QuarantineChat is here to help us survive social distancing

[The Coronavirus pandemic is leading to innovative uses of technology to increase social connection, including the one described in this story from Mashable (the original version includes other pictures). See stories in The New Yorker and The Guardian for more information about QuarantineChat. –Matthew]

QuarantineChat is here to help us survive social distancing

By Anna Iovine
March 24, 2020

“Are there stoops outside your window?”

A stranger in Los Angeles asked me this over the phone as I peered out of my bedroom window in Brooklyn. We connected through QuarantineChat, which facilitates calls for people who are currently self-isolating.

Now that the coronavirus has reached pandemic level, many countries have instituted lockdowns; those in the United States are heavily encouraged to stay indoors and flatten the curve. With self-isolation causing people to be apart from their loved ones, coupled with the anxiety of the whole situation, it’s easy for loneliness to seep into everyday life.

Some are getting creative to combat loneliness, however. Enter QuarantineChat, which was created by artists Danielle Baskin and Max Hawkins. QuarantineChat is a feature in their app Dialup, which calls people at set (or random, in the case of QuarantineChat) times to chat one-on-one.

I’ve had several “quarantine chats” so far, including the one with the stranger from Los Angeles. Here’s how it works: I downloaded the Dialup app and opted in for QuarantineChat. Every day, they call me and facilitate pairing me with someone else. With every call comes the same prompt: to look outside our window and describe what’s there. I told her I was in Brooklyn, and outside was not the norm of cars driving by and folks chatting outside their homes, but instead occasional single walkers.

She asked about stoops because stoop culture, the act of shooting the shit on one’s stoop, doesn’t really exist in LA. I told her that yes, there are stoops and usually people sitting on them, but not in the past week. The call reminded me of conversations I have when I’m on vacation, chatting with folks about our hometowns.

Dialup itself launched in 2019 as a way for Baskin and Hawkins to have check-ins with their self-employed friends. Now, the app connects friends as well as communities, companies, and conferences through random calls. Beyond QuarantineChat, Dialup has many themed options for calls — everything from talking about your breakfast, memories, and the full moon. There are even calls where people can read poems or tarot cards to each other.

As self-quarantine and isolation took hold, Baskin and Hawkins thought their app would be of use to people. “In the last week of February, we heard so many stories about people in quarantine and self-isolation,” they wrote in an emailed statement to Mashable. “We thought our app would be great to combat feelings of disconnection.”

Due to isolation, people aren’t having the same daily small talk, say with their barista. “We hope our project brings magic and serendipity to a new reality where hundreds of thousands of people might be stuck inside for the next month,” Baskin and Hawkins said.

My quarantine chats have all been pleasant and with pleasant people. Considering that this is a stressful time for us all — and that we’re all on the internet to begin with — it was a welcome reprieve and a nice surprise that it has not devolved into ChatRoulette territory.

Rather, my calls have been with people interested in my life and how I’m taking this whole situation, and in turn I hear their stories. Their careers ranged from helping the homeless to marketing to design. I even followed one on Twitter. These connections serve as a nice reminder that even though I’m physically alone, everyone — including strangers across the continent — are going through the same thing.

Baskin and Hawkins told me they’ve received heartwarming anecdotes from people using QuarantineChat and Dialup from all over the world. People from places such as Madrid, Berlin, and Tennessee are sharing experiences with each other. “It’s been beautiful to get these glimpses into lives from the first-person perspective,” they said.

How long social distancing will last is still up in the air, but people are already making efforts to connect — be it over FaceTime, on dating apps, or services like QuarantineChat. There may be days I don’t pick up the phone (you can simply not pick up or even opt out if it’s not for you), but having the option of meeting someone new in a time where I can’t meet anyone is a luxury.

“While some people have told us it’s great for their mental health, we sometimes get messages about niche commonalities they had with their match,” Baskin and Hawkins said. “People often describe it with the word ‘magical.'”

After I told the Los Angeles stranger the view outside my window, she described hers: beautiful, with palm trees dotting the street.

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