Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 4 / August 1, 1994 / Page 6

Net Presence

by Phil Agre (

Lately several people have remarked on my "net presence", and this has set me to thinking about what this phrase might mean. In its most straightforward denotation, it refers to my contributions to certain public network forums. It also, I suppose, refers to a mailing list that I run and some writings of mine that circulate on the net. The people who remarked on my "net presence" were remarking, first of all, on the frequency with which such things appear on their computer screens. The word "presence" nominalizes the continuing fact of my being metonymically "present" through my various net activities. The fact of my being present in this way, moreover, is not understood as something that any of us can directly cause. That is, I don't acquire a net presence if they go looking for evidence of me on the net, or if I simply send them a long series of net messages.

Rather, I acquire my presence by evidence of me appearing on their screens in a remark-worthy variety of different connections, so that they can infer that I have a "presence" on the net and not just on their particular screens. In this way, "the net" is constructed (rightly or wrongly) as a single, stable space within which someone can have a coherent, stable "presence."

People frequently infer from my net presence that I spend half my life on the net, even though the activities that give rise to my net presence actually occupy only a couple hours a week. I propose to use these activities as case studies, both to reflect on the issues of social identity and image-making that they raise and to extract a series of conjectures and prescriptions that might be of use to others.

In doing these things, I shall be making a long series of assertions that are hard to warrant. With an e-mail message, perhaps even more than with a print magazine, it is difficult to know who is reading it, how they are reading it, what they think about it, what they are doing because of it, who they are passing it along to, and so forth. My impressions, therefore, are built up through a large number of particular interactions and anecdotes, only a few of which can appear here. Those with a research interest in these topics might take my assertions as an outline for a program of empirical research.

Since I am making a case study of myself, I should explain who I am. Right now I teach in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. I have been an Internet user since the days of the Arpanet in 1978, when as an undergraduate in math and computer science at the University of Maryland, I would surf the net by means of a quasi-legitimate dialup account at the National Bureau of Standards. In the course of doing a doctorate in artificial intelligence at MIT, I decided that I was more interested in the social aspects of computer work than with the technical aspects. My dissertation, which is probably one of the more peculiar theses ever accepted by MIT outside of art and architecture, offers a deconstruction and partial reconstruction of AI's technical ideas about human action. From there I took a series of short-term jobs as I went through the painful process of shifting from a semi-nonconformist computer person to a semi-outsider social scientist. Although my long-term research plans involve moving from the study of computing to the study of political communication in other venues, I am still completing a book and a series of articles about the social and political aspects of computing, and I am editing an on-line newsletter called The Network Observer about networks and democracy. (To learn about TNO and some of the other net activities I'll mention, send a message to with the subject line "help"). It is only in the last year that I have tried systematically to be involved in the public life of the net, but I have been observing it for much longer and am keenly interested in the relationships and connections between life on the net and life elsewhere in society.

My net presence has several elements. One of these is a long series of messages that I have sent to the Risks Digest (comp.risks), edited by Peter Neumann (whose net address is Over time these messages have settled into a fairly fixed style, as follows. When reading the newspaper in the morning, I often come across articles that interest me and that might interest the readers of Risks. When this happens, I bring the paper in to work with me and set it by my terminal. Then, in a spare ten or twenty minutes between classes or at the end of the day, I type in a one-page message including a full citation to the article, a summary of its contents, perhaps a short quotation or two, and then a point of my own about the larger issues that the article raises.

This format has several virtues. First, it is simple and requires little planning. Second, it does a public service by providing useful information to Risks' large global readership. Third, it gives me an occasion to suggest an agenda for research on computers and society, sometimes but not always within the scope of my own work or that of my friends. I have found that this procedure works best when I can keep the rhetorical temperature of my contribution down. It takes more discipline to let the article and my observations on it speak for themselves, and I sleep better at night. As computer networks have grown more pervasive, I find myself more and more often encountering people who already know my name because they read my messages to Risks. This helps a great deal in moderating the rhetoric of my contributions, since it makes the audience tangible and reminds me that things I post on the net have consequences.

