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Almost everyone stuck indoors is trying out new ways to connect with their loved ones across the globe.martin-dm/E+

My first online party brings back memories of the worst parties in high school, ones where I would wander from crowded room to crowded room, not speaking much, seldom spoken-to, muted in mood, nearly silent in fact. When the office I share in Oakland with a bunch of writers and radio producers gathered for our first virtual cocktail party last week through a video-conferencing app, I couldn’t get my computer’s microphone to work. And so I was reduced to listening, watching – the story of my so-called high-school life – responding to any questions directed my way with pantomimed signals: How was I doing? Thumbs up. Did I have what I needed? A nodded yes.

The truth is more complicated for me, relocated a decade ago from Toronto to the San Francisco-Bay Area, one of the parts of North America hardest hit by the coronavirus. A region of early adopters, it had the dubious distinction of being the first part of the U.S. subject to a so-called shelter-in-place order, a gentle lock-down, requiring that, except for workers in essential industries, we all stay at home, aside from trips to procure the bare necessities.

Even before San Francisco and its neighbouring counties put this order in place, before California Governor Gavin Newsom extended it to cover the whole state, I’d been, in the terminology of the moment, self-isolating. A few days after attending a big dinner hosted by the food non-profit, the James Beard Foundation, I received an e-mail saying another guest had tested positive. With no symptoms, I couldn’t easily get a test done, so out of an abundance of caution, I’d been staying home, even before the edicts came down.

As a freelance writer with a home office, being shut in has been no great hardship, already having the work-from-home strategies that many office types are now just learning. But what I’ve needed to master, to get the contact that I’m currently craving, are the apps that facilitate online socializing. The tech, as it turns out, is not so hard – what’s more challenging, for this non-digital native, is learning how to be with others online, how to give and receive comfort via the net. The migration of socializing online, “invites a set of questions,” Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering, argued in a recent, much-shared op-ed in The New York Times. “What do we need in this moment and how might we gather around that?” There’s an emerging etiquette to these parties, a new set of rituals developing for these movable feasts.

The gatherings I’ve attended to date – that drinks party, a Zoom dinner, a virtual tea, an online coffee klatch, a neighbors' check-in, an electronic birthday celebration – have started out tentatively, focused on the latest news in regards to the virus. What’s it like where you are? Are the stores cleared out? Where did you get a hold of yeast? What did you make of that press conference?

Meanwhile, the participants, especially those new to this medium, surreptitiously adjust their looks, finding a better camera angle for themselves, shifting the lighting. (Experts say natural lighting from the side is most flattering, as well as the least distracting for others.) Watching one’s own face while interacting with others is not always – let’s be blunt – an unmitigated joy. Unable to speak in my debut party, I had time to contemplate the bags under my sleep-deprived eyes and think big thoughts like, how on earth did I fail to shave that part of my chin? Even in freighted times, vanity pushes in.

For online gatherings more than in-real-life ones, the timing of one’s comings and goings matters. Although a house party can work with rolling arrivals, online parties feel more disrupted by latecomers. It’s also harder to sneak out of a gathering when you’ve hit your limit for socializing. If you try a French exit, one minute your face is in a grid on everyone’s screens, the next it’s gone.

But there’s a bonus to internet parties, at least for a host. As the communications head of a top online beauty-supply company recently tweeted: “For Zoom dinners, you only have to clean one part of the house.”

When the conversation lags at a dinner party, there’s always the food to praise, some aspect of the host’s home or music choices to discuss. At online gatherings in the age of COVID-19, when you’re sharing neither the same food nor the same space, conversational filler comes from what we do share still, the more light-hearted memes coming through one’s feed. In a lull in the conversation at my office party, someone spoke of the videos of Arnold Schwarzenegger sheltering in his home with his pets, a tiny horse and a donkey, feeding them carrots, while at that virtual coffee hang-out, a friend forwarded us one that had this text, “I’m no expert on COVID-19 … but this is The Cure,” superimposed on a photo of the big-haired 80s pop band of that name.

Where cocktail parties can benefit from sudden outbursts – a quick bit of wit generated by something someone else has said, a small anecdote thrown into the middle of someone else’s story – the existing tech doesn’t love over-talking and asides. A sort of serial monologuing that would be dreary off-line seems somehow de rigueur online. People wait their turns and then are given a bit longer than they get offline, to make their points. (As for asides, they’re better done in the chat-boxes that most apps provide, allowing typed-in messages for the group at large, or targeted ones to a couple of people.)

Maybe it’s these times, or maybe it’s the slight bit of distance that the devices put between us, but after these awkward beginnings, the bulk of the online gatherings I’ve attended have reached a place where real confidences are shared. At a friend’s online birthday party, an Italian-American guest teared up when she spoke of the news from the Old Country, feeling sad at the death toll and pissed off at the critiques levelled against the Italians for not taking the directives to stay apart more seriously. The birthday girl stepped in, “You know, the Italians are showing all of us how to live in the thick of this. I mean, you want all the latest information, you want to behave responsibly, to protect yourself and those around you. But who doesn’t love the Italians singing to each other from their balconies? Who would have thought of that but them?”

The woman wiped a tear from her cheek, and somehow, something that might have stopped an ordinary, in-the-flesh party in its tracks made this one feel special.

Even so, we retreated to the relative safety of some party games, a passion of the woman whose day it was. We played some old-school ones – 20 questions and charades, the latter as awful online as off – before trying out, at someone’s suggestion, a new one. After one of us began mugging for the camera, the rest decided to join in, and then froze our poses in our separate frames. Some went for drama, others opted for absurd or sinister. It was something we never would have done off-line, and it wouldn’t have worked without the Hollywood Squares-style grid imposed on us. But the memory of these people, all posed in strange, often inadvertently revealing ways, is giving me an uptick in an otherwise down time, as I move into another housebound week.

In her Times piece, Parker voices a hope she has aloud, “If we are willing to bring to the time of COVID-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.”

Tech for talking

Zoom is free to use at its basic level which allows up to 100 people to congregate virtually. It offers customized backdrops, so you can put a view of the Golden Gate Bridge or palm trees on a beach behind you in case you don’t feel like cleaning the room you’re sitting in. It also allows you to put a gentle filter over your face, the sort of airbrushing that celebrities get for their magazine covers.

Google Hangouts can accommodate virtual gatherings of up to 150 people and is slightly more playful than other apps, allowing the application of emoji stickers on participants – devil horns on some participants, angel wings on others – and the sharing of GIFs mid-conversation.

WhatsApp enables more intimate online get-togethers – up to four people can participate in its video chats. Here also, there's a beautifying function. Be warned: The host can't boot a foul-tempered guest, without ending the whole thing.

FaceTime works with the software on most (newer) Mac devices. Parties of up to 32 people can kibbitz here, from their separate video tiles, which users can arrange on their screens.

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