If you’re an American you’ve been in shelter-in-place for nearly seven months now. That’s seven months of bunkering down in our homes, isolating ourselves from our friends, and religiously watching the news and following the COVID case numbers.
If you’re like me and are fortunate enough to be able to work from home, you’ve adjusted your life to virtually connecting with your colleagues: frenetic Slack channels, droning Zoom calls, and a seemingly never-ending slate of back-to-end meetings in the hopes of recapturing the productivity lost while transitioning to remote work.
Outside of work, we’ve shifted our lives to spending 24 hours a day inside of our homes. During early shelter-in-place (March-April), I found myself dreading the weekends. During the work week, I could distract myself with work and other obligations.
But when Friday evening came, I mourned the loss of the ability to do all of my favorite weekend activities: hiking, dining out with friends, seeing a movie, and going to parties.
And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
I, and the billions of other people in lockdown, would spend hours during the weekend on my phone — trying to rebuild a semblance of a social life with my friends and stay connected with my family.
We had suddenly found ourselves with plenty of free time and limited options to fill that time in a socially-connected, meaningful way.
Because of that, we’ve seen the rise (and fall) of TikTok and Houseparty during quarantine. I talked about how TikTok exploded because of its ability to unite everyone through “challenges” during a time when people feel more isolated than ever. Houseparty evokes a similar sense of connectivity, by effortlessly initiating video calls with your friends and family.
Both apps allow us to show a more raw, unfiltered look into our lives. Both apps are trying to reclaim the sense of connection that we shared pre-COVID, when we were able to meet face-to-face.
There’s no doubt that COVID has severely impacted our way of life these past seven months. And the short-term solutions that we’ve created — Zoom, FaceTime, Slack — have helped but have steep negative ramifications.
What we have now is a far cry from our old lives.
“Apps are trying to reclaim the sense of connection that we shared when we were able to meet face-to-face”
With that said, digital tools have done so many things well. They’ve allowed us to move a significant portion of our economy to remote-work, so that hundreds of millions of families can stay safe during the pandemic. They’ve allowed us to stay connected with our loved ones.
In my eyes, there are three large problems that need to be solved in order to truly offer a great digital social experience. If companies are able to crack them, then we may see a longstanding social change where people elect to socialize virtually — even post-COVID.
More natural group conversations and gatherings
Our current tools make group conversations painful and completely unnatural.
With Zoom and other video chat apps, a group can only have one large conversation at a time. Contrast that to an in-person conversation, where people can naturally break off into side discussions and come back to the main conversation at-will.
Two people also aren’t able to talk over each other, like they can in real-life conversations. Tools like Facebook Messenger actively lower people’s volume when it detects multiple people speaking at once (try it for yourself and be amazed).
So when I’m on a video call with my friends who have a habit of yelling over each other when they’re excited (or mad, if we’re playing a game), it becomes an indiscernible blob of noise.
These problems are exacerbated in large public gatherings like a happy hour or networking event, where 40+ people can’t be expected to listen to one conversation thread for hours.
It’s unnatural to patiently speak one person at a time.
Add in the anxiety of having to meet new people and interpret their body language virtually, the negative effect on your self-esteem from looking at yourself too long, and the general anxiety of too much screen time, and it starts to make sense why people are shying away from virtual social events.
How do we solve this?
By reimagining social platforms with two core principles: flexibility and audio-only.
Clubhouse is generating the biggest buzz right now in the Bay. It’s a social app where people can join audio-only chat rooms. There, they can join the conversation or just casually listen. Right now, it’s in closed beta, but VCs have gotten access and are raving about it.
Rally is a video conference app where people can easily hop between breakout rooms. When in a breakout room, people are able to break off into smaller rooms and even 1:1s, simulating the natural flexibility of conversations at a group event.
High Fidelity is an audio-only online event platform from Second Life co-founder Philip Rosedale. People can create event space for networking events, happy hours, and even music festivals. People appear as dots on a 2D map which can be altered to be a swanky club or a poolside patio — among other options. People can approach little clusters of dots to explore different conversations within earshot. They can choose to participate, just listen, or walk off with a friend to chat in the corner. Conversations will “fade away” into the background like in real life. DJs can set up their booths on the map, and listeners can stroll between them, similar to a real world event.
Wave and VRoom are two virtual reality companies that are partnering with artists like John Legend and Galantis to host VR concerts. Audience members can design their own avatar and take virtual drugs that change the color and depth perception of the concert.
Serendipitous encounters to starting more weak ties
Having a fulfilling social life means more than just keeping up with friends and family. We need to talk to and meet strangers in order to feel connected and generate a sense of belonging to a community.
