This is a lonely time, and though many of us connect with others through posting platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, it can be difficult to stay at home all day with the same people. Eventually, as we begin to miss our friends (and even our coworkers), and wonder: how can we gather while staying safe?
The answer is a virtual social hour, in which multiple people join a video chat to share an experience: a book discussion, playing a game, even chatting over an end-of-the-day beverage. Virtual social hours are a great way to see the people you miss while protecting public health.
3 Tips for a Successful Social Hour
- Keep it small - limit the group size so you are likely to hear each other. Video chats make it possible to see that someone is preparing to speak, so limit the number of participants so you can pay attention and not talk over each other. Depending on which software you use, try to select a view option that lets you see a grid of each person's video, instead of putting one person front-and-center while they talk.
- Set a purpose - Are you discussing a specific topic (such as the most recent Hoopla Book Club Hub selection)? Sharing tales of parenting in the trenches with your mom group? Perhaps you're hosting a virtual dinner party? Whatever the reason, setting a purpose can make it worth the trouble to change out of our "day pajamas" and into normal clothes (at least from the waist up).
- Choose a platform everyone can use - if you are gathering your entire family for dinner, don't choose software that will frustrate friends and family with a complicated installation or expensive subscription requirements. Choose something that will be easy enough for your most tech-phobic participant, and maybe do a practice run beforehand.
Comparing Three Popular Options
There are MANY different programs out there to help you find a virtual space for friends to meet. Here are some popular options that accommodate groups of 10 or more; are available for Android, iOS, and Windows; have free options, and are helping friends and family come together across the country right now.
Zoom seems to be everywhere recently due to its heavy use in online education (which has grown exponentially in the last month), and its newfound popularity in businesses. Anyone can use it to attend a meeting, though hosts must have accounts and their account status is what affects limitations on meeting size and duration. Tutorials are available here.
Pros - High-quality video and an intuitive interface. Some fun and useful advanced features available in free accounts, including very fun Virtual Backgrounds. Multiple users can share their screens with the group.
Cons - Groups meetings are limited to 40 minutes unless the host has a Pro account. (Host can immediately re-start a meeting if needed.)
Cost - Free for basic access, with Pro accounts available for $14.99/month
Google products are everywhere, even for people who aren't "power-users". Many of us use Google as our default search engine, or Google Maps to find directions. Google Hangouts, Google''s "everyday" video chat has been around for years, and its getting even more use these days. Tutorial available here.
Pros - If you are a Google user, Hangouts easily fits into your other Google products, such as Gchat, Calendar and Gmail. The interface is one of the easiest to understand, too, if you aren't looking to use advanced features. It has no time limit on meetings, even for free accounts.
Cons - Google Hangout requires a Google login, which are free to create but may be a nuisance if you don't have one already. Though it limits free accounts to 25 users, for our purposes this isn't much of a drawback: we think 25 is plenty.
Cost - Free, though there are business-level upgrades starting at $6/month.
Skype has been around since 2003, and is one of the longest-running options for making calls on your computer. They're now owned by Microsoft, so if you have a Windows 10 computer it's possible you already have it set up on your device. Tutorial available here.
Pros - Getting set up for a call is very simple with Skype. There is no time limit on calls, and the web feature allows you to blur your background so no one can see how messy your house is right now.
Cons - Skype is not known for its video quality compared to Zoom and Hangouts, and audio calls perform much better. Its free features aren't as fun as Zoom's.
Cost - Free for computer-to-computer calls, but paid options exist for calls directly to phone numbers, or international calls. Rates vary by country, but are generally under $10/month US, or Skype Credit (a pay-as-you-go option) can be purchased as well.