The Green Spot of Conditional Availability

On google chat, the little green spot next to a contact’s name means that s/he is ‘available’. In the traditional sense of the word, this would indicate that you can start a chat with the person. ‘Hi’, you could type, ‘Are you there?’ After all, being available implies being ready to communicate with whoever wants to communicate with you.

Ah but nothing is that simple in today’s world. Be honest- how many times have you seen that little green spot (or whatever the corresponding symbol is on any other chat platform), typed your little existential call into the cyber wilderness, and then been met with complete silence?

Most of us don’t even see this as a communicative blip anymore. Asking ‘Are you there’ is like ringing a doorbell. The person can’t do a thing if s/he isn’t home. So there you have it. Non-responder absolved, problem solved.

But wait! What of that pesky green spot? If the standard existential question is like ringing the doorbell, the green spot is akin to leaving the door open. ‘I’m not only home,’ it seems to say, ‘I’m waiting for you to come in, sit down and chat with me.’

You know what happens when you walk into someone’s house and you sit down and start talking, only to find that they aren’t actually there? At worst you might get arrested. At best you come away feeling like the world’s biggest fool.

I know that we have become so accustomed to this sort of thing that we don’t even think about it anymore. We have socialized ourselves to adapt to the duality of our existence online. There is the person, and there is the computer (or smartphone, as the case may be). The green spot indicates that the device is ready to carry the communication, but offers no guarantees about the availability of the person who may have signed in and then stepped away from the device or forgotten to sign out before going into a meeting. Not many people remember or even think it’s important to switch to a ‘busy’ or ‘away’ status when they are not in fact available. I know I don’t.

It’s when you are eager to chat with someone that this zone of human/machine non-contiguity becomes obvious. Is she there? If she is, why doesn’t she respond? If she isn’t, what’s with the green spot? Is she available? Or (and this is probably the most damaging line of thought) is she selectively available- chatting away furiously with others but stubbornly refusing to respond to me?

On the horns of such dilemmas are perched the fates of relationships dependent on computer-mediated communication. Which is why I value face-to-face interactions the most. Some of my best friends are people I have only ever met online. But always there is the expectation that one day we will meet offline. In the meantime, we are quick to apologize to each other if there is any hint of non-response, or even a response that is delayed beyond a reasonable time frame.

Graciousness, you see, never goes out of style.

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