The Zoom party is the bridge we need in these times of social distancing and isolation; what it's like to 'attend' one

In varying degrees of enforced isolation, people all over the world have tuned to “Zoom parties”, promoting a slew of editorials about the app, and how it’s the only form of social interaction many users have during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Nikita Rana April 23, 2020 12:19:06 IST
The Zoom party is the bridge we need in these times of social distancing and isolation; what it's like to 'attend' one

She’d never have agreed to meet him, if it wasn’t for Zoom. My friend Olga found herself on a dating app a few months ago that prides itself on the tagline “no chat, no faff, just dates”. If you match with someone, they straight away set up a date and time for you to meet them. No talking or texting in between. Olga signed out of the app the moment her first date was set up. “I might end up with someone dodgy. Who’s to say! But then when they moved to video dates over Zoom because of the coronavirus lockdown, I felt like I could give it a shot,” she says.

For her virtual date, Olga dressed up, poured herself a glass of wine and logged in on time. Her date, on the other hand, was in a shabby old t-shirt, and obviously hadn’t put in any effort at all. They still ended up talking for an hour. “I didn’t want to be rude!” Olga says.

***

Zoom, a remote conferencing services company headquartered in California, has seen a wild surge in its popularity ever since the COVID-19 outbreak made video chat essential. Sure, the app was used before for work meetings but with the company making many of its paid features free due to the healthcare crisis (it allows up to 100 users to video chat for unlimited hours) its rise has been unmatched. It is now the second most downloaded app on Android. Weekend parties, yoga sessions, birthday celebrations, dates — they’re all happening on Zoom. And much like the real world, there are gatecrashers — sometimes pretty unsavoury ones.

The Zoom party is the bridge we need in these times of social distancing and isolation what its like to attend one

Privacy hacks and “zoombombing” have sent Zoom into correction mode and already pushed some people to alternatives like Microsoft Teams. But most still stick to Zoom, because of the intuitive features like the way it highlights a speaker with a green frame, and the large number of participants it allows at once.

***

In varying degrees of enforced isolation, people all over the world have tuned to “Zoom parties”, promoting a slew of editorials about the app, and how it’s the only form of social interaction many users have during this crisis.

The introvert/extrovert divide is perhaps less marked in Zoom parties although it still exists: the more sociable among us are having 2-3 of these over the weekend, and even on some weeknights, posting screenshots to Instagram. The introverts say they didn’t use the app until work forced them onto it. The strangest thing about the Zoom party — or at least the ones I encountered — was that everybody is tuned into the same conversation. There are no small groups/cliques that break-away, no one-on-ones and no hiding in a corner with a drink. Everybody is visible and only one person talks at a time. If the group is very large, you can get away with staying quiet, but you’ll still have to stay till the end of the ‘party’ to be polite.

***

Tara Kaushal, author of Why Indian Men Rape, recently had a seven-hour birthday party on Zoom with her closest friends joining in from all over the world. She cut a cake and pretended to feed it to everyone on the call. “Nobody took their phone or laptop to the bathroom, nothing strange happened. And nobody dressed up. We were all in our pajamas, in our beds. There was food, kids, pets and alcohol.” One of her friends almost passed out before the call ended; he’d had too much whisky. But he didn’t have to drive home, because he was already in bed.

The Zoom party is the bridge we need in these times of social distancing and isolation what its like to attend one

A Zoom party in progress

The Zoom party is the bridge we need in these times of social distancing and isolation what its like to attend one

The Zoom party has some advantages when compared to its real and physical alternative: You only pay for your own food and drinks, you don’t have to put up with unwanted karaoke (or shout to make yourself heard over loud music), and you don’t have to leave the house. Like real life, there are awkward pauses. You can’t think of anything to say and neither can anyone else. But those always pass. However, you never know when the Zoom party will wrap up. With work conference calls, there’s always an end time but with the casual party, they only last till the conversation is flowing easily. Once people start saying things like “I have to cook dinner” or “I have to look after the baby tomorrow” or “I’m too drunk”, you know the end is near. From a 10-people “survey” I did, here’s what I found —

First date with person you don’t hit it off with: 1 hour

Catching up with college friends you haven’t spoken with in months: 1.5-2 hours

Birthday party with the family: 20 minutes

Party with friends from all over the world (everybody’s drinking and playing online games): 7 hours.

***

It’s not like we didn’t know about video conferencing before the coronavirus, but the mandatory social distancing has made us more amenable to using it to reach out (indeed, for most of us it may be the only option to reach out). My husband, for instance, could definitely have Skyped with his college friends — all of whom live in different countries — before. But it took a pandemic and a lockdown to get them to do it. Apart from their one deliberate reunion and yearly shaadi meetups, this has been their first group video chat in a decade.

My closest friend and I got on a call with a mutual friend who had attended the same Math tuition class as us back in Class 12, in 2005. She moved abroad right after the board exams and we never met or spoke with her after that, barring a few birthday messages exchanged on Facebook. Our call lasted two hours even though all of us shared only compressed versions of what had happened over the last 15 years. Now, we might even do a holiday together. Conclusion: Zoom parties are super successful with people you haven’t met in a really long time and people who you’re very comfortable with. Everything else may be just a little more awkward.

Tonight, I’m doing a Zoom party with my in-laws. Until a few weeks ago, I was used to meeting them every weekend. There wasn’t any pressure to say anything. We would eat, play board games or watch something. Now, I’m nervous. What am I going to say? Maybe I can suggest we play 'Codenames'.

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