On Theorizing Presence

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Nov 14, 2013 (3 years and 5 months ago)


June 11, 2008


, D. (2002). On theorizing presence.

Journal of Virtual Environments,

On Theorizing Presence

David Jacobson

Brandeis University

Jacobson @ brandeis.edu

Presence is the experience of being engaged by the representations of a virtual world


1997, Lombard

2000a). Most research on presence has focused
on tec
hnologies that use a variety of sensory inputs (e.g., visual, auditory, haptic) to
create a simulacrum of a real environment, a virtual reality (VR) that mimics
perceptions in the physical world (cf. Biocca 1997, Heeter 1995, Kim and Biocca
1997, Lombard a
nd Ditton 1997, Lombard 2000b, Witmer and Singer 1998). Less
attention has been paid to presence in the context of text
based virtual worlds. This
paper presents a brief overview of theories that identify factors that promote or
undermine a sense of presen
ce in text
based virtual worlds.

In the context of text
based virtual worlds such as MUDs, MOOs, IRC, and Chats,
presence is usefully described as a feeling of getting lost or wrapped up in the
representations of the text
of being involved, absorbed, eng
aged, or engrossed in or
by them (Lombard 2000a). Immersion is another term that is used in the literature on
presence, but it seems better suited to the kind of virtual reality afforded by head
mounted displays and data
gloves, in which participants are s
urrounded by or
submerged in software
generated images, than to text
based virtual worlds (cf.
Schubert et al 1999:270, Slater and Wilbur 1997:604

As Lombard notes (2000b), analysts use different terms to describe a sense of
presence. Similarly, par
ticipants use different idioms in talking about their experience
of it. They may say that they are “caught up” in an activity, that they are “there” or
“here” when speaking of a virtual place, or that a virtual world is “real.” However,
from the context of

their statements and from their descriptions of the situations in
which they experience presence, it is evident that participants are referring to their
engagement in a virtual world and to what Lombard (2000a) describes as an “illusion
of nonmediation.”

Different theoretical frameworks are relevant in explaining experiences of presence.
Various analysts (e.g., Jacobson 1999, Lea and Spears 1995, Walther 1992, 1996,
1997) argue that individuals engaged in text
based computer
communication cope wi
th absent or attenuated cues, ordinarily present in face
interaction, by engaging in processes of "optimized self
presentation" and
"overattribution" (Walther 1996, 1997). In the former, individuals selectively
construct self
images, imagining how
they will appear to others; in the latter, they
idealize others, imagining how they appear. In these processes, people become
invested in such presentations and idealizations. This theoretical perspective recalls
Stone's analysis of phone sex. She writes (

The effect of narrowing bandwidth [from offline, physical reality to computer
mediated communication, especially text
based CMC] is to engage more of the
participants' interpretive faculties….Frequently in narrow
bandwidth communication
he interpretive faculties of one participant or another are powerfully, even
obsessively, engaged….In phone sex, once the signifiers begin to "float" loose from
June 11, 2008


, D. (2002). On theorizing presence.

Journal of Virtual Environments,

their moorings in a particularized physical experience, the most powerful attractor
becomes the

client's idealized fantasy. In this circumstance narrow bandwidth
becomes a powerful asset, because extremely complex fantasies can be generated
from a small set of cues. In enacting such fantasies, participants draw on a repertoire
of cultural codes to c
onstruct a scenario that compresses large amounts of information
into a very small space….client and provider mobilize erotic tension by taking
advantage of lack
filling in missing information with idealized information.

According to reception theorists
and other analysts of reading (cf. Barbatsis, Fegan,
and Hansen 1999, Gerrig 1993, Gerrig and Pillow 1998, Iser 1978, Miller 1995, Ochs
and Capps 1996, Ryan 1991, 1994, 1999, Segal 1995), participants become caught up
in virtual worlds when they exercise t
heir imagination to fill narrative and/or
descriptive gaps. Moreover, the greater the opportunity to imaginatively construct a
virtual world, the more a sense of presence will be strengthened. This is the “less is
more” view of the factors that promote the

involvement of readers. That is, presence
is enhanced when the "glory of imagined description" (Brann 1991:468; cf. Reed
1991:30) is not undermined.

Although analysts agree about the importance of imagination in facilitating the
experience of presence in

the context of textual representations, there are different
views regarding the processes that affect it. One view emphasizes the “willing
suspension of disbelief.” Coleridge (1847:1
2) used the phrase in his account of
“exciting the sympathy” of readers
of poetry in which “the incidents and agents were
to be, in part at least, supernatural.” For him, the act of the “willing suspension of
disbelief” enabled readers to engage with what they otherwise knew were “shadows
of imagination.” (The concept of the “
willing suspension of disbelief” plays an
important role in semiotic and sociological theorizing about the construction of and
engagement in various kinds of realities
see Wiley 2000a and 2000b.) Laurel (1991),
a theorist of human
computer interaction, an
d Ryan (1994, 1999), a literary theorist,
draw on Coleridge in analyzing the sense of presence generated in interacting with
computers and in computer
mediated communication. Ryan writes (1999:89):

This idea of suspension of disbelief is the literary
retical equivalent of the VR
concept of immersion. It describes the attitude by which the reader brackets out the
knowledge that the fictional world is the product of language, in order to imagine it as
an autonomous reality populated by solid objects and
embodied individuals.