These so-called “weak ties” are important for our happiness because they are low-effort relationships that give us disproportionate benefits. When my local barista tells me to have a good day, I feel recognized by someone in my “community” (my office building in this case). When I bro-nod to the same people I see at the gym every day, I feel supported and validated. When my coworker lets me take the last LaCroix in the fridge, I feel taken care of.
Evidence shows that weak ties are more likely to get you a job than strong ties, because your strong ties — being in the same social circles as you — hear about job opportunities at the same time as you do.
Developing more weak ties has also been linked to learning new information. Every aspiring entrepreneur has heard of how Max Levchin met Peter Thiel by wandering into his class at Stanford and forming PayPal soon afterwards.
These chance encounters between weak ties can spark innovation, inspiring Silicon Valley leaders to manufacture serendipity in order to boost collaboration and creativity.
We need to talk to and meet strangers in order to feel connected and generate a sense of belonging to a community.
Sadly, COVID lockdown has made our social circles smaller, effectively eliminating weak ties like casual friendships and tangential colleagues. We will go out of our way to stay connected with our close friends and families, but won’t put in the same effort with anyone else.
Seeing this problem, there are a class of companies trying to re-instill serendipity and casual connections back into our lives.
Donut has a Slack app that sets up randomized meetings with coworkers for virtual coffee chats and group lunch, recreating the “conversations around the water cooler” effect at offices.
Upstream allows people to join communities to discuss hot topics and solicit help from domain experts. Its app makes it easy to network and meet new professional connections within these communities.
Lunchclub connects professionals with like-minded people for 30-minute weekly 1:1 discussions. People can choose their objective for meeting new people: recruiting workers, just meeting interesting people, or even finding a co-founder for an idea (this is obviously a Bay Area creation).
The first two trends help us get back to parity with real life. Companies in these two buckets are trying to recapture the magic of socializing in-person.
However, in order to enact longstanding change, social platforms need to offer something better than real-life encounters.
Like what Snapchat and Instagram filters did for taking photos, the next wave of social apps need to augment real life. How can we make it faster and more delightful to meet people, collaborate, problem solve, and share moments virtually?
The next trend is a step on that direction:
Transcending geographical barriers to share moments that matter
Video calling was a big innovation. It allowed to more authentically connect with people through the Internet.
Apple loves to tug at our heartstrings with the image of a dad saying goodnight to his son while in a hotel in a different country, or the grandparents who watch a college graduation ceremony from their home through FaceTime.
Video calls have had a tremendous impact on my work and personal life. I can work safely and productively from home. I can keep in touch with my loved ones.
A huge unlock for me was being able to connect with friends that I normally would not keep in touch with — usually because I was physically too far away to see them in person.
I have friends all over the world, and before COVID lockdown, I had subconsciously decided that I would only see them in person — meaning that I would barely keep in touch with them and only see them once a year at best.
Sadly, I even have friends in East Bay that I didn’t see pre-COVID, because I was too lazy to cross the Bay Bridge.
After COVID lockdown started, we’ve collectively come to the realization that we actually can keep in touch with people more frequently. We have the ability to call and video chat with anyone we want.
Since that collective realization, I’ve talked with my friends every day — friends who live in Chicago or New York or even Shanghai. We’ve expanded beyond just catching up and now play games like Poker, Catan, and Jackbox.
And I know that, even after shelter-in-place is over, I’ll still hang out virtually with friends who don’t live in the same city as me.
I’ve been grateful that quarantine has brought me closer to my friends.
A huge unlock for me was being able to connect with friends that I normally would not keep in touch with
Here are some of my favorite apps that are bringing people together with technology.
Bunch is video chat app where a video call can be overlaid on top of video games. Their mission is to create the magic of LAN and split-screen multiplayer games from our childhoods. With Bunch, friends and family can transcend space-time to share a video game.
Discord has absolutely exploded during quarantine, up nearly 50% in DAU since the start of lockdown. Discord has voice and text chat rooms that allow people to come together to discuss anything from video games, anime, blockchain, and more.
Netflix Party is an oldie but a goodie. It allows people to watch Netflix together with synchronized video playback and group chat. It’d be great if there was a video call feature as well, because it’s a pain to text in a group chat while watching a show.
Facebook Messenger has added AR mini-games to its group video call feature, allowing people to do simple games and challenges with friends.
It’s hard to say if any of these trends are reactions to COVID lockdown, or just the general trend of moving our social lives more digitally.
For me, I will never value a virtual meetup more than an in-person interaction. But I’m hoping that these new technologies will come close.
The jury’s still out if COVID will have lasting implications on how we live our lives post-lockdown. The apps that can closely capture the magic of in-person interactions and the apps that can improve how we socialize will the ones that stick around.