To practice social distancing, we’re turning in-person events into pixels on a screen. Here are the things to think about during the digital face-to-face, and the best services to use for your purposes
The Wall Street Journal
On my fifth day of self-isolation, I joined a yoga class on Zoom. I’d heard about it through Instagram and paid for it on Venmo. All 100+ participants simultaneously hit play on a Spotify playlist distributed by the teacher. We flowed through sun salutations, over the internet, in real-time. Most people even turned their webcams on, although I dared not. The technology was working! It really was connecting us. My heart warmed.
Of course, virtual yoga isn’t quite as good as the real thing. Chanting the end-of-class “ah-oohhmmms,” out loud in my apartment, was the strangest of all. No one was there to mask my off-pitch vocalizing. Occasionally, a video glitch or audio delay would keep me in chair pose for too long. About 45 minutes in, I heard the pop-pop-pop of a Slack notification. I forgot to turn on Do Not Disturb.
And because I wasn’t actually “in” a studio, there was no accountability. I replied to a text while the rest of the class was holding Warrior Two.
For those fortunate enough to work from home, it’s now a moral responsibility to not leave the house, so we can slow the spread of the new coronavirus. We’ve become our own IT pros, trying to troubleshoot the same problem: figuring out how the heck to video chat.
While social distancing, we can’t walk up to a colleague’s desk, go out with friends, attend an exercise class, or take the kids to school. Instead, we log on to Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp or Hangouts-and turn in-person events into pixels on a screen.
Like many of you, I’ve also been socializing virtually. Since San Francisco ordered its residents to shelter in place last week, I’ve participated in a virtual lunch, coffee, dinner or drink nearly every day. My inbox is full of Doodle polls and Calendly requests to schedule meeting times.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I FaceTimed with three friends for a happy hour we scheduled before the pandemic. I watched one prepare kale sausage pasta for dinner and another sip wine, while the third friend’s video flickered in and out as she checked other apps on her phone. Over the next hour and 40 minutes, we gossiped and laughed.
Over the weekend, I attended a Zoom reunion of over a dozen friends from college, many of whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. There was so much to catch up on. The first few minutes went like this: “Hey-” “How are y-” “Oh my Go-” “What is tha-” “Oh-” “Sorry you go firs-” A friend used her Zoom account from work to host the meeting, which lasted over two hours. After a new baby was introduced and cute pets were acknowledged, the group settled into a conversational rhythm that wasn’t complete chaos.
I love and want to see my friends and family right now-and video calling them fulfills that basic need. Loneliness is an actual health hazard. But video-call fatigue is real.
Video calls can feel long, because there’s a lag between speakers that stilts the conversation. You’re only talking or listening, and completely focused on the screen. You’re not playing a game, thumbing through a menu or engaged in another form of distraction, which is why, for some, video chat can feel emotionally taxing. Plus, it’s not like you’re out at a bar, where the tab starts to add up or the bartender calls last call. The chat can go on for as long as the chattiest participant wants to blab on.
And when you are speaking, the attention is fully on you, like you’re performing in an arena. At a normal gathering, you can naturally turn to the person next to you. Video chat forces everyone into a single conversation.
On top of that, because we’re working from home, we’re spending more time with our devices. (Have you checked your Screen Time stats lately?) Maybe we should be finding ways to avoid burning our eyeballs to a crisp. I’ve started breaking up long catch-ups into chunks, sending minute-long voice memos on iMessage, for instance. It maintains all the humanness of hearing from a loved one, without blocking off another hour on the calendar.
Still, since we can’t be with all of our people, video chat is the next best thing. That’s where we’ll be stuck for a while-often in an app chosen by a friend or co-worker-so here’s a guide to dealing with our new video-chat overlords.
Mobile-friendly, low-bandwidth and encrypted:
WhatsApp is best for small groups (up to four people), where the participants are on different mobile operating systems. Since it has over a billion users, chances are good your friends or family members are on it. Turn on “low data usage” in Settings if you like to take your video calls on walks.
Signal offers fully encrypted messaging and, unlike Facebook’s WhatsApp and Apple’s FaceTime, it’s not developed by a big tech company. Unfortunately, you can only voice and video chat with one other person from your mobile phone.
FaceTime is for Mac, iPhone and iPad users. It supports up to 32 participants, who appear as floating tiles on screen. When someone is speaking or you click a tile, that tile swells; when you’re in a large chat, you’re just watching constantly shrinking and ballooning heads. You can turn your head into a shark though! When on cellular, turn on Low Data Mode.
Better for bigger groups:
Zoom has become the premier videoconferencing software, and there are many reasons for that. The free product can host up to 100 people for 40 minutes, with no time limit for one-on-one calls. (The Pro upgrade is $15 a month.) Participants can be on mobile or desktop-and even dial in from a phone-and don’t need an account to join a meeting. In my experience, Zoom provides the most stable, consistent connection. Plus, you can download fun virtual backgrounds.
Skype can handle up to 50 people in one call, across phones, tablets and desktop computers. All participants need a free Skype account. The app can also caption and subtitle live. One fun feature is background blur, which keeps the focus on your face and not on that weird painting you bought from a flea market years ago.
Google Hangouts can host up to 10 people on Android, iOS or the Chrome web browser. On the web, you can do fun things like draw together and wear virtual pirate hats.
The most bells and whistles:
Snapchat and Facebook’s Messenger and Instagram all offer augmented-reality filters and face lenses that can significantly improve that at-home, un-brushed look you’ve got going on right now. Snapchat supports up to 15 people at once, while Messenger calls can include up to 50. The participant limit on Instagram is six.
Houseparty is *the* app for “live chilling” with up to eight people at a time. You can host a party and invite friends to join and leave at their leisure. When friends log on, you can get a notification that they’re “in the house.” Participants can share their screens and play games like Heads Up and Trivia.
Marco Polo, an app for iOS and Android, is my favorite. It’s not a video-chatting app, per se-it’s more like a video-message service. That makes it a good way to stay in touch with the busy people in your life. You can create groups of up to 200 people. The voice effects make me laugh every time.
By Nicole Nguyen
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