A recent discussion on the GoogleTalk blog highlights one of the annoying features of first generation instant messaging systems, notifications when buddies go on- and off-line. I typically run four instant messenger clients on my laptop in order to participate in my communities of interest. In each case I have turned off even silent notifications to minimize distractions.
Jon Perlow's post exposes part of the problem:
... we have this arbitrary distinction between being "idle" (you stepped away from your computer) and being "unavailable" (you shutdown chat or turned off your computer). It's problematic. Some people leave their computer on 24/7 and are always logged in. Their presence toggles between available and idle and I never get a notification when they become available. On the other side of the spectrum, there are people who are constantly moving their laptops from wireless network to wireless network and I will get notifications for them every time they reconnect. What I am getting at here is that there are flaws in our presence model ...
But he's only beginning to realize the issues and the motivations at work here. You may have an immediate desire to communicate a specific thought with a specific person. Or you have a thought you want to share with someone in a set of your friends depending upon who is "around" at the moment. Or, you are lonely and just want to see who is "around."
Also, with IP communications, the word communicate can mean text, voice, video, cartoons or photos. Pure IM or pure telephony are too limiting. We're just beginning to see the new world with programs like Skype and GoogleTalk. So yes, there are flaws in our presence model!
As I commented in my presentation at Spring VON, even the word presence is wrong. I'm always present somewhere. The question is, am I available? and am I available for the kind of communication you want to engage in, right now? and if not, am I available for some other kind of communication?
If my communications client is a mobile device, it's always on, but the alerting function is in vibrate mode when I don't want audio disruptions. That doesn't mean I can't received a text message or a picture or a video stream (from your see-what-I-see mobile webcam?). So my availability needs to reflect my current context.
And, at a minimum, notification of changes in other people's contexts need to be filtered, based on what I'm trying to do at this moment. If I want to talk with you the next time you are available for a conversation, then I'd like notifications about just you and your availability to talk. If I have a thought I'd like to share with anyone in some set of buddies, then I'm interested in notifications for just that set of buddies. And if I'm a teen desperate to connect with anyone who'll respect me, I want as much notification detail as my friends and associates are willing to share.
We're at the very early stages of figuring out availability for context-aware communications. Indeed, we've still focused on PCs even though the mobile phone is our primary communications device. But it's good that the folks at GoogleTalk are thinking about it from the user experience point of view.