Dynamic awareness theory

Dynamic awareness theory (DAT) offers an alternative to explaining the creation of awareness in distributed work groups. DAT highlights the important role of users and social practices in awareness creation. The theory further points to the dynamic nature of awareness creation: Awareness emerges over time and depreciates when not being actively attended to by the users.[1]

The status of this theory is uncertain, as it has not yet been published in an established journal. However, first drafts have been published in the internet. See [2] for the current version of the paper.



According to the taxonomy proposed by Gregor,[3] the dynamic awareness theory qualifies as a type II theory, meaning that the theory explains how and why things are. It contributes to enhance the understanding of awareness via mediated communication. Accordingly, four elemental aims of this theory will be elaborated on in the following[1]

  1. Explain the nature of awareness. This section defines how awareness in mediated communication is to be conceptionalized
  2. Introduce the idea of fundamental types of awareness and depict the situation-depentent nature of awareness needs. The Question, what the basic prerequisites of awareness creation and maintenance are, shall be answered here.
  3. Explain the mechanisms of awareness creation.
  4. Clarify the role of technology in the process of awareness creation. This section shall explain in what ways communication technology affects awareness creation.

The dynamic nature of awareness

A person's awareness is not a static state which can be arbitrarily turned on and off. It is rather a slow build-up of information about his surroundings.[4] Regarding instant messaging as an example, before the actual communication process takes place, one must feel that the other person is capable of receiving and responding. Otherwise it would not make sense to write a message in the first place. This feeling of presence is essential for the continuation of interaction. Once a response is received, the presence of the other is confirmed and as the conversation continues, this feeling will increase in intensity. On the other hand, if no more messages are received, the feeling of the other's presence can vanish quickly. This nature of awareness underlines one of the most important aspects of DAT, which is that:

"Awareness develops gradually over time, meaning different levels of awareness can exist."
— Proposition 1: Kai Riemer, Russel Haines, 2008[1]

By communicating intensively via mediated means, one can gather enough information about the other's environment in order to create himself a quite accurate picture of the other's surroundings. This might be where the other person is situated and/or what his feelings and thoughts are. As time goes by and no more messages are exchanged, these perceptions start to fade and gradually diminish unless they are replenished.

"Awareness requires active maintenance because it diminishes over time."
— Proposition 2: Kai Riemer, Russel Haines, 2008[1]

Additionally, one has to consider that every person might approach mediated communication in a different way. Ergo, the build-up and fade-away of awareness depends on a person's affinity to communication habits as well as communication technology. Let us look at a person, who is not used to mediated communication and rather prefers face-to-face interaction. It will be much harder for him, to attain even the most fundamental awareness types as stated in the next section. Thus, it might be literally impossible for him to trust a person whom he has never seen or met before.

"Awareness is an individual and not a group-level or workspace-level construct."
— Proposition 3: Kai Riemer, Russel Haines, 2008[1]

The principal statement of DAT is that awareness in mediated communication builds and diminishes over time and that it is unique to every participating individual.

Awareness needs

As far as face-to-face interactions, where people actually meet one another, are concerned, individuals shape their interaction and interpretation of the other's actions in the context of their experience. This means for instance, when one communicates with another person whose character traits fit into a certain category, you mentally take the role of the other in order to interpret his statements. The fundamental driver of behavior in the initial stages of face-to-face interaction is the urge to reduce uncertainty.[5] Focussing back to mediated communication, uncertainty extends into areas that are normally taken for granted when speaking face-to-face. When one starts a conversation via instant messenger, the very fundamental perceptions, which we take for granted, are filled with uncertainty. In a mediated context, other needs are to be taken into primary consideration. These are whether others are present, whether activity will take place and to sense the identity of the others.[1]


Presence in any mediated communication encounter means to believe that another might receive and respond to one's messages.[1] This virtual presence is created with the aid of technology. The point of mediated communication is that dialog partners do not necessarily have to share a common location in the world. While presence in the traditional meaning is "to be there" referring to one's bodily existence, presence in a mediated context means to be near and capable of manipulating technology. However presence in a physical manner is not signaled to the others the way it is done in face-to-face communication.

"[A]lthough the 'full conditions of co-presence' exist only in unmediated contact between those who are physically present, mediated contacts that permit some of the intimacies of co-presence are made possible in the modern era by electronic communication"
— Giddens A. ,1984[6]

Presence is the most vital need in mediated communication because one gains understanding of the actual presence of someone else in the real world. Once presence is established at a minimum level, activity and identity are important as well.[1]


Activity refers to the degree to which one is aware that something has happened, is happening, or is likely to happen in the shared virtual space.[7][8][9] Keeping the context of mediated communication in mind, awareness of activity ranges from the perception that something has happened to the point where one might understand why things happen and develop a sense of what will happen next. Simply said, activity is perceived when others elaborate on their current tasks. This can then be extended to who the person on the other end actually is, leading to the third fundamental awareness need.


A minimal notion of identity is captured in the degree to which one is aware of others in the mediated space as distinct individuals.[10][11] There are three levels of identity awareness.

