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9 ways to keep your social life alive while stuck at home

man in coveralls talking on phone, Image: Pexels

Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation.

For the foreseeable future, we’re officially in an era of social distancing. To help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus disease, also known as COVID-19, public health officials and scientists are recommending we stay away from large groups of people as much as possible—and even limit socializing in small groups in our own homes. This is leaving people feeling lonely, frustrated, and disconnected while they’re stuck at home in the name of saving lives.

Necessary though it may be to put your social life on hold, it’s not easy. “We’re anxious. We need reassurance. We want to believe that things are normal,” Carolyn Cannuscio, Sc.D., social epidemiologist and the director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, tells SELF. But since things are about as abnormal as any of us have ever experienced, she says, when it comes to connecting with others, “we have to be creative.”

So, creative we will get! Here are a few ways my friends, my coworkers, and I are keeping our social lives alive. Please feel free to steal them.

1. Embrace video chatting and talking on the phone.

Let’s get this one out of the way first, because I am probably the 100th person to give you this tip at this point. But it bears repeating! Now is the time for a phone call and video-chat renaissance! Texting is great too, but when we’re trying to make up for the sudden drop in human-to-human contact, hearing your friends’ voices and seeing their faces is important. (Just make sure you talk about things  other than  coronavirus panic sometimes, okay?)

With a little creativity, a lot of the ways we socialize can be adapted to a virtual form. Keep traditions alive by, say, logging into Google Hangouts when you’d normally hit up happy hour. No one’s pretending that mixing a cocktail to drink alone on your couch while FaceTiming friends is the same as going out to a bar, but it’s better than nothing. And honestly, if you’re anything like me and my friends (lazy introverts), you might actually find it to be an improvement.

And, hey, if you want to know what a virtual party could possibly look like, watch  The Circle on Netflix.

2. Keep friends on the phone/screen even when you’re not actively chatting.

An addendum to number one: Video chatting doesn’t have to mean sitting around, talking to your friends on FaceTime for hours. No pandemic is going to suddenly make me the type of person who wants to constantly socially engage. But during a time of social distancing, something crucial is missing from a lot of our lives: the chance to quietly exist around other people.

Since working from home full-time in the name of social distancing, my friends and I have taken to occasionally chilling together on Google Hangouts. With it running in the background as we all work quietly on our respective jobs and projects, it’s comforting to know someone is listening if I want to voice a random thought or vice versa.

3. Watch stuff together.

Movie night doesn’t have to be a thing of the past just because of a little social distancing. Sites and extensions like Watch2Gether, Gaze, Twoseven, and Netflix Party help you sync streaming so you and your friends can enjoy watching movies—or binging TV—together. Hell, you can even use them to watch funny YouTube videos (because who doesn’t love revisiting old Vine compilations in a time of crisis?).

Or you can just skip specialty apps and figure out what works for you. Personally, I’m obsessed with how my friend  Mashable entertainment reporter Alexis Nedd is handling her social streaming. “When Disney+ put  Frozen 2 on streaming three months early, I was already in isolation and really wanted to watch it with a friend who hadn’t seen it,” she tells me. “In normal times I would just invite someone over, but instead I set up a Google Hangout with a friend and put my iPad on a table next to the couch so he was kind-of-sort-of sitting next to me. We timed pressing play and watched the whole thing. We could still talk and comment, I had dinner with a glass of wine, and he had a beer, and it was basically like being in a dine-in theater…without the theater part.”

4. Get a pen pal.

Now might not seem like the easiest time to meet new people but…why not? There are websites and communities dedicated to matching people with strangers to write to or email year-round, and now is the perfect time to hop on the bandwagon. A little Googling will probably point you to where you need to go, but if you need a place to get started, Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals is a popular free pen pal community on Facebook, and PenPal World has been connecting pen pals since 1998 (seriously, I got my first pen pal there when I was, like, 13 years old).

Poking around your social and local networks might be helpful too. Meetup is a good way to connect to nearby pen pal groups or efforts. I’ve also seen several calls for pen pals on Twitter (and, full disclosure, organized a pen pal matchmaking project myself). If you don’t feel like matching with a stranger, now might be the time to reconnect to some old friends from high school or college, or write to a relative you know would love to hear from you.

5. Have virtual game nights.

The Jackbox Party Pack is basically made for the era of social distancing. It’s a collection of fun party games—focused on getting to know your friends and laughing, rather than, like, skill—with a very low barrier to entry. Basically all you need is one friend who owns the game (it’s free to play for everyone else, so you can split the cost), a smartphone, and an internet connection.

Once you have a log-in code, you can stream it in a few different ways. My friend Harper Yi, who got me on the Jackbox bandwagon and has been organizing virtual game nights for the past few weeks, prefers gathering us all in Google Hangouts and streaming the screen there. “You can use your phone as your controller and don’t need a console to play, so it’s also great intergenerationally or for friends who don’t game at all,” Harper tells me.

