Designed in response to the coronavirus pandemic as a way to restore human-to-human contact during this time of social isolation, QuarantineChat is a new voice chat app that lets you talk to strangers at random. Sorry to those who missed the unsolicited nudity of Chatroulette or middle school-level conversations of Omegle — this is a different thing entirely.
"If you're isolated, you're not having those random conversations with your barista or someone on the subway. It’s great for your mental health to connect with someone else going through a similar experience," said cofounder Danielle Baskin, who started QuarantineChat after hearing from people in quarantine and self-isolation about how they missed interacting with random strangers. "We hope our project brings magic to the new reality where hundreds of thousands of people might be stuck inside for the next month."
QuarantineChat is just one of many creative ways people are staying connected (and, let’s be honest, entertained) in an attempt to maintain a semblance of normality while in isolation. A quick poll of my coworkers via Slack revealed that most people have channelled their quarantine-bred existential anxiety into a wide range of activities. Among the results generated by my query ("what the hell are you all doing?") were: "refreshing the New York Times homepage 600 times a day," "a LOT of online shopping," and "selling stuff on ebay lol." It’s ironic given how, just weeks ago, many of us were trying to limit our online time and using smartphone-management tools like Apple’s Screentime and Instagram’s Daily Reminder time limit.
More than anything else, the people are livestreaming. In this time of social distancing, you can suddenly stream pretty much any kind of event you'd otherwise want to attend — from concerts to guided yoga flows, to even Virtual Passover seders. But it’s crucial, also, to acknowledge that there are so many people afflicted by this pandemic who cannot work from home, get paid sick leave, or afford to pad around their homes in pyjamas at a virtual dinner party. These technologies, despite many services instating free trials and plans of their platforms for more accessibility, are a luxury.
Still, with schools and offices migrating to Zoom to facilitate remote work and class, downloads of the app have skyrocketed, as well as its stock price, resulting in a new company value of $29 billion. Microsoft has seen a 500 percent increase in conference call usage since January. Nearly every Story on my Instagram feed is a screenshot of someone I know in a Group FaceTime.
One of my colleagues is attending a Pisces-themed birthday party via Google Hangouts this weekend. The party, which was initially meant to take place at a neighbourhood bar, has since been moved to a video conference call, with the directive to BYOB and "use your best judgement with pants." My college friend group has a Zoom meeting on the calendar this evening, during which we will be drinking the same cocktail in our respective homes and each presenting an original slideshow on any topic of our choosing.
Celebrities, meanwhile, are basically hosting their own reality shows on IGTV, with the likes of Chris Martin, Pink, Keith Urban, Niall Horan, and John Legend performing whole concerts on Instagram Live. Reese Witherspoon read bedtime stories to followers, and Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon recorded at-home editions of their late-night talk shows run amok. After a fan suggested a Homecoming virtual watch party, Beyoncé's hive assembled remotely to watch her iconic Coachella performance last night, an effort retweeted by Bey herself that garnered half a million related tweets in the span of 24 hours. Above all, what I've gleaned from this celeb content is what the insides of their homes all look like, in particular, Jimmy Fallon's: He has a slide!
Social distancing has also meant that formerly exclusive events are now available to a wider audience: The Wing is hosting events like a writing class with Emily Gould and a home cooking lesson with Alison Roman, the latter of which is even available to nonmembers, too. Workout classes from high-end studios Sky Ting and CorePower as well as free trials from Body By Simone, Peloton, Tracy Anderson, and more have gone remote — in many cases, for free — with Instagram Live and web-based streams.
Even preschoolers are migrating playdates to videochat. Blogger Emily Schuman documented her daughter's morning Zoom call with eight of her classmates, which has turned into a 10 a.m. daily virtual hangout, and the comments beneath her post reveal that many other parents of young children are facilitating the same thing. For comedians Kristin Hensley and Jen Smedley of #IMomSoHard, FaceTime is crucial.
"FaceTime has become a bigger commodity than toilet paper in our house. We try, to the best of our abilities and patience, to homeschool from mid-morning to early afternoon, and their reward is FaceTime. So it's a constant threat of 'Do this, or I'll take away FaceTime,'" said Hensley. "We've also allowed our son to play an interactive video game with his best friend. My daughter Eleanor loves to talk to Jen's daughter Delilah on FaceTime and it's so cute because all they do is smile at each other. FaceTime is also really important for us adults — we have a 'happy hour' scheduled with friends tonight, and it's getting me through the day. "
The physical, in-person parts of daily living haven’t necessarily been replaced by the internet, but we’ve certainly created a new normal in professionally, socially, and mindfully staying in touch with people. Technology, in quarantine, is our lifeline to the outside world. This is especially ironic juxtaposed with the growing sentiment that we all spend too much time in front of screens. It’s still true in theory, but no longer having the option to interact physically means learning to use screen time in a more intentional way — actively listening to our friends over FaceTime, mirroring one another’s body language and expressions so as to close the gap of social distancing, no mindless scrolling in sight.