The Coronavirus has brought the dawn of the virtual happy hour

[This story from Forbes describes new efforts to counter the effects of social distancing by using presence-evoking technologies to recreate the sense of connection and community we get from non-mediated informal social gatherings. The original version includes an 8:34 minute audio version and for a related story see NPR. –Matthew]

The Coronavirus Has Brought The Dawn Of The Virtual Happy Hour

Abram Brown, Forbes Staff
March 15, 2020

Around 3 in the afternoon on Friday, things were starting to feel tense to Kris Nelson, the chief operating officer of Srax. The Los Angeles advertising company had instructed its employees to begin working from home the day before, and through Slack conversations, Nelson could tell that his people were feeling anxious about the coronavirus outbreak and their separation from everyone they knew.

Under normal circumstances, Nelson, 41, would’ve rounded up his staff and taken them out for morale-boosting drinks. That was, obviously, impossible, but why not do it digitally, gathering not around a corner bar but around the cameras in their computers and phones? So he sent out an invite for a virtual happy hour to Srax’s entire 150-person workforce across its five offices around the world. At first, they used a conferencing app called HighFive, but it couldn’t support the 90 or so people who joined. Nelson switched to a successful connection via Google Hangouts. He is still going into the downtown LA headquarters—“No one’s there. It’s easier for me.”—and he joined the video chat from his office, pouring himself a neat glass of Jameson whiskey from the bar cart near his desk.

“We started at 4:30,” he says. Keep in mind, that was 4:30 in California, meaning plenty of people joined from much later time zones. “I didn’t end up leaving till 6 because we were all online talking and hanging out. It’s rare for the whole company to get together for something, it was actually an incredible point of connection,” something that might only “happen once or twice a year.”

It’s already clear that 2020 isn’t going to be like every other year. Across the world, the coronavirus has sickened tens of thousands and killed thousands, and even for the millions fortunately spared so far, it is fundamentally reshaping their existence. One of the disease’s greatest side-effects: keeping people apart, keeping them at home and out of the office, restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, museums—depriving them of the human contact that people need to live healthy lives.

Social distancing is an essential part of stopping the virus’ march, and it’s been the reality in places like China for months and areas like Italy for weeks. Now it’s becoming the norm in other parts of Europe and in the United States, too. Americans spent the beginning of last week digesting everything from Tom Hanks’ coronavirus diagnosis to President Trump’s travel ban and then found themselves this past weekend grappling with how to live life when a cocktail at a bar could make them sick. Or worse.

It’s also quite clear that people are finding ways to adapt–quickly. Social media sites like Twitter lit up with dozens of messages over the last couple of days about the dawn of the digital happy hour, a concept that a few years ago would’ve sounded like a bad Silicon Valley plot point. Some gatherings resemble the one Nelson organized: coworkers meeting up. Many do not. They’re groups of friends using new (or newish) forms of communication technology like Google Hangouts, Apple’s FaceTime and the Zoom conference app (until now largely a workplace tool) for a very old purpose: gathering around a watering hole.

“I never thought about this use case. Seriously, never,” says Zoom’s billionaire founder Eric Yuan. “But our mission has always been how to connect people in real time, very similar to what Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook does. In the future, what we do physically will be [possible] online. No matter where you are. You can have a drink together. You can eat together.”

In some ways, the dawn of the digital happy hour was an inevitability in this viral era. “Social isolation is disruptive, it will cause some problems emotionally for people who are used to interacting with people, especially extroverts,” says Whitney Phillips, who has studied digital forms of communication as a Syracuse University professor. “So it’s not surprising at all that immediately people’s thoughts are, Well, let’s do the thing that otherwise keeps us feeling happy and connected but do it using the tools that we have.”

Jenn Choi, an American living in Berlin as a marketing consultant and executive coach, is one of those extroverts that Phillips is talking about. “I’m a community person,” she says on a FaceTime call from her sun-lit apartment. Being isolated “is a frigging nightmare for me.”

Berlin doesn’t have the harsh restrictions that Italy or China does, but the German capital has already closed schools through Easter and announced yesterday that it would also force its vibrant nightlife scene to go quiet too, shuttering clubs, bars and concert halls. All that was never quite Choi’s thing. She and her friends like hosting dinner parties at homes. Yet when Friday evening rolled around, it seemed like they weren’t going to get an opportunity to see each other this weekend. Or anytime soon.

Through a 30-person WhatsApp group, Choi’s friends “were literally lamenting like, So do we not get to see each other anymore? What about private dinners?” she says. “We’re a very social group. And so I just immediately said, Hey guys, If I hosted a Zoom, would you guys join? I was surprised that so many of them said yes.” She pitched it to her friends in the late afternoon Friday, and they sat down that evening, drinking and chatting. (Choi stuck to tea; she’s recovering from what she hopes is only a seasonal cold.)  They discussed work-from-home tips, the coronavirus itself, of course, and about a couple they knew who had recently gotten back together.

“One of my friends gave us a tour of her apartment, which I hadn’t seen,” says Choi, 36. “She showed us her lovely home, and then she showed us the boxes of gloves she’s going to send to her parents because she’s worried about them.”

In Westchester County, in the suburbs of Manhattan, Fiona Chen, a Fordham University senior, did something quite similar. Since Chen is Chinese, she cannot return home and is staying with a classmate’s family. She’s an enthusiastic member of a Fordham church choir group called Schola Cantorum, and she put together a plan on Friday for them to have a Zoom-based rehearsal. They thought better of it, though, and mostly just talked for three hours about music, the choir, the school and its newly mandated remote classes, and whether graduation would actually happen.

“We’re all so upset about this whole school cancellation thing,” says Chen, 22, who opened a bottle of pinot grigio for the occasion. “We’re just like, Hey, maybe we can have a virtual happy hour, so we can all talk about our emotions and feelings.” Altogether, nine of Chen’s friends joined, including one still on Fordham’s campus in the Bronx. “It was kind of weird to see: people still on campus while we’re like home,” Chen says.

Kelsey Bank, 29, was already employed remotely for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Minneapolis, Minnesota before the coronavirus started shutting down America. But even an experienced hand at digital living like Bank couldn’t help but feel a bit lonely lately, leading her and friends to gather on FaceTime and crack a few beers on Friday. Bank had a pale ale from local Indeed Brewing. “We talked a lot about the coronavirus and like, what level of panic are we supposed to be at? Are we overreacting?” she recalls. “Also talking about the government’s response and how kind of, you know, lackadaisical it is.”

What might the rise of the digital happy hour mean long term? Everyone who had one this past weekend seems committed to doing another as soon as possible. “I really want to double down on this,” says Nelson, the LA ad exec. “I was so happy that so many people came and that it was such a success.” It stands to reason that it will be good for businesses like Zoom, which saw its shares actually rise—by 2.5%—last week while the S&P 500 needed a Friday comeback to finish with a roughly 5% loss. It could also—at least some small way—put a dent in the very big business of drinking outside the home, a more than $20 billion industry in America alone.

One safe prediction: This isn’t the last part of life to digitize in the coming weeks.

For his part, Nelson already has his mind on something else entirely. His 2.5-year-old son. “I’m trying to figure out the same stuff for him,” Nelson says. “How can he stay connected to his friends and community—when all of us families have agreed that we’re going to keep our distance? Finding those points of connection—even if they’re virtual—at least they continue the relationship.”


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