Nowadays, the art of socializing is very different from the weekly brunch of Sex and the City, the daily meetings (showered with coffee, discussion and laughter) of Friends or the chaotic dinners of Girls. In full social distance, and with no date set for reunion, how do we keep the feeling of togetherness alive?
Restaurants are closed, bars are locked and terraces are shut down. The cinema has no spectators, the theater has no audience, and the jazz night has no warm clapping. Messages are no longer about meetings in the usual place, phone calls are no longer invitations to dinner at home, and notifications are no longer telling us that an Uber is waiting for us. Netflix doesn't seem to have an end in sight, Instagram looks like a bottomless pit and Tinder only takes us so far – which isn't that far after all. In fact, it is not far at all. We could go on and on about all the ways in which the norms of social distance - the physical act of keeping a distance of at least two meters from other people, of not meeting in groups and avoiding the (practically extinct) crowds - have come to completely change the way we relate to family, friends, colleagues and strangers, but we imagine that this episode of Black Mirror (sorry, this new reality of ours) does not need major introductions. After all, many of us have been living for more than a month in this script written by Quentin Tarantino (when the director said that his tenth film could be of the horror genre, that’s not what we had in mind), and there are those who believe that the story is far from over - according to a study conducted by a group of Harvard TH researchers Chan School of Public Health, published in the scientific journal Science on April 14, a single effort of social distance will not be enough to control the pandemic and the secondary peaks of the virus may be more pronounced if continuous restrictions are not imposed.
"Intermittent social distance may be necessary until 2022, unless the capacity for intensive care is substantially increased or a treatment or vaccine is available," argue the authors. This idea of prolonged social distance, albeit with a kind of switch to turn restrictions on and off, creates a somewhat frightening scenario in our heads and raises a series of questions at a social, economic and educational level. That and the avalanche of questions: What does all this mean for the art of socializing, for face-to-face contact, for face-to-face meetings? More than that, how do we maintain union when we are physically apart? How do we maintain a sense of community when we cannot be physically together?
Dystopian works may have painted technology as humanity's worst enemy, but the unprecedented reality we currently live in seems to tell a very different story. Apart from the hundreds of videos that spread daily on social media like a giant wave of human warmth - friends who built a table between their balconies to be able to share meals, drink wine and play cards; neighbors who make flash mobs at the window to sing and play musical instruments in unison, and people who use their patios to play tennis between buildings - the answer may lie in a more digital solution. And the numbers seem to confirm a growing trend. According to Clouflflare, an American company that provides web services, Internet traffic in Italy, particularly in the north of the country, has increased by more than 30% since mandatory confinement. Across the ocean, and based on data from two data companies, The New York Times published an extensive analysis of how “Americans have spent more time online” due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus. "Despite the growth of traditional social media platforms, it seems that we all want more than a contact by message or text - we want to see each other," you could read on the article published on April 7. “This gave a big boost to applications that used to be in the dark, like Google's video chatting app, Duo, and Houseparty, which allows groups of friends to get together in a single video chat and play games together. Our interest in the environment around us has grown as well, and in the way it is changing and responding to the virus and quarantine. This translated into a renewed interest in Nextdoor, the social media website focused on connecting local neighbors.” Add the fact that TikTok, WhatsApp and Zoom were the non-game applications with the highest number of downloads in March this year, and there seems to be little doubt (if there was before) that digital is the square where much of our socialization takes place today. But more important than where we socialize is what we make of it. As Kevin Roose wrote in the article The Coronavirus Crisis Is Showing Us How To Live Online, published on The New York Times website in March, “if there is a bright side in this crisis, it is possibly that this virus is forcing us to use the Internet the way it should have been used since the very beginning - to connect with each other, to share information and resources, and to find, collectively, solutions to urgent problems. It is the healthy and humane version of digital culture that we are used to seeing in cute advertisements on television, where everyone uses their smartphone to visit grandparents who live far away or read goodnight stories to kids.” What we experience today is not only “the healthy and human version of digital culture” - it is also the most original and creative version of it.
