Where once technology was thought to be the death knell of human social interaction, it is now bringing us together under quarantine. The housebound are nimbly pivoting to virtual social gatherings.
They’re holding birthday parties and bar mitzvahs over video chat, broadcasting DJ sets and streaming concerts (some from the luxurious confines of celebrity homes), and establishing quarantine movie nights on Twitter for “virtual companionship.”
A lot of communal events are taking place on Zoom, a videoconferencing app now being used by many classrooms and businesses (thus transforming it into one of the few companies doing well on the stock market). But it’s not just Zoom.
There are, for example, a small but highly vocal number of people gathering in the digital plazas, pet stores and pizza shops of Club Penguin Online. There are happy hours being held on Google Hangout, and poker games taking place over FaceTime. There are flute meditation sessions on Instagram and thousands of people participating in dance raves that are broadcast on Twitch.
It’s a lot for the internet. On Monday, Discord, the chat app popular with gamers, announced that it would increase its capacity by 20% to keep up with demand; it crashed shortly thereafter.
A VIP Game Night in Hollywood
Jeff Baena, a film director, loves organizing social activities; it was at one of his game nights, in fact, that he met his girlfriend, actress Aubrey Plaza. The couple have been in self-quarantine since March 11 and were feeling extremely antsy.
“Our house is one of those hubs where people are always over and hanging out,” Baena, 42, said by phone this week. “It’s strange to not be able to do that. I was kind of jonesing.”
So he got people together virtually. At 9 p.m. on March 14, a dozen friends — including actress Alia Shawkat, who said she left the set of a television series she was working on early, before it had been officially shut down because of the new coronavirus — joined a group chat for a few hours of Quiplash and other games by Jackbox, an internet game company.
In order for remote players to see the game screen, Baena joined FaceTime from two devices, with one camera aimed at his TV.
Of course, the pandemic loomed large over the course of the night. At one point, someone coughed and a chorus of concerned voices wondered who it was.
“It was me!” said Almitra Corey, 40, who is currently working as the production designer for the final season of the Netflix show “GLOW.” (Filming was paused, as for all other Netflix shows, last Friday.)
“I just smoked weed,” she said. “Relax.”
A Remote Rave for 5,000 Guests
In New York this past Sunday, the city’s hottest nightclub was a virtual day rave. Nine hours of electronic music were streamed from an empty warehouse in Brooklyn to nearly 5,000 guests from around the world, including some in Berlin and Seattle, all of whom were watching on Twitch.
The event, which showcased nine electronic musicians, was put together by Christine McCharen-Tran, a founder of Discwoman, a talent agency in Brooklyn and collective of femme and nonbinary DJs and music producers.
“I texted all the DJs that I know that need support right now,” McCharen-Tran, 31, said. After gatherings of more than 500 were banned in New York on March 13, she said, “I was seeing so many artists being affected directly.”
So last Friday, she reached out to a lighting designer friend, Michael Potvin, who provided a physical space and a domain name (harrisonplace.nyc). McCharen-Tran got to work building out the site and booking artists.
By the afternoon, harrisonplace.nyc was live and vibing.
“For all of the talk about tech distancing us, it felt very intimate and joyful,” said Jess Ramsey, 35, in a phone interview. Ramsey, who works on hardware and gaming partnerships at Spotify, projected the rave onto her living room ceiling.
“We’re the most stressed we’ve probably ever been, and there’s no place to go, but you can dance in your living room,” she said. “It was the first time we had danced in a week, and it felt really special.”
Strict safety and hygiene protocols were in place even in the empty warehouse. All DJs wore latex gloves and had access to disinfectant wipes and soap. The suggested size of gatherings has shrunk daily and rapidly, from 500 people to 50, and most recently to 10. At the time, McCharen-Tran’s 10-person maximum was out of an abundance of caution; now it would be pushing the limit.
Many other bands are performing in empty concert halls for the digital masses. The metal band Code Orange performed a record-release concert with an elaborate multimedia production to an empty room, for example, streaming to more than 12,000 fans.
In order to help fans support the artists in real time, McCharen-Tran and other producers of these events display the Venmo user names of artists at the bottom of the screen during their sets.