  1. To sense the quantity of others that are present in a shared space
  2. To feel that one can distinguish among distinct others. In this level, one knows that there are individuals among a greater mass of people.
  3. To feel that one can accurately quantify the number and personally identify other individuals

These levels are sequently reached the longer one observes that distinct others are acting in a mediated space, which is created by groupware of any kind. Identity awareness arises as a person begins to feel that other persons are present in a shared space. However, this knowledge of identity does not necessarily mean knowing someone else's name. It rather represents the perception of other individuals instead of a mass of "others".[1]

Metaphor: Pools and Streams

This section's content primarily refers to.[1]

In order to illustrate the notion of awareness as a construct, the so-called metaphor of "pools and streams" shall be introduced. One must always keep in mind that awareness builds up slowly, creating the idea that there are "pools of awareness" held within users. This idea enables mediated interaction to evolve.

"In essence, the pools of awareness hold the information one needs to align the individual activities of oneself and others in the shared distributed space"
— Dourish, P. and V. Bellotti ,1992[12]

Having pools as somewhat static containers, dynamic components are needed as well. These are "streams of practice", which fill pools. Streams are signaled from others and are presented to the user by mediating technology. The pieces of information which are transported by streams are determined by practices of the interactants.

As mentioned, streams are supposed to (re-)fill pools. This becomes necessary once in a while because pools of awareness have a tendency towards evaporation, meaning that awareness will vanish at some point of time. This behavior results in a need for replenishment. To sum it up, the metaphor of pools and streams creates a visual representation of a construct created by social practices.

The model

As the fundamental needs for awareness (presence, identity, activity) have been introduced above, one can introduce relations that link them, creating a hierarchy of awareness needs. First of all, one must distinguish between high-level and low-level needs. An alternative classification is to differentiate between encounter-specific and relation-specific information. These two classifications match as explained here:

Pool hierarchy of high-level awareness needs
Image 1: Pool hierarchy of high-level awareness needs.
  1. high-level needs (encounter-specific information): presence, identity, activity. These are the fundamental awareness needs and are very evaporative. They have to be re-established every time a new mediated encounter is found.
  2. low-level needs (relation-specific information): roles, preferences, skills, emotional states, ... These are so-called long-lived needs. They need time to create since prerequisites are required. On the positive side, the information in these pools lasts much longer and only needs replenishment once in a while.
"Higher-level and fundamental types of awareness (such as presence, identity, and activity) are proportionally more encounter-specific and diminish rapidly when not attended to, while lower level needs are proportionally more relation-specific and diminish much more slowly."
— Proposition 7: Kai Riemer, Russel Haines, 2008[1]
Pool hierarchy in agreement group
Image 2: Pool hierarchy in agreement group.

Some pools are prerequisites for others as shown in Image 1. The grey buckets represent pools, which are held within one person. The arrows indicate prerequisition, making presence a prerequisite for both identity and activity in this case. As streams of interaction(or practice) fill pools, one must know that overspill from pools does not automatically fill others. Instead, specific needs must be met in order to fill them. Imagine that another person gives you detailed information about his presence, mentioning his location, properties of his surroundings, online status, etc.. This however, does not mean that facts about his current activities are conveyed.

When looking closely at Image 1, a slight difference in pool depth can be noticed. As just mentioned, pools can be filled beyond their capacity resulting in spilling over. The reason why the higher-level pools are shallower than lower-level ones is that they cannot contain as much information. Taking presence as an example, this means that when the point is reached when one knows nearly every piece of detail of the other's presence, all succeeding information is superfluous.

Situation-specific nature of awareness needs

Pool hierarchy in task-oriented group
Image 3: Pool hierarchy in task-oriented group.

Keeping in mind that the diversity of pools differs when analyzing different mediated scenarios, some exemplary settings shall be mentioned.

A consensus seeking group consists of interactants, who are supposed to reach an agreement. By doing so, one needs to identify the others in order to understand who they talk to. Once people get to know one another, the importance of awareness of preferences grows. When listening to others, one is influenced by them because the mind automatically takes position of the others' ideas and propositions. This does not mean that interactants bluntly accept the ideas of the others. Instead this rather refers to awareness creation which is triggered when one switches roles with the others.

A task-oriented group is aimed at accomplishing a common goal, which can be producing software or filling Wikipedia with content. In order to reach these types of goals effectively and efficiently, there have to be roles, which are occupied by the interactants. These roles are assigned according to one's skill. Ergo, one needs to know the others' skills and capabilities in order to assign a role for information processing tasks. As one attains knowledge about skill, reliability and availability, trust is established and an appropriate role can be assigned to the particular person.

Role of technology in awareness creation

Numerous pieces of literature refer to the idea that awareness is created by means of technology. Accordingly, different types of awareness are derived from the referenced object, to which the awareness is directed. For example, task-related awareness is related to the activities of people, while social awareness to emotional states of others.[2]

The creation of awareness is seen as a product, provided by technology, since it is technology which created virtual interaction environments in oder to imitate the real world. However, this approach is not shared by all awareness researchers.

