June 29, 2018

Beacons of virtual proximity

Earlier this week, Slack experienced an outage that lasted several hours. About an hour into the outage, I received an email from a colleague:

With Slack down I miss seeing the little green dot indicating your virtual proximity. It always provides me great comfort and cheer.

Aside from the fact that it was a perfect reminder that I have the best colleagues, and that I consider many of them (especially the one who sent the above message) close and dear friends, it was also a lovely spark to get me thinking: what are the markers of proximity, of closeness, that we have in a distributed world?

That little green dot on Slack says much more than I am online: it says that I am available, that you can reach out at any time, that I am close. It is virtual proximity, a marker of comfort and safety.

This is similar to the like” function on so many of our social tools. We may decry the culture of chasing likes” as an exercise in vanity, but perhaps it is more an exercise in chasing comfort. Having someone like our photo or our post tells us that they are there, watching and looking out for us, ready to catch us when we fall, ready to hear us when we need to reach out. We don’t need to be liked, but we need to be reminded that we are not alone.

In an era where our closest friends don’t live on our street, much less our city or country, these little, oft-overlooked and sometimes-subtle markers of proximity are small lifesavers. They tell us that though we may be far away in distance, we are close in spirit and in fondness. They tell us that we are part of a community that will be there for us in our times of need. They tell us that people love us, they notice us, and that by noticing them, we send them our love, too.

When I look at that list of green dots in Slack, I don’t see a group of people getting work done; I see the beacons of people who care about each other, all across the world, telling each other that we are not alone, and we are here together, close while far away.