Over the past two weeks I've conversed with strangers in Baltimore, Budapest, Tallinn, Hertfordshire and Melbourne via an app called Quarantine Chat.
Quarantine Chat emerged more than a month ago when its creators realised a technology they had created could be a lifeline for people in isolation. More than 10,000 people have signed up to the service, which facilitates phone conversations with random people around the world.
The app has its roots in the art project Call in the Night by Max Hawkins, which would randomly wake subscribers so they could talk to each other about their dreams. Hawkins and his friend Danielle Baskin subsequently created another app called Dial Up to provide phone chatlines for painters, tarot card readers and podcasters among others. Quarantine Chat uses the same technology as Dial Up.
“You could be talking to someone in Ghana or Hong Kong,” says Hawkins, who is quarantined alone in Los Angeles. “Very early on I was talking to this woman from Paris [whose] room-mate had the virus. They had had a party the night before they found out, so everybody at the party was in quarantine waiting to get their test results …
“There’s a fair number of people [on the service] who live alone and are just looking for some sort of connection. And there’s quite a few older people.”
Why does he think Quarantine Chat appeals to people? "I think that there's something very special about the voice and telephone conversations that you don't get from being on a Zoom call," he says. "I also think that interacting with a stranger can actually allow you to be more honest than with someone you're close to."
Once you sign up to Quarantine Chat and give your time zone and language, your phone will ring daily at a random time (the caller ID says "Quarantine Chat"). When you answer the phone, you are randomly assigned a partner from among the other callers. A recorded female voice then suggests a jumping-off point for a conversation, for example, describing what you can see outside your window (I always forget to do this).
My first conversation is with Timo Uustal, an entrepreneur in Tallinn, Estonia. I'm sitting in my car outside a supermarket. He's alone in his apartment. He's pleased to hear an Irish voice. "Last summer I was in Trinity College where my start-up was participating in the accelerator project."
He liked Ireland except for the climate. “In Ireland one day it was 20 degrees and the newspapers were like, ‘People, watch out, you might get sunstroke!’ ”
His company, Nursebeam, provides medical assistance to travellers. "So, if you get diarrhoea in Bangkok or flu in Beijing or a hangover in Sydney, we advise in a few clicks what is the drug you need, where to find it." They have a coronavirus edition.
He normally travels a lot. “Now I’m kind of stuck here,” he says. “I was supposed to attend conferences in Europe and they were cancelled one by one.”
Can he leave the house? “You can for groceries. And you can do a bit of sports, if you’re not interacting with other people, although I see that some people are breaking the rules. I know that in my hometown some people got fined.”
I had a Zoom party. It was actually not a bad experience. I could see the sunset in Kyoto. And then I could see lunchtime in the Netherlands
What’s the national mood like? “I think [Estonians are] like the Irish. Despite the oppression from the British, you have managed to survive through the centuries. Estonia has also managed to survive the occupations of the Germans, Polish, Danish, Swedish. I think we have resilience ingrained into our DNA.”
He has a routine that involves working, reading, cooking and eating healthily. It was his birthday recently. “I had a Zoom party. It was actually not a bad experience. I could see the sunset in Kyoto. And then I could see lunchtime in the Netherlands … It was like an around-the-world tour. It was unusual but great in a way as well.”
His girlfriend is in Bangkok. “I remember once, many years ago, British Midlands airline had a campaign saying that Skype is good, but it can’t give you a hug. I think it’s very true.”
The random nature of Quarantine Chat means that sometimes it's inconvenient to answer. And sometimes the reception is bad. Vivienne from Budapest is cheerfully introducing herself when the signal drops (sorry Vivienne). When I'm matched with Gil from Baltimore, Maryland, I'm walking near my house, and some fellow Dublin 3 residents are gleefully hollering in the background. "If you don't mind me asking what's going on there?" says a perplexed sounding Gil.
He doesn’t like going out unless he has to, because he thinks people are judging each other. He moved back in with his parents prior to the lockdown because he was worried about them. His father is nearly 80 and his mother, he says, is particularly frightened when she has to leave the house. He’s still working as a graphic designer, “but the days blend into each other”.
I think we'll end up telling our grandchildren about the year we had to stay indoors
What else has changed for him? “I’m a bachelor so dating has gotten strange,” he says. People still date, he explains, but they progress from messaging to phone to a face-to-face platform. “You can’t meet people … Though one of my friends did go on a hike with someone.”