Lifehacker also has a list of popular board games you can play online with friends. And honestly, you can probably find a way to re-create your favorite game virtually with a little creativity, a video-chatting platform, and a quick Google around for resources (like, for example, this Scattergories List Generator).

Lastly, remember that most gaming consoles have online options and voice-chat capabilities that you might not have been using before. I, for one, am ready to bully some friends into starting a multiplayer quarantine farm on Stardew Valley together.

6.Join a chatroom.

Yep, chatrooms still exist. They’ve just gotten a little more modern. I recommend starting with Slack and Discord to find potential communities right now.

For the uninitiated, Slack is an instant messaging platform used in a lot of workplaces, but plenty of communities are embracing it as a way to socialize and connect creatively with others. It might take a little legwork to find a Slack community (or “workspace”) that’s right for you. Some communities list themselves on Slofile if they’re open to new members (including a personal favorite of mine, a mental health Slack community called 18percent). But you can also tap into your existing networks to see if they have a dedicated Slack. For example, the popular online media support group Study Hall has a Slack plenty of my friends enjoy.

Discord, on the other hand, started as a platform for gamers but has since expanded as a hub for voice, video, and text communication no matter your needs, “whether you’re part of a school club, a nightly gaming group, a worldwide art community, or just a handful of friends that want to hang out,” according to their site. Unlike Slack, you can search right within Discord to find a server dedicated to your interests.

7. Swap from texts to voice or video messages.

If you’re still not sold on this new emphasis on video chatting, I feel you. I only enjoy it in small doses too. The rest of the time, I prefer the bite-size communication of voice memos or video texts. They’re not as intense as a phone call or video chat, but they’re more socially gratifying than a regular ol’ text. You get to see your loved ones’ faces or hear their voices, but you don’t have to sustain a whole conversation. Amazing.

You can do this by recording memos and videos and texting them the way you normally would, but there are a few apps out there you might want to use instead. A lot of my friends use Marco Polo, a video-based instant messager similar to Snapchat, and I’m just starting to get on board too. When I ask my friend Juli Del Prete why Marco Polo was superior to just sending video texts, she explains that because it’s built specifically for video, you don’t have to deal with the time and hassle of sending large files. “It also allows you to react in real time—either through emoji reacts like Instagram Live or with quick snapshots of your face—to specific parts of the video,” she tells me.

8. Get into a role-playing game (RPG).

As SELF’s features director, Sally Tamarkin, suggested when I asked my team for their tips on staying social right now: “DUNGEONS & DRAGONS VIA ZOOM WHAT ARE YOU ALL WAITING FOR.” And it’s true. Now is the perfect time to get into D&D or other RPGs because they’re social, immersive, and, frankly, pretty time-consuming.

Given that it’s on my own personal isolation to-do list, I had to consult some friends for advice on how to get started because the barrier to entry can be pretty intimidating. Sally herself recommends just getting this starter kit or something similar made for beginners, rounding up some friends, and figuring it out over video chat together. “You don’t even need dice, because if you type ‘roll 1 d6’ into Google, it’ll literally roll dice for you,” she tells me. Thanks, technology.

If you want to take a more structured approach or don’t have friends who are interested in going down the RPG rabbit hole with you, you have some other options. My friend Hannah Egbers first got into RPGs virtually with Roll20, which hosts a variety of different games beyond D&D. Most people use it in combination with Discord, Skype, or another communication platform, and many groups will advertise if they’re down to accept newbies.

Additionally, the Gauntlet, a community dedicated to indie RPGs, posted this thread of resources for anyone thinking about getting into online playing right now.

Lastly, if all of this still sounds intimidating but you really want to give it a shot, Hannah also recommends watching or listening to other people play to get a sense of how it works and what you might be into. Some starting points: Critical Role is a weekly video series of voice actors playing high-fantasy D&D; the Adventure Zone is another D&D podcast, but with shorter, lighter storytelling; and Friends at the Table is a podcast that explores a wide variety of different games for people who want to venture outside of D&D.

9. Keep an eye out for weird and creative online events.

A lot of the things on this list are oldies but goodies, strategies people have always used to maintain long-distance relationships. But in this new, unprecedented period of social distancing, people are getting creative, and it’s  awesome. Individuals, businesses, and communities are adapting their services and interests to virtual platforms—from yoga teachers streaming classes to virtual museum outings to comedians hosting interactive talk shows.

The Joy List, a newsletter once dedicated to NYC-based events that is now curating virtual gatherings, is a solid place to keep up to date on things like this. Personally, I started this account, Distance Not Disconnect, which you can follow (shameless plug!), where I’m boosting all the remote social opportunities I see. Other than that, it might just be about keeping your eyes open as people come up with new, weird, and wonderful ways to stay socially connected right now. Honestly, even if the circumstances aren’t great, I’m a little excited to see what’s to come.

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