As my practice of posting items to Risks has evolved, it has slowly become part of a conscious project of shaping a public agenda in relation to the issues that Risks covers. In particular, I have found myself consciously expanding the boundaries of what counts as a (in the terms found in the digest's header) "risk to the public in computers and related systems." There's a problem with this definition, of course, in that it is not the computers themselves that bring the risks, but rather the larger institutional arrangements in which they are embedded. Although this latter view has been argued at extreme length by sociologists of technology, it is nonetheless probably not a natural way of thinking to a majority of the technical people who I imagine to make up the bulk of the Risks audience. In my contributions to the list, I have increasingly tried to evoke this larger institutional context without trying to argue the point in a general or abstract way. It is difficult to determine how well I have succeeded in this. I am frequently contacted by reporters wishing to write stories about the particular cases mentioned in my Risks notes, but my larger academic points rarely provoke more than a little visible uptake--that is, visible to me.

This evolution in my public e-mail practice has coincided with a shift in my own career, from computer person to scholar of communication. I have become interested in the advanced social skills involved in using computer networks, and I have been studying a variety of literatures that purport to teach various kinds of advanced social skills. Perhaps the most fascinating of these literatures is found in business (for an annotated bibliography of these, originally written for the undergraduates in my department, send a message to with the subject line "archive send industry"). By now I have read dozens of "how to get ahead" books, as well as several books about public relations and issues management. Indeed, this past term I taught a seminar for graduating seniors about public relations, in which students presented PR literature and invited PR practitioners to address the class. I hope to write elsewhere about the politics of the type of knowledge that communication professionals have developed, but for present purposes it will suffice to report the sense of mixed horror and fascination with which I have come to empathize with, and to some extent even embody, this particular kind of deliberate and self-conscious structuring of my own use of language.

Given the power of PR's way of thinking about communication, and given the increasing importance of the network community to various industries, it is a matter of time, I think, until PR practices become common on the net. Already one encounters representatives of the American regional phone companies (not always identifying themselves as such) trying to affect the framing of issues on various important mailing lists, for example with regard to the recent report claiming that the phone companies were engaged in "information redlining" in the deployment of new-generation technologies. It is their First Amendment right to do so, of course, but I think that network inhabitants' understandings of their community and its relationship to the larger world will become less innocent as the stakes in their on-line discussions (the small number of them, that is, that reach audiences who can affect the interests of large organizations) begin routinely to contend with these types of professionalized interventions.

At the same time, PR principles do offer fairly detailed suggestions for the maintenance of a net presence, and these suggestions align fairly well with the practices that I evolved through trial-and-error and intuition for the Risks Digest. The suggestions fall under several headings, such as the "agenda setting" process through which issues are framed and argued. But since my topic here is net presence, I will instead focus on what PR call "image." A "corporate image" refers to the totality of a given audience's ideas and feelings about a corporation. Likewise, a "professional image" refers to the totality of a given audience's ideas and feelings about you as a scientist or banker or author or whatever. Professional image, in turn, has many facets, most particularly what PR people refer to as "credibility." Credibility is a peculiar concept in that it seems to be an attribute of you (whether or not you are credible), whereas in fact it refers to certain attributes of a given audience (whether or not they believe what you say). In a world of image-making, credibility is a form of capital to be managed like any other.

But the facet of professional image that is most hotly contested on the net right now concerns self-interest.

People whose approach to the public forums of the net exudes a basic attitude of taking rather than giving can, as a general rule, expect to be abused. This applies most notoriously to unsolicited advertising on the net, but now the matter is being tested in the huge middle ground.

For example, someone recently posted a message to some educational lists which consisted of a market-research questionnaire on behalf of some educational publishers, and his message was promptly and vigorously denounced in those same public forums. I have read quite a few newsletters by consultants advising companies about how to establish a presence on the net, and they all say that unsolicited, self-serving net messages are liable to cause hate-mail and defamation.

