GAIA 2021’s first session, “The New Spacemakers,” was a Zoom call close to a hundred viewers strong, a digital call about digital spaces that was started off with a prompt from Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan to take a breath, take a minute, and consider our physical bodies and the lands we inhabit.
(I looked out my window at the commercial and residential and mixed-use structures just outside and thought about what the land might have looked like before anything had been constructed there.)
Touring five aspirational and personal online spaces had me reflecting on some of the things I’d wanted to do in the past, and on the issues I currently have with my relationship to a lot of extant spaces. Social media. But Discord, too, and even texting my friends, and family.
Why is it so easy to maintain a real conversation in Skittish, in Togethernet, in Em Lazer-Walker’s bespoke Roguelike Celebration space with anyone at all – a friend, a handful of acquaintances, a total stranger – and yet in casual text conversations I can find it anxiety-inducingly hard to begin conversations, maintain them, or end them?
I don’t know when I adopted this habit but I realized a very long time ago that the playless text-only pseudo-real-time nature of (for example) MSN, Twitter, Discord, and SMS meant that I could have two or more conversations going on at once.
I’ve always been a fast typist with a low tolerance for waiting, so it felt natural. Why focus solely on one conversation and spend (at best) half the time waiting for a response, when I’m here at my computer, with so many ways to better spend that idle time? And since I’m already in this program that lets me talk to other people, why not spend that idle time talking to someone else at the same time?
I can have two or three or four conversations at once by overclocking my brain a bit — and nobody will know, not with the cues all eroded by platform optimizations and limitations.
I only coined the term “multipresence” today for describing this tactic, but the tactic itself isn’t new. It’s so old I forget what it was like to not do this. It’s so old it doesn’t even feel worth naming, but if you’ve followed my blog you might recognize a pattern of me naming these nameless troublesome things. Names, labels, give me power over them. They pull these long-accepted things out of the obscurity that has been protecting them from analysis.
Being a Single Presence
I’ve had my gripes about Twitter, and pined for the good old days of the TIGSource Forums, supposing that was the problem to be solved, and a viable solution, if only people still used forums. Discord has been getting a little overwhelming lately too, though, and it was troubling to me that I couldn’t find a general-case version of the problem. What was my problem?
It was in the afterglow of the whole “The New Spacemakers” session — after the grounded tours of the new spacemakers’ online spaces — after admiring the sprawling shape my conversation with xin took in Togethernet — after catching the tail end of whatever happened in Skittish (I’d missed it and just quietly hung out with Andy Baio and Mer Grazzini around the portrait of bird-droqen that Mer had painted on the ground out of red and yellow flower prefabs) — that I thought I might have finally identified the general case.
There are a few nice pictures of the aforementioned portrait of bird-droqen but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share pictures of my time in Skittish? You can see what it looks like here and just ~imagine~ a bird made out of flowers:
You’ve already read me describe it once further above; it’s Multipresence, it’s this weird thing that doesn’t happen in real life for the most part because we have one body, one voice, one set of ears. Maybe it’s just an ADHD brain thing (?) but regardless I think anyone is capable of Multipresenting —
We can have as many digital selves as we want, but with every additional simultaneous presence, our attention is further divided, our sense of whole-self-ness is further degraded.
for me, anyway, I think it’s a state that causes a great deal of harm over time.
Strategies for Disrupting Multipresentation
This topic is interesting to me as a designer and as an easily-distracted, easily-fragmented player/user. How can we disrupt multipresence in our designed spaces if it really is, as I experience it, just a “bad habit?”
Engagement (one hue-shift away from addiction, which somehow became a good word when describing games) is a powerful tool that I always want to be cautious about wielding, but I think engaging experiences that draw and demand focus are valuable weapons against multipresence. They let us focus on one thing, on being one individual with one goal, inhabiting one space.
The nature of an awkward, disembodied computer experience shatters our presence a little; the concept of Game Feel is about how as humans we’re capable, if given the right tools, of transplanting our perception-of-self into another state.
(I could go on about other books discussing the concept that perception-of-self is something not innate, that it is something we lend to even ourselves, but I’ll try to stay on topic. Ask in the comments if you’re interested though.)
So any platform can combat multipresence by, like the Roguelike Celebration’s custom MMO-like social space does with its raidable kitchens and tangible world, giving its inhabitants toys to play with that further embody them in the space itself, rather than leaving blank space which users have to fill with activities that take them out of the world. This isn’t about keeping people’s capital-E Engagement metrics high, it’s about providing tools to help people who’ve chosen to exist here fulfill what I see as a genuine desire to feel like one focused, present individual.
They can also take advantage of our existing wetware by giving us a face or a voice, or through giving us a motile avatar that makes us feel tangible and human and embodied (even if we’re birds or elephants or crescent moons or candles).
What I can do myself
Ultimately, the platform is in some ways just a catalyst; it’s my brain reacting. I completely recognize that multipresenting is not something that everyone does necessarily, or finds problematic in their own life.
I’m personally trying to spend time in at most one “digital space” at a time, somehow signalling when I plan to leave or when I’m about to go idle. Most of all I wish there was a simple, feel-y way to indicate I’ve turned my attention towards a topic or conversation or away from it, that didn’t involve calling extra attention to the fact I’m doing it.
in Discord it’s all-or-nothing, and Twitter has no such feature at all. I used to say “hello” or “goodbye” or “good night Twitter” in my tweets and threads, and I stopped a while ago, because I wasn’t sure why I still did it. Now I have a good reason to resume.
That’s everything. Enjoy your digital life.