The Multidimensional Meaning of “Presence

By Deborah Vrabel

How does putting the adjective “online” or the lowercase “i” in front of the noun “presence” change the meaning? What is carried over from our past use of the word—and what connotations do I want to keep and discard?

I think “presence” has three distinct connotations. I’m going to explore them as a way to “deconstruct” the term “iPresence.” (Apologies to Derrida if I’ve used this term incorrectly.)

A Woody Allen quote captures the most literal meaning of presence: “80% of life is showing up.” The teacher calls your name and you raise your hand and say “Present!” Whatever your academic preparedness or intentions to participate, you have cleared the first hurdle. You are there. Sometimes that simple kind of presence—being there with no distinction, no defined role, nothing unique to say or do—is all that is needed or required. You show up—you smile and congratulate and stand among the wedding guests in one solid block of love and support for a couple starting their journey together. Even if your mind is a million miles away and your mood is anything but festive, you have helped make this memory for them.

Second, presence has come to mean “attentiveness” or “mindfulness.” When we are present to someone, we are more than present physically. We also listen carefully and notice even the tiniest things. We are invested. We are “in the moment.” We “witness and wait” as Walt Whitman said. We are present when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing.

A similar kind of presence, also called “presence of mind,” speaks to the ability to think quickly and respond appropriately and competently when something unexpected happens—whether a threatening situation, an awkward moment, or a good opportunity. I think Leo Tolstoy’s Three Questions (which are embedded in the Think Pond concept) show the thinking of someone with this type of presence:

  • When is the best time to do each thing? (Answer: The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.)
  • Who are the most important people to work with? (Answer: The most important person is whoever you are with.)
  • What is the most important thing to do at all times? (Answer: The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.)

Finally, presence is used to describe an outward demeanor some people have that enables them to capture and hold attention and admiration. Ask ten people to think of someone they know who has “presence” and describe that person in one word or phrase, and you could easily receive several different answers:

“lights up a room” … “commands attention” … “star quality” … “elegant” … “poised” … “shows grace under pressure” … “unruffled.”

I would contend that part of what gives them this demeanor is the inner quality of attentiveness, as described above, along with self-confidence, purpose, and inner strength.

I think all of these are relevant to iPresence. Clearly, Think Pond needs to be “there” in the social media milieu. And “showing up” needs to be more than just setting up that web site or blog, signing up for that account, and reposting other people’s writing.

Think Pond has to show up with meaning and over time. How many times have you heard the plea “Like us on Facebook” and then found a page that serves no discernible purpose and seldom changes? I know I have created a couple of those.

Think Pond needs to cultivate the “attentive and mindful” kind of presence I described, as well. That means learning from others, commenting on other people’s work thoughtfully, noticing things and making our own conclusions. It means being relevant–which is impossible without paying attention to what’s going on around you–both online and off-line–and taking your opportunity to jump in and participate.

And that will help with developing the last kind of presence–that ineffable quality that people admire and find reassuring. If Think Pond consistently practices the other two types of iPresence, we’ll have that voice that commands attention, that always seems poised for anything. We’ll be well on the way to Rich iPresence.