Beyond Being There

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Citation: Jim Hollan and Scott Stornetta (1992) Beyond Being There. CHI '92 (RSS)

Tagged: Computer Science (RSS)


This is a classic CHI paper that marks a pivot in the field of telecommunications and early social computing from pursuit of technologies that reproduce the phenomenological experience of face-to-face communication---referred to as 'being there' to taking advantage of the strengths of new media in order to provide new mechanisms for meeting underlying communication needs.

They introduce a conception of the 'the telecommunication problem', with which to do battle.

"To create systems that allow the same richness and variety of interaction, but with distance no longer an issue .... those at a distance should be at no disadvantage to those who are physically present."

The history of telecommunications pursues establishing audio and video connections in attempt to create a sense of 'being there'.

Two social psychological measures in decreasing order: 1. social presence 2. information richness

f2f >>> audio/visual > audio >>> written. Audio visual is closer to audio than to f2f.

Are telecom a/v systems ever going to achieve parity with f2f?

Their argument is no, people will always prefer f2f.

The goal should be instead to use same media when close as when far.

'We must develop tools that go beyond being there'

Shoes provide advantages over running barefoot -- they correct problems of our natural condition and enhance performance. Why not telcom to do the same thing?

Framing human communication: needs, media, mechanisms

Needs are human requirements for communication, e.g. cue variety, feedback, message personalization, being reminded of a need to talk, having a communication channel, turn taking, repair, stylized openings... ....

Media are literally the medium that carry communication messages. In the case of F2F communication this means physically proximate reality.

Mechanisms are the ways a medium meets the needs.

Mechanisms are tightly coupled to the media. Needs are media independent -- universal.

Therefore we should not be committed to reproducing the mechanisms of f2f communication in new media. Imitation will never be as good as the real thing because new and old media have relative strengths.

"Focus not on the tele- part, but the commmunication part"

Email is a good example because it "exploits the asynchronous nature of the electronic medium rather than attempting to imitate synchronous physical interactions."

They are working on a system the call an "ephemeral interest group." This are sites for discussion about a topic or event that are meant to be short lived unlike a normal bulletin board. They aim to lower the cost of creating and disposing of groups in order to create a more informal space. Their goal is for people who use the system to feel more like a part of a community, even if they are not co-located, than people who are elsewhere."

They are also working on a sort of personal profile for an individual's network presence. Their aim is to decrease the cost of initiating contact and to support the maintenance of interactions over time.

They also raise anonymity, how it may promote truthfulness and affordances not available in F2F.

They also propose semi-synchronous mechanisms that might batch synchronous responses to publish them asynchronously. Thinking about semisynchronization might open up new mechanisms.

On page 5 they speculate a bit about the cellular future.

On page 6 they suggest some ways that CMC might improve upon "unassisted face-to-face interaction." These are clarity by helping to resolve reference ambiguation, feedback (they are thinking about tablet gestures, but these days you might think about emoji), archive (obvious).

Finally they suggest that "auditory paper" "will some day,even without the face-to-face component be viewed as having greater social presence than unassisted face-to-face conversations."

Potential Criticisms

Next they turn to addressing potential criticisms, they say they are taking an extreme position in order to make their point clear.

  1. Imitation has advantages of familiarity, but imperfect imitations will still be unfamiliar.
  2. Cultural change is required to use new media, but culture can change to incorporate new media mechanisms if they "provide better ways of meeting underlying requirements".
  3. F2F affords rich intersubjectivity, but there isn't any reason that intersubjectivity cannot be provided in other ways. Disabling

intersubjectivity can be useful since participating in intersubjetivity is demanding.


In conclusion they summarize their argument, emphasizing the importance of understanding fundamental communication needs that are "not ideally met in the medium of physical proximity" and working on mechanisms that leverage new media to meet these needs.

We don't need to abolish distance, but rather abolish "our current concept of 'being there'"

Theoretical and practical relevance:

This paper was a very big deal in the field of human computer interaction. It was highly prescient, anticipating profiles, ephemeral message boards, the importance of anonymity, and mobile computing.