In time of quarantine, it’s tempting to retreat into those things you can do by yourself at home—reading ebooks, for example, or watching movies, or playing computer games. Things to keep yourself busy. But we are also social creatures. Without meaningful interaction with other people, it can be hard to keep our spirits up. But what do you do when it isn’t safe to interact with people in person?
The same technology that allows us to read our ebooks can allow us to keep in touch. These days, most smartphones and tablets have front-facing cameras built into them—for selfies, but also for video calling. Many of us may not be used to doing this with our families—especially those of us who are Generation X or Boomers and may not be the most used to integrating that sort of technology into our daily lives. But perhaps this would be a good time to start.
I will guarantee you that your device of choice has at least one and more likely multiple systems for video calling built into it. Apple’s Facetime is one of the best known, but it only works between Apple devices so it won’t help if you’re trying to call someone who doesn’t use one. But Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Zoom, and many other IM apps have that capability built into them—and it’s possible that whoever you want to call may already use one or more of those for text instant messages.
I emphasize smartphone or tablet apps over PC apps because most smartphone apps make the process dead simple—you just tap a “call” button, or a camera icon, and the app tries to connect you to your friend. You don’t have to worry about connecting a camera, or installing drivers, or granting your computer permission to use it—things that could readily confuse not-so-tech-savvy parents, if you were trying to get them into video contact with you. But many of these apps also have PC clients, so if you’re comfortable with setting up a webcam, you could certainly do that for yourself, while letting the other person use their tablet or phone.
Of course, you can always just call people the old-fashioned way, by phone, or by Internet voice chat, and simply talk to them that way. (And unlike the era in which I grew up, it probably doesn’t even cost you any money to chat long-distance for as long as you like!) And that’s another great way to stay in touch (even if many people don’t do it so much anymore). But when you’re unable to visit with other people in person, it really adds a lot to be able to see the other person’s face, to read their facial expressions as well as the tone of their voice.
But that’s not the only thing you can do with people over the Internet rather than together. How about hosting a watch party?
Getting together for movies or TV shows is one of the finest pleasures of having a nearby friend or family member—shared experiences are one of the things friendship or family relationships are built on. But when you don’t have any nearby friends, or are not permitted to congregate with any nearby friends, getting together physically to watch movies is out of the question.
But fortunately, there are now ways that distant or sequestered friends can watch and discuss videos together over the Internet. The first big virtual watch party service, Rabb.it, had to shut down when it ran out of venture capital and sold off its assets—but once it had shown the way, other services were quick to launch.
Some services, such as Kast and Discord, offer the ability to share whatever is on your computer’s screen. Netflix Party lets you sync up your Netflix session with someone else’s so that you all can start and stop your Netflix videos at the same time. Caracal uses a remote virtual web browser that everyone in the chat can see, so you can log into YouTube or any other web-based video service to watch together. Even Facebook allows you to host watch parties—though with Facebook watch parties, you can only share any video made publicly available on Facebook. There are of plenty of other such services available, too.
Caracal is the service that I use. It’s free at the basic level, but there’s a $10 per month Patreon subscription that provides access to a faster connection. When you log into Caracal, you get access to a virtual Chrome session that you can use to log into any website you like, and stream video that can be watched by multiple people. A number of people can log into your streaming “room,” and chat via a text chat box alongside the picture. (Or you can maximize the picture to fill the screen and chat by some other method instead.) Caracal is still very much a beta project, and it has its rough edges. There’s an annoying glitch where the video gets out of sync with the audio from time to time—but it’s constantly improving nonetheless.
Although I can only recommend hosting watch parties for web sites or streaming services that make their content freely available, such as YouTube, most of these watch party services could actually be used for any video service that will show on your screen or permit a web-based login—especially since Caracal’s virtual Chrome session has proxy services built in. Note that using them to watch copyrighted or region-restricted content from services such as Netflix or Amazon could be a violation of that service’s user agreement.
In any case, the orders to shut ourselves away in our homes are going to take a big toll on our social interaction, so it’s a good idea to find ways to keep being social even in physical isolation. If you have any suggestions for other great ways to interact person-to-person online, please share them in the comments below!
For other useful sanity-keeping advice, please see this Ars Technica piece. Take care of yourselves!
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