WhatsApp film clubs and Houseparty pub quizzes: how social distancing is bringing people together online

NME's El Hunt is still leading an active social life during lockdown – but it's all happening on her laptop and phone

Last night I got together with a bunch of my mates to watch Jonah Hill’s 2018 coming-of-age film Mid90s over a few beers – but without leaving my flat, because it all happened over WhatsApp. Tonight, I’m off to a pub quiz, delivered to the comfort of my sofa thanks to Houseparty.

And I’m not the only one. All around the world other people are coming up with similar schemes to stave off the boredom, cobbling together everything from online reading groups and drawing workshops to impromptu sofa gigs and music lessons with the help of social apps like Houseparty, Twitch, Instagram, Zoom and Whatsapp.

In a surreal time where virtually every aspect of everyday life has changed – where terminology like ‘self-isolation’ and ‘flatten the curve’ has suddenly become part of the normal lexicon, and food shopping feels a little like completing a quest on Spyro – it’s art that is helping us to pull through.

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Instead of heading to the pub – which isn’t an option anymore anyway – loads of people will be tuning into virtual concerts, hosting their own trivia quizzes, or watching films together on Netflix Party instead. It’s all so surprisingly wholesome, during such an otherwise worrying time.

I’m wary of sounding like Sex and the City’s very own journalist Carrie Bradshaw after a mere six days working from home, but fuck it, here we go: ‘I couldn’t help but wonder. What if social distancing is actually bringing people together?’

Sure, sticking on a great record isn’t going to fix the plummeting economy. Spending a carefree half hour taking part in a life drawing sesh on Instagram Live won’t help with discovering a COVID-19 vaccine. Filming a series of low-budget music videos on TikTok won’t resolve the national bog roll shortage. None of it will come close to helping with the worry and uncertainty, or the serious challenges that so many people are facing right now. But you have to admit they’re the nearest things we have to distraction – and that has to count for something.

As well as housebound people getting creative to hang out virtually with their mates, tonnes of artists and institutions are also rising to the occasion to entertain a nation on lockdown.

In the light of Glastonbury 2020 being cancelled – and the 50th anniversary being postponed until next summer – the BBC announced a celebration of the Worthy Farm festival; the perfect accompaniment to pitching up a tent in the living room armed with a handful of warm tinnies.

BBC Radio 6Music’s Lauren Laverne reached out to listeners directly, and asked them what they wanted to hear on air. The BFI’s annual showcase of LGBTQI+ cinema, BFI Flare, is no longer going ahead: so, instead, they’re bringing as many films as possible to viewers at home, with a new digital library. Forced to close their doors to the public, theatres and opera houses are now streaming performances and exhibitions, and galleries are taking their exhibitions online.

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This is a truly unprecedented crisis, beyond anything that any of us have ever faced before. The days have now started all blurring into one, but we can at least pat ourselves on the backs for adapting to this surreal and bizarre new way of life, as best we can, with the help of a few good mates and a little DIY entertainment along the way.

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