And this is where my messages to Risks come in. Their basic purpose is to provide useful information, including fair summaries of newspaper articles. They have other purposes as well, some of which relate to my own conscious practices of shaping my professional identity, but the interaction they constitute between myself and a reader of Risks is basically equitable. Perhaps it is in the nature of the net that cultural pressures force people to construct equitable interactions with other people. Paper junk mail has a built-in asymmetry, given that it is difficult to hold its sender accountable for bothering you. Stories placed in newspapers by PR people have another, more subtle kind of built-in asymmetry, in that it is difficult discern the hand of the PR person, or, if you discover the PR origins of the article, to affect the image of the people responsible by making this information known to others. Things are more symmetrical on the net--at least so far.

In general, the net constitutes a different type of "imagined community" than the newspaper or television does. When I read an article of any importance in the San Diego Union-Tribune, I can assume that the information it contains will be known to a wide variety of people throughout San Diego. Of course, large segments of San Diego's population read the Los Angeles Times or does not read a newspaper at all. Nonetheless, imaginatively I can construct a sense of the community pervaded at a certain density by simultaneous exposure to this particular medium and its articles. The readerships of net digests are smaller and much more widespread, yet within particular relatively small professional worlds, it is equally possible to imagine a given item being news that affects this "community" with a certain density and simultaneity. The difference is that I can choose to make news myself in just the same way by contributing a message to the list; in doing so, I can actually test, to some extent, the way in which the previously posted material has become common cognitive property of the community it reaches. The medium itself, moreover, is much less filtered than the newspaper, whose "slant" and "bias" must always be a topic of speculation (often deliberately cynical speculation these days). As a result, the imagined community of the net is constituted in relation to a much simpler model of the relationship between the community and the way in which it is represented.

But my net presence consists of more than my messages to Risks. I also maintain a mailing list, the Red Rock Eater (RRE), to which about 1500 people in 37 countries currently subscribe. Once again, the principle of symmetry obtains. The subscribers remain on the list because they obtain something of value from it, and I continue to maintain the list because it is extremely simple, and because I obtain something valuable as well. It evolved out of a list that my friends back in graduate school organized. As we grew apart in various ways, most of the discussion on the list dissolved, and the list became simply a place to forward conference announcements, book reviews, and the like. Seeing this, I realized that I could do a public service by creating a much more widely publicized list that served the same function. That is why I am the only person who can send things to RRE. RRE, then, is not a discussion list but rather a channel through which I can distribute whatever I find interesting.

As with my contributions to the Risks Digest, over time my understanding of RRE has evolved as a coherent picture begins to emerge through my retrospective sense of the items that I have, one by one, decided to pass along to it. Most of them pertain to my interest in the social and political aspects of computing and networking, for example materials from Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility or from various people in the community networking movement, and together they constitute a representation of the network community, and in particular a representation of the process of community-making on the network. For example, I decided at one point that RRE would no longer carry commercial messages. I do not believe that commercial activities should be banned from the net, but they are not part of the picture of the net that I wish to convey through RRE. And that picture of the net is also, obviously, in some way a picture that I present of myself as well.

RRE is thus part of my net presence, and in a number of ways beyond simply its subscribers. More indirectly, it is part of my net presence for people who hear about it from its subscribers. Since the 1500 subscribers are located at about 1400 different sites, this probably includes a lot of people. Others will encounter my net presence through items that RRE subscribers pass along to others, assuming that they maintain the RRE message header. Heaven knows what ideas the recipients of these messages might derive about me, based simply on their contents. The net presence that results from my operation of RRE, then, probably has a fair amount of (most likely harmless) "noise" to it. It is next to impossible to say how many people encounter my name in this way, or how many of them actually pay attention to the messages, or what consequences this has for my life. At the same time, the tendency of certain types of messages to get forwarded all around the net is an extremely important phenomenon. Messages are frequently forwarded several times, and through distribution lists like RRE are capable of blanketing the globe very quickly. I have recently experimented with this effect in distributing an essay I wrote called "Networking on the Network", which I wrote (influenced in part, once again, by my reading of books about advanced social skills for business people and others) about professional networking for graduate students and other relative newcomers to my own particular trade, namely research. [Ed. Note: You can obtain this guide by sending an email message to with the subject "archive send network"]. I had already taken numerous steps to achieve a wide distribution of this essay, and in response I had gotten a moderate number of useful commentaries on it from people in various institutions and countries. These commentaries led me to revise the document several times, until finally quite recently I became happy with it.