A Google Hangout Happy Hour
Lauren Ashley Smith, a TV writer from St. Louis who lives in Los Angeles, turned to Google Hangout this past Saturday to host a digital happy hour with a few close friends. That turned into 57 close friends, and then, over 60 once her sisters invited friends of their own.
“I know it seems like I invited a lot of people,” Smith, 34, said, “but I did carefully curate the people that were invited.”
To fit the criteria, a guest had to be someone Smith felt “wouldn’t take it too seriously” and who was “more extroverted — or would be willing to talk to a bunch of strangers they didn’t know.”
She knew everybody was just home alone, bored or scared. So, she said, “I made a run of show.”
The activities included a game Smith invented (“in 30 seconds,” she said) called “Who’s That Girl?” She would hold up photos of celebrities (saved on her phone) to the laptop’s camera, and players earned points by being the first person to correctly type the subject’s first and last name in the chat section of the Hangout window.
The celebrities were “obscure, to some,” Smith said. (They included Lala Kent from “Vanderpump Rules,” singer Keke Wyatt, Christine Brown from “Sister Wives” and Esther the Wonder Pig, whom Smith described as “a pig influencer on Instagram.”)
The winner received a prize of $50 on the cash-sharing app Venmo. It was ultimately donated to the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, which provides services to currently and formerly homeless women.
After the hangout, Smith said she received “a lot of heartfelt messages” from participants thanking her for including them. She “absolutely” intends to do it again.
“It’s really easy,” she said. “Social distancing is for the greater good of everyone. And you can still make it really fun.”
Before the event, it struck her that she and her wife had yet to host a party at their new home. “But now I feel like we have.”
Conspiracy Theories on Club Penguin
There once was an online Disney media platform called Club Penguin, which was a kid-friendly social media hub where users could interact as animated penguins in a virtual world. It was formally discontinued in 2017.
But the internet being the internet, there are still multiple simulacra of Club Penguin around: unlicensed duplications hosted on independent servers, filled with the same population of late-born millennials and first wave Gen Z-ers that flocked to the Disney version by the hundreds of millions.
Last Friday, masses of users assembled in a popular iteration of the original pretend world — this one called Club Penguin Online — to share their anxieties, wishes and predictions for the uncertain future, and to ask everyone where they were from. Also, to keep frantically serving one another digital pizza.
There existed eerie similarities between the cartoon penguin world and humanity’s own, under quarantine. The sports stadium was devoid of chatting penguins. The skate park was nearly empty; ditto the dance club.
In other corners of the penguin universe, users delighted in that activity increasingly outlawed by public health officials: congregating in large groups.
Although conversations can be hard to follow on Club Penguin Online — a user’s typed message appears briefly above his or her representative penguin’s head wherever on the screen that penguin happens to be standing (or dancing), before disappearing forever — the pizza shop became, around midday, a kind of political salon.
One penguin asked another penguin that purported to be from Italy if, in real life, the grocery stores were out of pasta. Other flightless birds lamented the quality of their officials’ responses to the crisis.
A penguin in a chef’s hat approached and said, “They aren’t telling anyone anything,” before walking away to take another penguin’s pizza order.
Outside, in the plaza, a navy blue penguin was spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories. This penguin had presented itself as an expert on the novel coronavirus, imploring fellow penguins to pose to it any medical questions.
One penguin wondered how likely it was to become infected; the blue penguin replied confidently: “if ur under 60 years old odds are 0,2.”
“Do you think someone created coronavirus?” a coral pink penguin said.
This was the opening the blue penguin had been waiting for. “YES,” it said. “Have u heard of 5g”? It went on to describe (in halting increments, because messages typed in Club Penguin Online have a limit of 64 characters) an online conspiracy theory that attributes virus symptoms to radiation caused by wireless internet.
The penguins in the plaza did not seem convinced.
Online social gatherings are also taking meditative forms. Justine Stephens, 27, guided a live flute meditation on her Instagram account last weekend to help about 40 friends and viewers deal with stress and anxiety during the pandemic.
“Needed this and didn’t know it. Super anxious about the start of the week,” read one comment during the livestream. “Thank you for curing my Sunday scaries,” someone else added.
