For many of us who are self-quarantining or otherwise isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic, the health crisis is fundamentally changing our relationship to the world, each other, and even our own homes. Covid-19 is also affecting how people use the internet — transforming it overnight from a simple source of entertainment to a vital lifeline that allows those who are currently shut indoors to keep in touch with their family and friends.
From friends using browser extensions and conferencing apps to hang out together, to piano bars delivering virtual livestreams to their patrons, platforms like Zoom, Google Docs, and Netflix are no longer about work, organization, or entertainment. They’ve become tools for our reconfigured socialization.
If you’re one of the many people who’s thinking about how your existing apps and online services can be used to connect with loved ones during this uncertain quarantine period, you’re not alone. Here’s a look at some of the ways people and businesses are adapting to still connect with each other — and some tips for how to open up your own online experience while you’re stuck in one place.
Virtual group hangouts have always been a thing …
As a longtime member of online fandom, I’ve been participating in group movie nights online for nearly two decades. At first, we used basic instant messaging platforms like AIM and Yahoo Messenger, and often these attempts were chaotic, since typically everyone had a different version of the movie we were all trying to watch together. Over time, however, technology improved and streamlined our efforts; when I did a weekly group rewatch of Avatar: The Last Airbender in the early 2010s, for example, we used the Basecamp-made group chat Campfire, and used the same streaming source to manually sync all our episodes.
Then the platform Rabb.it launched in 2014 and provided a reliable, if somewhat glitchy, way of syncing videos with a group chat. Its biggest attraction was that users could remain anonymous, without needing to log into a client. But that service, despite its popularity, was abruptly shut down in 2019 amid ongoing technical problems and an acquisition by the voice chat client Kast, leaving many people scrambling for alternatives.
rabbit is shutting down…. how are the people who fell in love on twitter supposed to have their movie dates now pic.twitter.com/HNk5Eayc0m
— kayla | commissions (@mafuyuukis) July 4, 2019
Sophie, a longtime member of fandom who spent years organizing regular movie nights for fans in group chats for my fandom and numerous others, told Vox that she’d stopped hosting regular events once Rabb.it shut down. Organizing cross-platform streams became too complicated, she said. But this obstacle clearly hadn’t stopped demand for this kind of virtual hangout — especially in the wake of Covid-19.
“I can’t stress how much people have been wanting watch parties again. even those who didn’t attend them in the past,” she said. “People have been popping up to just ask me if we’re having any events. There’s clearly a need to be entertained, distracted, and connected.”
That means familiarizing ourselves with a whole new coterie of online tools — or at least adapting them for new uses.
But now, they’re more in demand than ever
Group virtual movie nights have always been a thing, but now they’re vital forms of social activity. Among the wide array of apps being used to organize and assemble group movie nights, two tentpoles seem to have emerged: Discord and Netflix Party. (In an interesting bit of analog irony, drive-in movie theaters are also making a comeback.)
Sophie told Vox that many people in her fandom communities had been turning to Discord, a popular chat client which allows people to create semi-private, invite-only servers, for mimicking something closer to offline interaction. Discord is similar to Slack and many other chat clients, but Discord has a prominent voice chat feature that can be active all the time. Discord’s voice channels allow users to talk to each other in real time while they multi-task. It also comes with a screen-sharing feature that allows groups of people to watch a movie if one of them is streaming it. While comparable clients like Zoom have features designed primarily for project management and work, Discord is primarily designed around socialization, and has a more informal aesthetic.
Launched in 2015, Discord was an immediate hit in the video gaming community, because it allowed players to easily chat while in-game. It then became massively popular as a way of privately and publicly organizing across fandoms and other geek communities. Many Discord servers contain tens of thousands of members, and function more as internet subcultures in their own right, while others are much smaller, but still integral parts of their larger niche communities.
With the spread of coronavirus, however, Discord has gone mainstream on a whole new level. Demand for access to Discord’s services has exploded, and users have experienced intermittent outages due to the large influx of people using the platform. Discord servers are popular, so invites are easy to come by, and new servers are easy to create and join. Last week, the company responded to the demand by increasing its overall server capacity and temporarily increasing the cap on the number of people who could join a live screen-sharing channel from 10 to 50. (The app promptly, albeit briefly, crashed again due to the high traffic.)
We’ve increased capacity world-wide by more than 20% to ensure that you’re able to text, video & voice chat smoothly.
Many of you are looking to Discord to communicate with loved ones and colleagues at this time, and we will continue to monitor and scale to keep that happening. https://t.co/Db1xiq1SwQ
— Discord (@discordapp) March 16, 2020
Discord’s increased screen-sharing means that now a high number of people could hypothetically join your group movie watch, if they had an invite to your server. But of course, not everyone wants to learn how to navigate a whole new intricate chat platform just to watch a movie.
Enter Netflix Party, a Google Chrome browser extension originally developed by Airbnb engineer Stephan Boyer in 2015. He told Vox in an email that he built the extension, which lets multiple Netflix users sync and watch movies on the platform together, “as a way to hang out and have fun with friends.” Though he exited the project in 2017, he reported a massive surge in use in 2020. “Hundreds of thousands of people have installed Netflix Party since the beginning of the year,” he said. “It now has over a million users.”
Netflix Party’s current development team corroborated the increased use, with a spokesperson telling Vox via email that it’s “experiencing a huge surge in traffic and it’s all hands on deck.” According to them, “the earliest adopters were college students and military couples in long distance relationships, but the app has since expanded and now serves friends, parents and kids, extended families, online dating, as well as local & online communities.”