So far, awareness has been referred to as a result of shared practices. In fact, technology plays a vital role in the process of awareness creation. However, it cannot create awareness by itself, although technology features support awareness. Nevertheless, signals are under the control of the interactants at all times. As a result, the dynamic notion of awareness moves beyond a technology-centric view by treating awareness as a product of practices, which are adapted to technology.[2]

"Technology enables (and constrains) awareness creation, but in and by itself does not create awareness; rather, technology features must be embedded into user practices."
— Proposition 12: Kai Riemer, Russel Haines, 2008[1]

As far as mediating technology is concerned, volume plays a major role when filtering information from an incoming stream. Volume in this context means, that some aspects of awareness are built at a faster rate than others. It is determined by the nature and features of mediating technology in use. Accordingly, richer media results in either a higher fill-rate of a pool and/or multiple pools are supplied with information simultaneously.

"Awareness creation is contingent on the volume of communication, which is influenced by media selection.

Interactants can increase the speed of awareness creation by selecting richer media.

The volume of awareness that is communicated over a given medium increases over time as interactants build shared practices of communication."
— Proposition 14: Kai Riemer, Russel Haines, 2008[1]

In order to make the idea of volume clearer, imagine chatting with a random person. When using mediating technology like an instant messenger, presence awareness is somewhat difficult to convey. The online status of the other does not necessarily imply him being at his computer. Neither does a sporadic exchange of messages because as one pauses for more than a minute, presence awareness starts to evaporate. In contrast, let us use a video conference application. By seeing the other interactant in near real-time, one gets a quite good idea of the other's presence. The volume of the secondly mentioned technology is higher as far as presence awareness is concerned. This principle can be applied to numerous other awareness types.

Identity is easier to convey since the need of presence must be met before-hand. It is usually supported since something like a "profile" must be created in oder to interact with others. And even if this function is not given, users voluntarily reveal their identity because others want to know who they are talking to.

All mediating technology channels some activity. Otherwise it would not be considered mediating technology. Activity which is conveyed by technology, can be subdivided into two categories again. The first is activity as part of conversation. Interactants exchange information about their previous, current and future actions. On the other hand, there is activity as part of environment which is often irrelevant for the ongoing conversation. As a result, this second type can "muddy" the stream as it is in fact superfluous and might disturb the actual communication.

All things considered, if mediating technology lacks fundamental needs, users try to compensate this deficit by using other aspects of the technology.

"Mediating technologies that do not suitably convey presence, identity, and activity information will lead to the emergence of user practices that convey and/or coordinate such information."
— Proposition 15: Kai Riemer, Russel Haines, 2008[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Kai Riemer, Russel Haines (2008), Dynamic Awareness Theory: Awareness in mediated Communication as Pools fed by Streams of Practice, The University of Muenster - Germany, Old Dominion University http://www.business.uq.edu.au/download/attachments/14483973/kreimer-paper.pdf 
  2. ^ a b c Kai Riemer, Russel Haines (2009), Pools and Streams: A Theory of Dynamic, Practice-Based Awareness Creation in Mediated-Communication, Paris: Proceedings of JAIS Theory Development Workshop. http://sprouts.aisnet.org/519/1/JAIS-TDW08-109.pdf 
  3. ^ Gregor, S. (2006), The Nature of Theory in Information Systems, 611-642, MIS Quarterly (30) 3 http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= 
  4. ^ Poe, E. A. (2003), The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Mystery and Imagination 
  5. ^ Berger, C. R. and R. J. Calabrese (1975), Some Explorations in Initial Interaction and Beyond: Toward a Developmental Theory of Interpersonal Communication, pp.99-112, Human Communication Research (1) 2 
  6. ^ Giddens, A. (1984), The Constitution of Society, pp.99-112 (9th ed.), Cambridge: Polity Press 
  7. ^ Gross, T., C. Stary, and A. Totter (2005), User-Centered Awareness in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work-Systems: Structured Embedding of Findings from Social Sciences, pp.323-360, International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction (18) 3 
  8. ^ Gutwin, C. and S. Greenberg (1996), Workspace Awareness for Groupware, pp.208-209, Vancouver, Canada: CHI 96 
  9. ^ Steinfield, C., C.-Y. Jang, and B. Pfaff (1999), Supporting virtual team collaboration: the TeamSCOPE system, pp.81-90, Proceedings of the international ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supporting group work http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=320306 
  10. ^ Gross, T. and M. Specht (2001), Awareness in Context-Aware Information Systems, pp.173-181, Mensch & Computer 2001: 1. Fachübergreifende Konferenz http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= 
  11. ^ Gutwin, C. and S. Greenberg (2002), A Descriptive Framework of Workspace Awareness for Real-Time Groupware, pp.411-446, Computer Supported Cooperative Work (11) 4 
  12. ^ Dourish, P. and V. Bellotti (1992), Awareness and Coordination in Shared Workspaces, pp.107-114, Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Proceedings of the 1992 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=143457.143468 

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