This past Sunday, Mikael Acatl, an energy worker and shaman who uses the pronoun “they,” held a healing session from their Brooklyn apartment, surrounded by plants, burning copal and bathed in golden-hour light.
And Josh Peck, 39, and Eliza Philpott, 31, who operate a retreat space in the Hudson Valley in New York, livestreamed a sound bath for about a hundred digital participants. They used two high-end microphones to funnel dual sources of audio to listeners simultaneously, which created the sensation of being in a three-dimensional space.
Other soothing practices included a reading by writer Ashley C. Ford, of poems by Pablo Neruda. More than 100 people tuned in to the half-hour broadcast on YouTube.
There was also free “mom” advice dispensed by Mary Laura Philpott, an author in Nashville, who tweeted that she had “Big Mom Energy to spare. (Seriously, my teenagers are over it.)”
“I was like, Who needs the mom to tell you to drink your water, to wash your hands, that it’s going to be OK, to get off the internet?” Philpott said by phone. (She was surprised that the answer was: lots and lots of people.)
Gamers are getting into it, too. On Twitch, Nick Polom, a streamer with some 400,000 subscribers, took a break from streaming rounds of Apex Legends starting on March 11, to share more timely “Just Chatting” broadcasts.
Each is hours long, with names like “Doomsday cooking stream” (in which he livestreamed his stir fry, grocery rundown, and jokes about frozen chicken tenders) and “Girlfriend and Boyfriend stuck in quarantine!” (in which he livestreamed himself playing virtual reality games with his partner, for a remote audience of thousands).
As novelist Sarah Schulman put it after a reading of hers was canceled in New York (and she offered her own individual readings by phone): “If all the institutional theaters are closed and all the competitive curated spaces are closed, we’re back to just entertaining each other.”
Online 12-Step Meetings
Alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery frequently warn each other that isolation is a route to relapse; going to in-person 12-step meetings, sharing personal stories and talking with other addicts and alcoholics is a means of connection for many in recovery.
While long-distance 12-step recovery has existed since at least World War II, and moved to email and online chat and video with the rise of the internet, much of 12-step recovery still relies on in-person meeting.
With the health guidance for people to not congregate in large groups, those who rely on Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups have organized quickly. Many meeting chairs across the country are creating regular meetings on Zoom.
“Many of us have been saying in these online meetings that if we were still drinking and using drugs this would be the perfect environment to self-destruct — fear of the unknown, lack of support, isolation, financial insecurity,” said Nanea, who asked to be identified by only her first name in accordance with recovery guidelines.
She created her own version called the Online Recovery Group. In addition, the central offices of regional 12-step groups have jumped in to show what meetings are canceled and which are replaced by chat, video or email.
“We need to have a way to share our experience, strength and hope to new people struggling with addiction and alcoholism,” Nanea said. “I know a lot of people, not just people in recovery, are afraid and feeling isolated right now. I feel very fortunate to have an active community that knows how to support each other.”
And Virtual Religious Occasions
On Sunday morning, the Redemption Church in Costa Mesa, California, set up its first livestream, in part to broadcast two infants’ dedication ceremonies.
Kristin Castillo, 30, a brand and marketing consultant, and her husband, Nate, 30, had originally planned to gather their family, friends and loving congregation (about 200 members strong) to witness and participate in the religious service, which would officially welcome their newborn son into the church. Afterward, there was to be a celebratory lunch.
“Obviously,” she said, “that didn’t happen.”
Instead, Kristin and Nate’s in-person guest list was trimmed to one of each of their parents. When the ceremony reached the point where their infant’s “spiritual aunts and uncles” were meant to affirm their support, the family and friends that were asked to accept this duty participated remotely.
“They were texting us in real time: ‘Yes! Yes!’” Kristin Castillo said.
While she found the experience of being on camera “nerve-wracking,” she described their baby, nearly 8 months old, as “surprisingly cooperative.”
“Watching a crazy little guy having a good time, hopefully that lifted someone’s spirits,” she said. “And, ironically, by stripping all of the social trappings away, it helped us focus more on the intent of the actual ceremony.”