As word of the extension spread, online communities turned #NetflixParty into a social hashtag, with many people organizing group chats and scheduling events around the feature:
HI I SAW SOMEONE ELSE DO THIS SO . . . IF YOU HAVE NETFLIX, REPLY TO BE IN A GROUPCHAT AND WE WILL ALL REWATCH STRANGER THINGS TOGETHER WITH NETFLIX PARTY pic.twitter.com/osLWgEZUqV
— ALEX IS BEST REDKY STAN ?•° (@80SREDKY) March 18, 2020
I want to host a Netflix party starting on FRIDAY 20th March, starting with Studio Ghibli films !! get your VPN’s ready if you have to & let’s do this! will be making a Twitter GC too to send the link you’d need to watch together, times & other films you’d like to watch etc
— (@mimithenerd_) March 19, 2020
The spokesperson called the extension an “excellent complement to the typical ways we socialize remotely — voice/video calls, social networks, and online/text messaging.” Netflix Party is currently only available through Google Chrome, but the team is looking to expand to other browsers and devices as its popularity grows. Meanwhile, numerous other group streaming and chat clients have been publicizing ways to use their platforms in the time of Covid-19.
Of course, there are plenty of other forms of online socialization, from game-playing to group singalongs, for which you might need more than a simple screen-share and a chat window. Thank goodness that there are tools for those too.
Livestreaming and face-to-face apps are more important than ever
The uses of livestreaming apps in the current moment are too numerous to count. On Facebook Live, the pianists of beloved showtunes bar Marie’s Crisis are maintaining their weekly schedule through an invite-only community where they stream musical sets to followers using Facebook Live. Popular NYC DJ hotspot Nowadays is also streaming sets — or at least, it was until its Wi-Fi crashed. As casualties of New York City’s order shuttering all bars and restaurants on March 17, these and other bars are using the streams to help sustain employees during the indefinite closure by encouraging viewers to tip staff through Venmo.
Across the country, other shows that must go on have done so virtually: Popular punk band Dropkick Murphys streamed its annual St. Patrick’s Day concert from an empty concert venue in Boston, via Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Metal band Code Orange streamed its album release party on Twitch. A popular Twitter thread by Broadway diva Laura Benanti encouraged high school theatre departments around the country to share their cancelled performances via video, generating a heartwarming series of responses.
But musical performances aren’t the only events people have livestreamed. Birthday parties are moving to Google Hangouts, board game nights are moving to Zoom, and popular group party games like Jackbox are encouraging people to try playing them remotely.
On Eventbrite, an event discovery platform that’s typically used for offline events, a recent surge in livestreamed classes and webinars prompted the company to create a new landing page just to feature upcoming virtual events. It’s a slightly surreal tour through the landscape of classes and events that are usually chances for offline community-building — everything from yoga to bread-baking to a virtual ballet class are listed.
“While the bulk of events on Eventbrite have historically been in-person events like music shows and speed dating, we’re now seeing a rise in online events being offered on our platform in response to increased efforts to ‘flatten the curve,’” Eventbrite spokesperson Sara Putnam told Vox in an email.
Like many of the other events mentioned here, the Eventbrite listings are an example of websites and tools working in tandem: a video/streaming platform like Zoom or Vimeo joins with an organizational website like Eventbrite, a social media platform like Facebook or Twitter, and/or a chat client like Discord or Kast to deliver a trifecta of community organization, engagement, and participation.
One of the most fundamental tools for group gatherings has proven to be the remote conferencing platform Zoom, now far expanding its professional purpose, as families, schools, and friends groups assemble for a wide range of unexpected encounters.
Had a friend say they couldn’t make a zoom cocktail party because they have another one scheduled for that same time period so yes you can still feel unpopular during the apocalypse.
— Isaac Fitzgerald (@IsaacFitzgerald) March 19, 2020
The New York Times reported that over 600,000 people downloaded Zoom in a single day last week. A Facebook group for Zoom memes has ballooned, while Instagram is full of people screencapping their Zoom conferences with accompanying hashtags like #unity, #isolation, and #coronavirussucks.
I would love to see side-by-side graphs of recorded COVID-19 cases and Zoom’s server costs.
— Grant Sanderson (@3blue1brown) March 18, 2020
And Zoom isn’t the only popular organizational work tool being dramatically repurposed, as friends groups and even entire countries collectively turn to online tools. The quarantine has highlighted the recent emergence of Google Docs group chats, previously popular among teens and now expanding to other forced shut-ins, where the chat occurs in the document comments section, and often directly within the document itself.
i only communicate via google docs chat now so if you need to get ahold of me you know where to find me
— erin (@ripley_erin) March 17, 2020
By the same token, group chats themselves are facilitating the use of Google Docs and spreadsheets on a whole new scale.
Not @ all 300 ppl in my class gc collaborating on a google doc of our midterm answers to help everyone get thru this midterm this shit is so beautiful it really proves that humanity still exists
— lu? AGUST D 2 (@pjmluvmaze) March 12, 2020
Then there are the more unexpectedly creative uses — like organizing live dating roleplays through Google Sheets, and turning spreadsheets into artwork:
But whether you’re organizing an outbreak response or just drawing farm animals, all of these apps in their varied uses are doing one very important job: bringing us together. As Putnam told Vox, the online apps and platforms are helping people “combat loneliness and stay connected and engaged during this very strange time.” A strange time, indeed — but a great time to expand the way we use technology, and the way we think about what it means to connect.