Then one day I hit upon the idea of trying to get it into the hands of every graduate student in the world. I got this idea, in part, from my exposure to friends who have been involved in organizations like The Forum and Lifespring that encourage their participants to recruit the entire world to take the courses that those organizations offer. There's something simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming about having a goal that includes the entire world in it, particularly when you have convinced yourself that such a goal can actually be achieved. So I wrote a couple of messages saying, simply enough, I have written this useful document and I wish to get it into the hands of every graduate student in the world, and I sent them to a small number of likely mailing lists. It is impossible to know what effect this is having. I do know that every time I publicize "Networking on the Network" in this way, I shortly afterward receive net messages from people I have never heard of, and who do not appear to have any kind of straightforward institutional connection to me. I like to think that these messages reflect a tiny percentage of the essay's satisfied readership, but the net does not have anything remotely resembling the machinery for audience research and measurement that have arisen to serve those media which pay their bills by selling advertising. Nonetheless, it is a satisfying thought that an entire generation of research people might read "Networking on the Network" at a crucial point in their professional development, and that it might possibly help them to become more autonomous, more successful, and more nurturing of the people and communities around them. Part of me, tugged at by all the business books I have read, keeps trying to figure out how I can convert this phenomenon into a source of income, but it is probably just as well that I have so far failed at this.

My net presence, then, consists of the sum of several different phenomena, each with its own logic and its own place in my own professional life. I have trouble maintaining a disciplined orientation to my own self-interest, so my advice may not be applicable to others who might be more disciplined than I.

I have been driven partly by curiosity and partly by the desire to build a community of people who share my interests and values. At another level, I have been driven by a fascination with the phenomenon of personal identity, which goes beyond one's own physical presence to include all of the ways in which one becomes known to others.

With the net it becomes possible for anybody to, in a certain sense, become famous. Now, I have absolutely no investment in the ego-trip of being famous, but I do have a deep interest in the sociological phenomenon. American culture, being the home of Hollywood and its increasingly global star-making machinery, is pervaded by the culture of stardom, and by ideas about the nature and mechanics of fame.

Internet fame has a different set of dynamics from that. Part of being famous is that everybody knows you're famous, and everybody knows that everybody knows you're famous. It is, in this sense, a heavily reflexive phenomenon. Fame is constructed in large part through the imagined communities formed by print and broadcast media--if a given star appears on TV then I, were I to watch TV, would be able to know that an extremely large number of other people are being exposed to that star in the same way. With the net, by contrast, it is possible to be known to very large numbers of people, without those people being able to reckon quite so precisely how many other people know about you. If a message from you is forwarded to me by my colleague, in other words, I have no way of knowing how many other people have seen that message. Perhaps a million other people have read the message, but unless I saw the message on a mailing list that I knew to have a million members, I cannot estimate just how widely known you have become through the distribution of that message.

For this reason, I sense that print and broadcast media have an important ability to make "official" the public identities of the participants of the net.

For example, I have now been quoted in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about the Internet. The New York Times actually called me an "expert." (I asked my attorney if this was defamatory and she said it was not.) The next day someone on com-priv, discussing that story, included me in a list of "prominent net citizens." This is certainly not the stuff of celebrity, much less immortality, but it does illustrate the sort of reflexive "fame" whose dynamics on the Internet are still uncertain, and no doubt still evolving. For me, this kind of "fame" is good if it allows me to do good in the world, and if it brings new people into my life who are smart and decent and occasionally invite me to conferences in Europe. For others, it might have other purposes. I hope that we, as network citizens, take this opportunity to think through which purposes we would wish the dynamics of net presence to have, and do what we can morally do to shape network culture so that net presence becomes a force for community and solidarity, and not another generation of public-issues manipulation and star-making machinery.

Phil Agre ( is an assistant professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego's Department of Communication. He edits the Red Rock Eater News Service and The Network Observer, and his book, whose working title is "Computation and Human Experience", will be published by Cambridge University Press in the foreseeable future.

Copyright © 1994 Philip E. Agre. All Rights Reserved.

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