In a pandemic, this is what a college party looks like: 69 people log on to a Zoom call at 11 p.m. on a Friday night. Every few minutes, one of them looks down at the number of participants and says, of course, “nice.” “Nice,” “nice,” “nice,” “nice,” “nice” echoes around the room for a moment, then the conversation returns to adding songs to the collaborative quarantine-themed Spotify playlist playing in the background: someone adds Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE”; someone else adds the Lil Uzi Vert song in which he talks about all his friends being dead.
Almost everyone on the call is using Zoom’s virtual backgrounds, which I do not know how to use. There’s a girl with a Furby behind her, another with a Real Housewives meme, a boy with a blown-up Popeyes chicken sandwich, and at least a dozen people with stills from SpongeBob SquarePants. Attendees shout that they are from New Jersey, Nashville, Atlanta, Texas, Canada, Philly, and then one says that he is “possibly the only person here with actual coronavirus,” and everyone pays attention to him for a little over three minutes, the longest any single person has been permitted to talk uninterrupted. Cats walk through frames, people sip on bottles of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and the conversation drifts from Webkinz to mango Juul pods to the 2005 classic film The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.
A girl who flew back to Japan after her school closed says that she has class from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. now because of the absurdity of doing online learning in a remote time zone. “I’m so shook this plague is happening right now,” someone responds. A poll is taken, and everyone who is in their parents’ basement raises their hand.
On the event page for this gathering—“Ok, Zoomer. A Party”— to which more than 1,000 people expressed interest in attending, Facebook has automatically supplied a warning: The CDC does not recommend large events at this time in the coronavirus pandemic. The (safe, actually!) virtual party was organized by a member of the Facebook group “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens,” which was created less than two weeks ago by a Carnegie Mellon freshman, Mehul Agarwal, and has over 315,000 members at the time of this writing. It is what it sounds like: a place for college students across the country who are now taking classes exclusively via the videoconferencing software Zoom to come and make fun of their bizarre new reality. They joke about teachers who “don’t know how to turn off a YouTube video,” let alone live-stream to 100 people, and they joke about their parents appearing in the background of their calls, bearing cut-up fruit or loud opinions on the lecture. One member of the group has half-jokingly created a Zoom sorority (Zeta Omicron Omicron Mu), and is pairing up mentors and mentees (aka “bigs” and “littles”), as would happen in actual college Greek life. Agarwal has been training active members of the group as moderators ever since its membership started ballooning. Right now there is a team of nine, recruited because of their experience moderating similarly large meme groups.
The day of “Ok, Zoomer. A Party,” I logged on to Facebook around 9 a.m. Since I’d last looked, the night before, someone had created an event page for a group watch of “Tim Allen’s Zoom on Zoom” for the following Sunday at 4:20 a.m. A boy had uploaded a video of himself playing a flute in a nine-rectangle grid. “hi are there any other Bulgarian / Slavs here?? We can make baklava together,” a girl wrote. Around lunchtime, the day’s new memes started coming in. Separating each hour of dull, muscle-eroding entrapment inside one’s own home, a new absurd thing to look at: This bonsai tree looks like a woman with a fantastic butt. This man in a silk kimono is singing “Nothing matters.”
The vibe of the group is one of careful chaos, though after hours it is slightly spicier. “If you’re gonna mute yourself and not show video, why are you here, bro?” the host scolds about a dozen people on the call. In the chat running down the side of the screen, teenagers who do not know each other are amicably exchanging Snapchat handles and attempting to break off into cliques. Someone writes, of course, “I’m tryna see some titties,” to which someone says out loud, “Oh my god, who the hell said I’m tryna see some titties.” The host starts playing one of Kanye West’s songs about Jesus, and everyone starts yelling in irritation. Someone spills White Claw on their laptop. The flashing red circle that indicates that someone is recording the call starts flashing, and everyone yells again.
Yes, none of this is particularly novel internet content or novel teenage behavior, yet it’s comforting to be reminded that Generation Z is so prepared and ready to take their lives online. They are literate in what this kind of socializing demands—moderators and group policies and no recording of the Zoom calls. Their impulse to congregate and post constantly may be often mocked by older adults, but now that impulse is serving them well. They were ready for their new reality, and they’re accepting it with grace (and jokes about a tree shaped like a butt).
The party I attended on Friday night had some competition. Another Zoom party that was advertised in the group, titled “Friday night is club night,” started one hour earlier, and a third, titled “QuarantBae,” was offering to set up thousands of blind dates at once. The latter was hosted by a new quarantine-inspired virtual dating service (also called Ok Zoomer). The tagline on the nascent company’s website is “Love for everyone … at least six feet apart.”
Once a week for the past three weeks, Ok Zoomer creators and Yale University computer-science juniors Ileana Valdez and Patrycja Gorska have been posting a Google form to the Self Quaranteens group. Each Friday, they use a matchmaking algorithm to sift through the responses and set up blind Zoom dates between college students all over the country. This week, they told me, they made 13,000 matches. Right now, the matches are based on class year, rudimentary sentiment analysis—artificial intelligence that can gauge the emotional tone of language—and some keyword searching that mines bios for any evidence of shared interests. Otherwise, it’s pretty random, like the trendy new pandemic equivalent of Chat Roulette, which is called Zoom With Strangers.
Drew Weiss, a 21-year-old Wesleyan University student currently riding out the school closure at home in Philadelphia, signed up for a match this week, saying he doesn’t expect to have a meaningful connection over this kind of medium, but still: “If it becomes the type of thing where it’s like Oh hey, I made a new friend, and I FaceTime them once every couple weeks, that’s pretty cool, you know?” Roshni Edalur, a 20-year-old University of Texas student, told me she felt the same way—she’s been in a long-distance relationship before and would never do it again, but it could be fun to talk for a few days to someone new. “We’re all bored. I love my friends, but I can’t talk to the same people every day.”
Gorska and Valdez are taking Ok Zoomer seriously as both a dating service and a company, and they plan to launch a full app in the next week, but they recognize that a lot of people are trying it due to sheer boredom. “I’m just reading our comments right now, and people specifically say, like, I’m bored, I’m at home, I just really want to do something,” Gorska told me. “Someone literally said, Please end my lonely suffering.”
One of the most popular posts in Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens is not a meme but a question: “Who else is gonna be spending their birthdays in quarantine?” As of this writing, it has more than 3,500 comments, mostly tagging friends and adding a frowning emoji. In response, one boy posted a video of himself playing “Happy Birthday” on a keyboard, saying the post had made him feel “big sad.”
“We Live in Zoom Now,” The New York Times announced last week, a little mournfully—and it is, of course, tragic that so many social needs are now being met only by videochat. At the same time, it’s frankly inspiring that hundreds of thousands of young people are willing to stay at home and game their isolation to make it as fun as possible. I don’t really want to argue that Facebook or videoconferencing software is saving us in these strange and isolating times, but I must admit that, on my third glass of wine, on a video call with 69 strangers (nice!), there came a moment when I was overcome with emotion: Someone I don’t know started playing the German pop trio Cascada’s 2005 hit “Everytime We Touch,” and a handful of musical-theater kids started harmonizing over it, and then someone scrawled over the shared screen, in sloppy red digital pen, the word “bruh.” That’s it. It was so stupid, but it was nice enough in the moment.