The best part of any social gathering is the haphazard array of smaller, more intimate gatherings into which it inevitably breaks down. Just ask Shakespeare, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Edith Wharton. Romeo and Juliet meet during a stolen moment in the middle of a masquerade ball. Nick Carraway inadvertently befriends Jay Gatsby at a party when he’s off to the side, gossiping about Gatsby. The love affair between Newland Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska begins when the pair share a private giggle during a dinner, just out of earshot of the other guests.
I’ve been thinking wistfully about side conversations a lot the past few weeks. Like many others who are sheltering in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, I’ve participated in a number of Zoom happy hours of late. As friends trickle into the videoconference, one by one they demand to know how the friend who lives abroad is doing, you know, under the circumstances; how the friend whose wedding has been postponed is doing, how the friend who works in a hospital is doing. Each of the aforementioned friends then has to respond, while those of us who have been on the call from the start hear their responses for a second, third, fourth time. Eventually, lagging internet connections and the subsequent chaos of people talking simultaneously (“Sorry, you go!” “No, you go!”) force us all into a weird pattern of monologuing one after another. At this point, I always find myself desperately wishing I could discreetly ask another participant to “go get a refill,” or subtly invite them to break away and catch up in a quieter and less chaotic conversation of our own. (Sure, we could start a side chat on another platform or text each other, but it’s not the same.)
Some three or four weeks into virtual social interactions being essentially the only social interactions outside the home for most people, many of us have tried to go about our usual rituals, just online—and found the results a little underwhelming. The life we live now is not conducive to birthday dinners or bar flirtations or run-ins with friends who live down the block. It is small, slow, intimate; every encounter requires planning ahead. Of course trying to jam the happy, sprawling commotion of a night out into a row of little boxes on a laptop screen (itself jammed into the little box that is your home) is jarring. So it seems time to abandon efforts to replicate our old social life in online spaces—and instead adapt our interactions to our new normal. What if, instead, we leaned into the smallness, the slowness, the intimacy? What would our social life look like then?
Obviously, some aspects of prepandemic life can’t be re-created or replaced. In person, humans can sync up to one another through gaze and body language—which is impossible over phone or text, and difficult over videochat. Melissa Mazmanian, an associate informatics professor at UC Irvine, recently had to switch from in-person to Zoom interviews for a research project, “and some of them just don’t work as well,” she said. “I can’t read [subjects’] body language and help them feel comfortable in the way that I can when I’m there.” Nicole Ellison, who teaches at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, noted to me that in addition to messing with body-language clues, many teleconference hangouts require a lot of planning—which can throw off the vibe for friends who otherwise usually hang out on a spur-of-the-moment basis.
But perhaps most important, videochat happy hours fail to measure up to real-life happy hours because we keep comparing them with real-life happy hours, expecting that they will satisfy the same desire with the same efficacy. I told Ellison I found it annoying that I sometimes feel like I need to raise my hand before speaking while I drink beers remotely with my friends, and she replied that this was probably annoying only because I’d imported the expectation of not having to raise my hand from meatspace. Trying to translate your old social habits to Zoom or FaceTime is like going vegetarian and proceeding to glumly eat a diet of just tofurkey, rather than cooking varied, creative, and flavorful meals with fruits and vegetables. The challenge, then, of adapting to an all-virtual social life may lie in reorienting our interactions around the strengths of the platforms where we can be together.
It’s no small task to fully reinvent social life itself from your home, but with any luck, the new ways of spending time together that people discover will succeed in making this period of isolation a little less isolating. Of course, a satisfying all-virtual social life will look different for everyone. For some, this time will present an opportunity to put more thought and energy into individual relationships and deep one-on-one conversations, which translate well to platforms like Zoom or FaceTime. Others who find themselves longing for a friend-group hang or a team dinner might have to get a little more creative.
Some activities groups of friends did together before quarantine are easy to replicate on virtual formats. For example, Ellison told me that her book-club meetings, during which participants are used to taking turns speaking, have translated quite naturally to Zoom. (My own much less dignified version: I recently discovered that certain drinking games I used to play with my college friends—especially those involving a deck of cards that’s handled by only one dealer—can be played perfectly well over videochat.)
Some people have already devised new, surprising ways to enjoy one another’s company remotely with the tools at hand. I was recently invited to participate in a virtual reading of Shakespeare, for example, by some friends who weren’t previously in the habit of getting together to read classic plays. My colleague Julie Beck wrote about a group of friends who hosted a PowerPoint party, in which they took turns presenting amusing (or amusingly self-serious) slide presentations on topics of their choice. For that kind of event, Zoom’s screen-share feature handily facilitates an activity that might actually be harder to pull off in the physical world. Meanwhile, the browser extension Netflix Party—which lets friends sync up movies and TV on Netflix and chat as they watch—saw a surge in search-engine interest in late March, around the time that many shelter-in-place protocols went into effect. Ellison predicted we may soon see people inventing ways to signal that they’re up for an aimless break-room- or bar-style chat, perhaps by signing in to a teleconferencing app, sharing the link with friends, and seeing who pops in.
The runaway success of the online Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing also speaks to the appeal of unfamiliar virtual spaces. In Animal Crossing, players can interact with other online players rather than just the characters created by the game, and players who are friends in the physical world can link up in the game and host one another virtually on their “islands.” Crucially, in spaces like this, the norms and communication patterns of face-to-face interaction don’t exist. “We’re not necessarily expecting [a setting like Animal Crossing] to be the real world, and maybe that’s partly why it works,” Ellison said. She added that she wouldn’t be surprised if virtual-reality experiences also become more popular for much the same reason: They can offer people the ability to roam around and interact in unstructured ways, but with just enough novelty to avoid unfavorable comparisons with face-to-face interactions.
Much of what’s clunky and grating about Zoom happy hours and their ilk is that many people use the still-unfamiliar tech in clunky, grating ways. A lot of Ellison’s friends, she told me, are technology researchers—so they’ve had more exposure to teleconferencing than a good chunk of the population, and know without being told to mute themselves when someone else is talking, and to sit with the light in front of them to avoid showing up on-screen as a spooky silhouette. She expects that most people who have just recently migrated their work to teleconferencing will catch on to subtle, unspoken rules like these pretty quickly: “Norms and practices will evolve over time,” she said. “I promise you—we’ll get better at it.”
I can’t in good faith suggest that hanging out remotely will be an adequate replacement for time spent physically together, even if and when we develop better virtual social skills. Even those of us who succeed in adapting our social life to platforms like FaceTime will still undoubtedly long for the delicious, crackling chemistry of actual face time. But in this moment, it’s worth remembering that the options we have can be nourishing, too—and even satisfying, if we get creative enough. I suspect we’ll figure that out when we stop trying to pretend the tofurkey tastes just as good.
Joe Pinsker contributed reporting.