of presence control presumably improves, will enterprise customers embrace real-time text-based communication as a productivity enhancer and not just mere interruption?