I'm the first non-American Gil has spoken to on Quarantine Chat. He previously spoke with a 50-year-old who had started painting in his isolation, a 19-year-old worried about not being able to graduate, and a mother of four children. Is he worried about the future? He takes a deep breath. "I think it will be okay. I think we'll end up telling our grandchildren about the year we had to stay indoors."
I'm not the only journalist trawling Quarantine Chat. Mia in Hertfordshire bursts out laughing when I introduce myself. She's writes for Business Insider. We chat anyway. I tell her about my life. She tells me about hers.
Most people in Mia’s town are being sensible and nice, she says. She lives alone in an apartment complex, and her neighbours have taken to sitting out in the courtyard talking to each other at a distance. She completely isolated for 10 days for fear a persistent cough was the virus.
The first time she went running afterwards a man shouted at her for getting too close to him when she felt she was being careful not to. She yelled back. “He was the first human I’d seen … I have massive guilt about this now. I still think, ‘God … What if he was unhappy?’ ”
Nineteen-year-old Aoife speaks to me from an exotic place called Meath. She lives with her parents and younger sister and says she's normally an introvert anyway, so doesn't mind the isolation too much. She spends her time painting, reading and thinking.
“I was working at a hair salon until I figured out what I wanted to do. So it’s kind of given me time to figure out what I really want to do, just in very odd circumstances.” She laughs. “I’m still at a loss.”
I liked the spontaneity of the app and I guess there's not a lot of spontaneity, now we're all inside
She’s had one previous quarantine chat with a Russian man who lamented not being able to help his elderly neighbours with their gardens. “I’ve missed some calls deliberately,” she says. “With this one I was down in the kitchen making my breakfast and I just thought I’d take it this time.”
What does she like about the app? “I liked the spontaneity and I guess there’s not a lot of spontaneity, now we’re all inside.”
A few days later, Flora, a Chinese student living in Melbourne, is sitting at her computer googling things as we speak. It's evening there and morning in Dublin. She asks me to spell Dublin and then I can hear her typing it into a search engine. She asks me to spell my name so she can type that in too.
“I’ve only heard this kind of accent in movies,” she says. “It’s so cute.” She’s heard it once, she says, “played by that guy…” She clicks on her computer. “Sacha Baron Cohen. In that film…” She clicks on her computer. “The Brothers Grimsby.”
Flora is eager to chat. "My family are in China and I'm alone in Australia and I've been through a break-up with my boyfriend. I'm trying to figure out a way to make more friends and stay communicating. I found this app on the World Economic Forum [website]…
“I spoke to a girl from the Philippines and a guy from Dubai… [A]girl from Los Angeles, she’s working on spraying alcohol on the streets to stop the bacteria and the virus. She says it’s very dangerous and she’s very tired every day. The guy from Dubai, he lost his job.”
My friends are finding the one and getting married and doing business and they're successful. I don't know what I want. It's like a quarter-life crisis
Her family are fine, she says, far from the centres of contagion in China, and Australia is fine too, she says. “Yes, we are in our houses, but we can go outside and go to the supermarket …
"So two days ago, two Melbourne University students got beaten up in the market. They're Chinese and they've been beaten up by Australian girls. [They] said, 'Because of you, we have this coronavirus and you go home'."
She blames such attacks on anti-Chinese rhetoric from politicians such as Donald Trump.
Is she worried about racist attacks? “No,” she says. “No one has said anything bad to me.”
She spends her time talking to friends online, studying, watching Ted talks and reading books. “The best one I’ve read is called Zero to One [by Peter Thiel].”
She’s an IT student, soon to graduate, and was hoping to go to Silicon Valley. But she doesn’t really know what she wants any more. She sighs. “I was wondering what will be the love life in the future, if people cannot get attached? I’m past 25 years old and I feel so old. My friends are finding the one and getting married and doing business and they’re successful. I don’t know what I want. It’s like a quarter-life crisis.”
But she’s feeling relatively good now, she says. “I went out to the park today and it felt f***ing awesome. You start to appreciate the little things in life, like the grain and the leaves... Even the tiny, tiny little things you start to appreciate.”
Quarantine Chat can be accessed, free, at quarantinechat.com