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Cocktails over Skype? Can virtual-socialising ever be normal?

People are now turning to the like of Zoom and Skype for face-to-face contact

‘Surreal” has been the word du jour as Europe grapples with measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. When just last week Cheltenham racecourse was teeming to the brim with 60,000 revellers, most people are now staying at home, coming to terms with the prospect of weeks or months of social isolation.

But as Leo Varadkar reminded us on Tuesday night, in an age of social distancing our need for social contact will not dissipate. “Technology can help – check in with your loved ones on Skype or Facetime, and promise them you’ll see them again soon,” he said, before imploring (perhaps in vain) teens and children to call their grandparents.

If the short period we’ve already spent social distancing has taught us anything, it’s that halting the spread of Covid-19 does not require us to close off from the world – rather open up to it in different ways.

So, as stock markets crash and governments warn of impending economic hardship, the Covid-19 crisis has been a boon for one particular company. On Sunday nearly 600,000 people downloaded the app Zoom; and its “shares have soared…valuing the company at $29 billion”, reports Taylor Lorenz in the New York Times.


The video conferencing software – formerly the preserve of stuffy businessmen and women needing to communicate with their equally stuffy colleagues across the globe – has never been particularly glamorous. But now it is proving indispensable to those locked away in their apartments and houses as we try to stave off the threat of a pandemic.

There is, then, a small cause for optimism. Not many among us are delighting in the realities of social isolation – it is boring, for some anxiety-inducing, and it can be lonely. But there has perhaps never been a better time to be cooped up at home – we have WhatsApp, we have Zoom and Skype, and mobile networks are reporting a surge in use. We have the tools to stay connected at a time when it is vital.

Face-to-face contact

And as the world is being remodelled along unprecedented lines, our social lives will need to adapt. Where we used to eat out with friends, gossip over coffee in the cafeteria at lunchtime, and pile into pubs in the evening, people in their thousands are turning to the likes of Zoom and Skype to sate the need for face-to-face contact.

Some are celebrating their birthdays online; others playing concerts via Facebook; and even more watching films and cooking with their friends over Facetime.

The practices will soon be widespread but our social interactions are guided by social rules, no matter how implicit. As the nature of our interactions change, how do we redesign the rules?

Can we transpose the time-honoured tradition of a post-work pub trip online? How do we share dinner with our families or go out for coffee with our friends while miles apart?

Can we actually induce some normality into virtual-socialising? Or will it always feel like we are dialling into software traditionally used for discussing marketing strategies and sales objectives?

We are guided by our social shibboleths – they help us feel at ease and navigate an otherwise awkward world. Then it seems enforcing these long-held day-to-day customs on our newly online-social lives might help.

One friend has been “going for cocktails” over Skype with her old gang from university. To mark the occasion she’s been getting dressed up, putting on lipstick – mimicking leaving the house as if she was off to a swanky bar itself.

Just as we might be reticent to turn up to a breakfast meeting in our pyjamas, when conference calling friends from our bedrooms it seems putting some effort into our self-presentation can make it feel less strange.


Another friend notes that picking the tone of the virtual occasion is vital – are we sitting around eating ice cream in our dressing gowns? Or are we going for a quick espresso between meetings? Homogeneity in the approach of all participants is crucial.

And as people increasingly gather, often in groups of 10 or more, for “drinks” in the evening they have been discovering ways of replicating the conviviality of a cosy pub through our laptop screens.

We learned that it’s important to listen to the same music – it simply does not work if one person is listening to Chopin and another Kanye West.

And while little engenders more of a communitarian spirit than opting into a needlessly complex and ruinously expensive rounds system, it has so far proved tricky to replicate online.

Scriptures such as these might seem frivolous – and they are. But they are directed at restoring normality to lives that have so recently been upended. And while it is crucial to remember that our social lives will not go away, they will be for weeks or even months changed utterly. As the times change, so will our customs.

When this ends – and it will end – we will, hopefully, be left with a renewed sense of what is important to us; our personal relationships, physical face-to-face contact, and the indispensable value of a glass of wine with a few friends in the evening, online or off line.