Socially distanced but closer together
Video conferencing and social dynamics in the lockdown
Video apps break down walls and enable imaginative play
Back in the glory days when throwing a party meant tearing real, physical beings from their frenzied schedules to come and celebrate with us, we would never have imagined being able to include all our favourite, handpicked friends from around the world. Proximity and availability would undoubtedly have scuppered us in realising our ultimate guest list. Now, in this time of video conferencing and virtual space, we can. The beauty of it being that, with enough notice, most people cannot claim to be otherwise occupied. Surely this has been one of the most unique highlights of the lockdown?
In this strange quarantine hiatus, video conferencing has played a huge role in helping society keep calm and carry on. We have been enabled to continue our lives from the comfort of our sofas without having to abandon all the rituals and events that create our social experience. It has even enabled the UK Parliament and the UN, among others, to still just about function.
"In the space of two weeks I will have remotely attended three wakes and a funeral, sung a poem at a 70th birthday party originated in Brazil, dropped in on a US wedding, participated in a global quiz, and laughed collectively at a movie watch night. "
From the moment that quarantine was rolled out across the world an enormous proportion of the population immediately turned to video communication. The social app Houseparty, initially aimed at Gen Z, had 50 million downloads worldwide between mid March and mid April 2020. Meanwhile in just one week the business conferencing app Zoom saw a massive 728% worldwide increase in first-time installations of its mobile app.
With their dynamic split screens, multiple talking heads, zany backdrops, and shared movie-streaming, these new video conferencing apps offer exciting opportunities to break the monotony of our four walls. The technology has enabled our children to dance around in imaginary play that transports them and their remote friends to a shared faraway space. It allows us to take part in anything from art to exercise classes, and brings disparate people and voices into harmonious union in virtual choirs and ballets.
It has created a thrilling new virtual reality. Yet it is propelled even further into the realm of the surreal by our ability to access and live stream all manner of events without having to physically be there. There is simply no occasion that we cannot participate in. In the space of two weeks I will have remotely attended three wakes and a funeral, sung a poem at a 70th birthday party originated in Brazil, dropped in on a US wedding, participated in a global quiz, and laughed collectively at a movie watch night. Some of these had over 100 participants.
"Unlike in the physical world where larger group gatherings can offer ‘safety in a crowd’, virtual groups are arguably a lot more intimate"
What strikes me is that whilst we may be more physically distanced from one another, in reality this technology is foisting far greater intimacy upon us. To position ourselves near the microphone our appearance on camera will usually be in close-up. Since our images remain accessible during group conversations we are constantly exposed to all, friends and strangers alike. This is particularly sensitive in the context of a wake where the mourners, for example, may be quite emotional, and a sharp close-up can lay bare every quiver of anguish.
As participating guests in any group, when it is our turn to talk, whether we wish it or not, we too are in peril of being centre-staged for it. I have tried to hover discreetly once or twice in an ‘audio only’ box, but when rumbled and forced to switch on my video, I was caught like a rabbit in headlights. There is also the slightly uncomfortable fact that any participant in a large group chat can choose to select our image to view in full screen and watch us at close quarters without us even knowing. Unlike in the physical world where larger group gatherings can offer ‘safety in a crowd’, virtual groups are arguably a lot more intimate. The shyer guest may well find this a daunting prospect.
The impact of video conferencing has been equally significant in the communal sphere. The traditions and culture of Britain’s minority religious communities rely heavily on social gatherings. Aside from being used by religious leaders to transmit communal prayers, in Ramadan when it is crucial for Muslim families to come together every evening, as it was for the Jewish Community to join up for their ‘Seder’ meals in the time of Passover, these apps have provided a dynamic, virtual alternative for many people to connect and share their experiences. And despite the inevitable moments of on-screen chaos, it has kept the communal spirit alive and kicking.
Having visual communication so handy at our fingertips in these strained times has made it easy to keep check on one another, and far more informally. Recently, talking to a friend whilst I was cooking, I found myself joining him in his bathroom, whilst half-dressed, having a shave. The lockdown also seems to have lessened the need to diarize, with people finding it easier to make spontaneous, unscheduled video calls. I know that in my world it has reconnected many people with a greater sense of care and concern, and brought them closer together.
There is no doubt that having this video conferencing capacity in a time of lockdown has been vital in the battle against isolation, and offered us a real means of maintaining our social lives and community spirit. If the pay-off is having to be just a little socially braver it is probably worth it.