The suspension of disbelief model suggests how individuals may become engaged in
textual representations, but it does not explain why such engagement fails or is
otherwise limited. Research in cognitive psychology addresses this issu

Cognitive psychologists offer a view of the processes underlying both engagement
and disengagement in the context of textual representations. Gilbert and his
colleagues, drawing on Spinozan rather than Cartesian perspectives, argue that people
y assign a truth value to a mental representation, subsequently rejecting it only
if warranted by rational assessment. As Gilbert, Krull, and Malone note (1990:601; cf.
Gilbert 1991; Gilbert, Tafarodi, and Malone 1993):

Baruch Spinoza…suggested that a
ll ideas are accepted (i.e., represented in the mind
as true) prior to a rational analysis of their veracity, and that some ideas are
June 11, 2008


, D. (2002). On theorizing presence.

Journal of Virtual Environments,

subsequently unaccepted (i.e., represented as false)….In short, the mental
representation of a proposition or idea has a t
ruth value associated with it, and by
default this value is true. This default value remains unaltered when the idea is
subsequently assessed to be true, but is changed when the idea is subsequently
assessed to be false.

Gerrig (1993; cf. Gerrig and Pillo
w 1998), in a critique of “toggle” theories, including
Coleridge’s theory of the suspension of disbelief, extends the Spinozan argument in
analyzing people’s engagement with “narrative worlds,” including the worlds
represented in text
based computer
ed communication. Like Gilbert and unlike
Coleridge, Gerrig argues that readers are inclined to accept information as valid in the
course of comprehension, disbelieving it only after conscious appraisal warrants
otherwise. His theory assumes that people wi
ll believe what they read
by fiction is the default outcome" (Gerrig 1993:227)
until they critically scrutinize
such claims and reject those that are, on inspection, incredible or unwarranted. In this
sense, Gerrig “replaces a ‘willing suspe
nsion of disbelief’ with a ‘willing construction
of disbelief’ (1993:230; cf. Gerrig and Pillow 1998:1
103). Gerrig's model implies
that comparing a fictional world with a factual one will undermine a sense of presence.
Moreover, since people’s knowledge

of or beliefs about the factual world will vary,
different people will accept (and reject) different claims about represented (or virtual)

As predicted by the research of Gilbert, Gerrig, and others, presence is affected when
participants compare

the textual description of what is imagined and the reality it
simulates. When the real (or offline) referent of a virtual world is unknown, presence
is enhanced (or at least not diminished by reference to knowledge and/or beliefs about
“real life”); when

the actual referent is known, presence is inhibited or undermined,
especially when there is a discrepancy between the image (that which is imagined)
and the actual world it is supposed to resemble (see Jacobson 2001).

If knowing the real world represente
d by an imaginary one decreases a sense of
presence, knowing participants offline, in real life, increases the sense of presence.
This seems to happen when participants view a virtual world not as an imaginary one,
but, rather, as a medium of communication
. They are engaged not by the textual
representation of the faux world, but by interacting with people they know. This
pattern is consistent with the observations of Towell and Towell (1997; see Jacobson
2001), who report a stronger sense of presence among

MOO participants who knew
one another in real life and/or who knew one another's real names than among those
who did not know one another and/or who used pseudonyms.

The effect of offline knowledge of others holds when people know one another before

interact online. The effect of meeting people or seeing photographs of them after
having first encountered them online appears to produce a different outcome
(especially when interaction is confined to cyberspace), one that reinforces the
argument that im
agination (and projection) plays a role in creating a sense of presence.
This pattern is consistent with findings about the role of pictures in fostering online
relationships. Walther and his colleagues (2001) found that for people who had
interacted onlin
e for a long time before seeing photographs of their virtual partners,
the pictures were disappointing and hindered the maintenance of intense and engaging
relationships, and when people saw photographs of their partners before they began to
June 11, 2008


, D. (2002). On theorizing presence.

Journal of Virtual Environments,

work together
online, the pictures somewhat facilitated the development of such
experiences. In the case of virtual partners who formed impressions of one another
before seeing photographs, idealized images did not match reality, and the difference
was disappointing.

hen a virtual world is viewed as a locus of activity, Csikszentmihalyi's theory of
"flow" explains a sense of presence (1982, 1988; cf. Trevino and Webster 1992;
Webster, Trevino, and Ryan 1993). Conceptualized as a "flow" experience, presence
entails a "m
erging of action and awareness," during which a person loses "self
consciousness" and a sense of time, focusing on "the present, blocking out the past
and the future" (Csikszentmihalyi 1982:38
42; cf. Danet et al 1998, Fontaine 1992,
Novak et al. 2000). Fl
ow theory addresses the experiences people have when
participating in activities that are intrinsically rewarding and in which a person's
abilities and skills match the challenges she or he encounters. Intrinsically rewarding
activities are those in which
satisfaction is derived from engaging in "the activity
itself, the pattern, the action, the world it provides" (Csikszentmihalyi 1982:14).
Although such activities provide participants a sense of challenge, people have to feel
they are capable of meeting c
hallenges; otherwise, an imbalance between challenges
(demands) and abilities and skills (resources) will produce boredom (if the resources
exceed the demands) or stress (if the demands exceed the resources), both of which
are said to undermine, rather tha
n enhance, a sense of absorption. In
Csikszentmihalyi's view, activities that induce a sense of flow include play,
exploration, problem
solving, and those of companionship and friendship
that commonly take place in MOO type virtual worlds (see
Jacobson 2001).

Theorizing about presence is found within different disciplines, although the
convergence is largely unnoted, perhaps because practitioners tend to ignore the
relevance of work done outside their own fields. Although theoretical frameworks

psychology and of literary studies, especially those focusing on the role of
imagination and on flow experiences, each provides a partial understanding of the
experience of presence in text
based environments, considering them together may
contribute t
o a fuller and more satisfying explanation.

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