“Are you also at VB's birthday party? Very posh.” This message could have come from an alternative reality, but there is evidence that it was sent at 9:26 pm on a Friday night, while Miss Victoria Beckham was celebrating her special day live on Instagram, at a giant virtual party with a DJ and countless followers. Citing that witty meme that comes up in our feed to remind us that love is not suspended, our human need to interact, relate, talk and socialize is also not on stand-by - even if the dance floor, where we have done it so many times, is. As Roose described in the same article in The New York Times, “just look at what is happening in Italy, where adults who are locked down at home are posting small manifestos on Facebook, while restless children gather in groups to play online multiplayer games like Fortnite. Or what is happening in China, where those who would once have been at a party created cloud clubbing, a new type of virtual party where DJ's do live sets using APPS like TikTok and Douyin, while audience members react in real time via their mobile phones. Or look at how we are trying to cope with the situation in the United States, where different groups are experimenting with new ways of meeting in social distance: virtual yoga classes, virtual church services, virtual dinners.
These are the types of creative digital experiences we need, and they are coming at a time when we need them more than ever". In fact, redefining the way we relate to each other while we are confined to our homes is just that - an exercise in originality, “thinking outside the box”, exploring the countless possibilities that a single APP can offer us, fight loneliness and boredom with our creative side of the brain. And, just like what happened when the outside world was our oyster, socialization can be whatever we want it to be: on Zoom, Google Hangouts, Houseparty, WhatsApp or one of the many APPs that are turning our life a little simpler in this quarantine, the act of socializing can be materialized in a coffee break between remote meetings or in a happy hour after eight hours of teleworking (it is no coincidence that on-nomi, the Japanese term for “Drink a glass online”, is trending right now); a dinner with family or friends where everyone cooks and “shares” the same meal; in a workout or meditation session between friends who miss the group classes that once filled studios, gyms and parks; a game night organized by a friend whose living room was the pre-quarantine meeting place; at a dance party using that Spotify collaborative playlist or that Instagram live; on a movie night at Discord, Netflix Party or Twoseven, three apps that allow friends to get together and readapt the joint experience of going to the cinema; at a meeting in one of the many digital applications and initiatives that continue to bring people together across the world; or even a virtual climate protest. With new alternatives to the activities we were used to popping up every few minutes, the options for socializing in this very unusual scenario - and, consequently, maintaining unity, a sense of community, group strength - are practically endless.
You do talk about Fight Club. At a time when access to culture is also in lockdown, it is possible that many of us may need to look for more quarantine-friendly options to keep up a connection with the community and human contact - even if that contact is through a video call, a phone call, a message or an impressions exchange on any given social network. From painting to literature, the virtual world is home to a series of clubs that promise to be a cultural fix and a way to keep the community and creativity alive. Examples of this are the Isolation Art Club, a collective created by photographer and director Chloe Sheppard who daily suggests a different theme (think of ideas like mirror, love or what makes you happy) and shares the work of several artists on Instagram; the #QuarantineArtClub by illustrator Carson Ellis, which publishes artistic tasks ranging from abstract self-portraits to memorable dream drawings and encourages the digital community to share their creations on social media; and the newly created book clubs by Marie von Behrens (with the handle @themodernbookclub on Instagram) and Kaia Gerber. “I know that we are all feeling isolated at the moment, so I started thinking about a simple way to stay connected (in addition to simply scrolling) and decided to start a book club. I read a lot by myself, but I would love to talk to you about it... Every week I will share a book in my stories, and the next week I will jump to a live (sometimes with friends, authors, guests, etc.) so that everyone can chat about that week's book! I want to start with a new favorite that I'm reading right now: Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Download it, borrow it from someone else or buy it if you can! We will meet here to discuss it next week”, wrote the model about her new project. Clubs that promise to keep the community together and ease up socializing don't stop there. Movie fans can reckon on collectives on Instagram such as the Zodiac Film Club (@zodiacfilmclub), Le Cinéma Club (@lecinemaclub) and the Pandemic Film Club (@pandemicfilmclub), as well as the #FridayFilmClub by British director Carol Morley, which every week chooses a film and provides a discussion on Twitter, in order to revive the common experience of going to the cinema. In the kitchen field, chef Massimo Bottura created the Kitchen Quarantine, a cooking show that you can follow every day on Instagram, while Antoni Porowski, the beloved food expert of the Queer Eye series, recently presented Quar Eye: Cooking Lessons in Quarantine, an IGTV miniseries that teaches people how to cook with limited ingredients and resources. And if you're all dressed up for daily or weekly meetings with the most diverse online communities, let us introduce Working From Home Fits, or @wfhfits - an Instagram account created by a group of fashion editors based in London and New York, which puts together what people around the world are wearing during the quarantine. The result is the perfect mix of feathered pajamas, colorful tracksuits and an unexpected reincarnation of Björk's swan dress - and proof that even if we are more than two meters apart, we can continue to socialize, to live in community, to share. And we can continue to spread that much desired feeling of togetherness.