Let’s meet up tomorrow – your place and mine

Making connections: When coffee was first imported into Europe, it led to a boom in socialising.

Is online socialising as good as meeting in person? The current lockdown has given rise to virtual parties, choirs, and reading groups – and they could become a permanent part of our lives.

It was a wedding to remember – even for the 100 guests who were not there. Richard and Kirsten Groom had been planning the event for 18 months, but faced the prospect of having to postpone it indefinitely as the lockdown loomed. So, they decided to stream the ceremony on Facebook. “The people we have talked to so far have said they felt part of it, even from a distance,” Kirsten says happily.

Some might feel that this is taking online participation too far. But there is no doubt that the restrictions of the pandemic are transforming the way we socialise with apps, such as Zoom and Houseparty, making virtual meetings easier than ever before.

Friends who used to meet in the pub now arrange a time to see each other for a long-distance drink, raising a glass to their computers. The “Quarantini” (a Martini that you drink on your own) has become a fashionable cocktail. A shared supper is more complicated, but many people are cooking together online, sometimes following the same recipe.

Meeting virtually for cultural activities has also become popular. Book groups, with people taking it in turns to read extracts and discuss them, are easy to arrange. Gabriel García Márquez’s novels Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude are obvious choices.

Watching a film at the same time and discussing it online was already a trend, but cinemas which have been closed by the pandemic are doing it in a more organised way. People who would have sat as strangers in the same auditorium can now sit at home and share their views with each other.

Italy has even seen the creation of an online choir, with professional singers and a conductor coming together to give a spirited performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Va Pensiero from his opera, Nabucco. Amateurs may very well follow suit.

Then there are board games. Instead of playing Settlers of Catan in the same room, you can download an app and play a digital version. Sales of this kind of app soared in China as soon as the lockdown there began: one, similar to Pictionary, was downloaded 10 times more than in the previous month. Chess clubs, meanwhile, are organising contests played via Skype.

Is online socialising as good as meeting in person?

Screen-age parties

Some people say that this is the shape of things to come. Meeting up with friends often involves a long journey and paying a lot of money for food and drinks, so talking to them from home saves time and expense. And thanks to the internet, you can be in touch with friends from right across the world, and introduce them to people they would never otherwise come across.

Others argue that there can be no real substitute for a physical meeting. Communication is not just about speech: body language, which you often cannot see on a screen, is important too. And if you are talking in a group online, people can just get up and wander off at any moment, so they are not fully engaged in the way they would be around a supper table.

You Decide

  1. Where would be the best place in the world for a party after the lockdown?
  2. If you could choose any six people in the world to invite to a virtual supper party, who would they be?

Activities

  1. Cook a meal for your family with a friend. Agree on a simple recipe using ingredients you both have at home, and cook it at the same time while talking online.
  2. Write a one-act play about a virtual supper party. Then share it among your friends and perform it together online.

Some People Say...

“As meaningful as friendships we establish online can be, most of us are unsatisfied with virtual ties that never develop into face-to-face relationships.”

Eric Klinenberg, American sociologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Some changes in the way we socialise have been linked to historical events. When coffee was first imported into Europe from Turkey in the 17th Century, it led to a boom in coffee houses as places for people with shared interests to meet. The introduction of street lighting changed things too. Before it, people would often go to bed early, get up after a few hours to visit a neighbour, then go back to bed. Streetlights encouraged them to stay up much later and then sleep right through.
What do we not know?
Whether people will go back to their old habits after the lockdown. Whether it will lead to a permanent blurring of the border between work and play, as people socialise online while working from home. Whether this could lead to data-protection problems if the people concerned are dealing with sensitive information.

Word Watch

Book groups
A group of people who meet regularly to discuss a book they have all agreed to read.
Gabriel García Márquez
A Colombian writer (1927-2014) who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Cholera
A dangerous infection, still present in some parts of the world, which is usually caught from drinking unclean water.
Giuseppe Verdi
An Italian composer (1813-1901) who wrote some of the world’s most popular operas, including La Traviata and Rigoletto.
Follow suit
Do the same thing. The expression comes from card games in which, for instance, if one player plays a diamond, the next one must too.
Body language
A way of communicating through gestures. An obvious example is frowning if you are unhappy.

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