Gauthier, 30, had been scrolling through old photos and found a screenshot of one of the virtual happy hours she’d had with friends in the early days of COVID restrictions. At the time, living alone and working remotely as a software engineer in rural Coventry, Connecticut, the self-described extrovert seized every opportunity for human contact she could get.
Virtual trivia nights? She was in. Mask-making over Zoom with members of a local maker space? Why not? She made a new best friend out of a stranger she met at an online meetup for tech workers, and when another friend’s band began broadcasting porch concerts over Facebook Live, Gauthier streamed the show on her TV and got all dressed up as if she were there.
Her whole world had been reduced to her home, and somehow it felt full.
By the time she stumbled upon the old Zoom screenshot – filled with the faces of friends she had scarcely seen since – it felt decidedly less so. It still does.
To be clear, it’s not that Gauthier misses those dreadful days. It’s just that she misses how hungry people were to connect, as if the inability to see anyone in person made us all want to see everyone, all the time, by any means necessary.
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“I’m just not meeting new people nearly as much, and I’m not able to stay in touch with my friends nearly as much,” Gauthier said. Three years since the pandemic was declared, many of the apps, platforms and digital tools that Gauthier and millions of others relied on to stay connected are struggling, shrinking or shutting down. Zoom has slashed 15% of its workforce. Epic Games killed off the group video app Houseparty in late 2021, and even Meta‘s Portal devices, which after years of challenges surged in popularity in 2020, got the ax last year.
Those apps that have survived, including the multiplayer game Among Us, the video chat app Marco Polo and the live audio app Clubhouse, which once had millions of people on its waiting list, have had downloads drop.
“Busy life is back,” said Vlada Bortnik, CEO of Marco Polo, which introduced a paid subscription product in 2020. “For us, the focus has really become: Let’s focus on people who are really resonating with what we’re doing.”
Zoom Happy Hour Nostalgia
As online connections have withered and frenzy has returned to the day to day, many people say their social lives remain stunted. In a Pew survey last year, 35% of respondents said going out and socializing was a lower priority now than it was before the pandemic. Just 21% said it was a higher priority.
Another study, which looked at more than 7,000 responses to the continuing Understanding America Study, found that personalities didn’t change much in the early pandemic days, but that by last year, young and middle-aged people in particular had become much less extroverted, open, agreeable and conscientious. Two years in, their personalities had changed about as much as they typically would over a decade.
Angelina Sutin, a professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine who led the study, said digital connections might have shielded people from those changes in the earliest days of the pandemic.
“People still got together on Zoom,” she said. “They were reaching out to people and hearing from people they hadn’t heard from in 20 years.”
Then, gradually, they weren’t. Which brings us to a new confusing phase of the pandemic, caught between crisis and total normalcy, nostalgic for house parties – and Houseparty, too.
It can feel a little callous, or at the very least uncool, to admit to missing any part of those days. While so many millions of people were sheltering at home, millions more were risking their lives just going to work, mourning lost loved ones or struggling to get internet access. No one wants to go back to that.
But for all the talk of Zoom fatigue, a lot of people, like Gauthier, miss all of the creative ways people found to connect, which have since gone the way of grocery washing and car parades.
“Everybody was sort of equal distance when we were all distanced,” said Emily Phalen, 25, a research associate at the University of Iowa. Last summer, invoking Jackbox games, she tweeted that “a jack box night with my friends that live across the country sounds so lovely.”
Now she’s struggling to figure out what adult friendships are even supposed to look like.
“How much time do adults spend together?” Phalen asked. “How much time do they talk together? It always feels to me like it should be more than I’m doing.”
“What I miss most about it is getting everyone in one space and catching up together, as opposed to just visiting one friend wherever they are,” said Markie Heideman, a 25-year-old marketing professional in Howell, Michigan, who also confessed last year on Twitter to missing Zoom happy hours.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an introvert now, but I would say that I definitely have taken a step back,” Heideman said.
Nearly 100 people responded to a request by The New York Times for stories about how their use of technology to connect has changed since the pandemic began. Their responses read like a time capsule of the very recent past, filled with fond memories of simple joys that would scarcely bear mentioning in normal times: Google Meet figure-drawing classes and rounds of online Spades with faraway family. Dungeons & Dragons games over Zoom and remote beer pong tournaments. A social worker in Washington reported being so dedicated to her family’s biweekly Zoom trivia night that she logged in from her hospital bed a few hours after giving birth to her son.
The Mental Health Boost
It turns out these virtual connections weren’t just distractions from the dire state of things. Studies show they meaningfully benefited people’s mental health during a historically isolating period of human history.
In Italy, which imposed some of the earliest and strictest COVID lockdowns, researchers surveyed more than 400 people in March 2020 to ask about how often they were doing things like making video calls or playing online games with friends. They found that, overall, the more people connected using these tools, the less lonely, angry and irritable they felt.
“People who had shifted their relationships online perceived that they retained social support from their loved ones,” said Alessandro Gabbiadini, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Milano-Bicocca, who led the study.
A similar survey in the United States in May 2020 by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, looked at which types of digital connections were most beneficial. That study found that people of all ages were generally most satisfied with video calls, as opposed to texts or phone calls, and that increased satisfaction with those communications was associated with less loneliness.
“It was really the satisfying connections that were alleviating these forms of psychological distress,” said Jaana Juvonen, a developmental psychologist and the study’s lead author. She noted that the nearly 300 respondents were mostly white and female.
Juvonen has since continued exploring these questions, with a particular focus on young people in their peak social years. Last year, in interviews with 100 subjects in their 20s, she found that while the pandemic had interfered with creating new friendships, it helped young people rekindle older, and potentially more meaningful, ones.
“That’s much more satisfying in terms of alleviating loneliness than these new possible social connections,” she said.
Most of the respondents to the Times said these virtual ties had strengthened their relationships with people they had lost touch with or had rarely seen before the pandemic. Sisters bonded while making a podcast. A crew of old colleagues from the Central Park Zoo Zoomed every Friday night. Minecraft games reunited a high school senior with his childhood friends, and monthly virtual birthday celebrations made Pranjali Muley feel as if she and her college friends “were back in the dorm,” she wrote.
Ben Compaine, 77, whose friends from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania have been holding a weekly “gabfest” since March 2020, said, “I think we’ve been surprised at how much we learned about each other that years of meeting at weddings or reunions hadn’t revealed.”
As socializing changed, so did entertainment. These were the days of balcony concertos and D-Nice’s Instagram dance parties, virtual crowds for National Basketball Association games and a full-scale, audio-only production of “The Lion King” streamed for an audience of thousands over Clubhouse.
“It was the most insane experience, just knowing that we were the first people to think of that idea and actually have it go through fully planned,” said Kalieha’ Stapleton, 29, who joined the “Lion King” Clubhouse cast after the pandemic forced her to cancel her singing gigs that year.
“That first year of the pandemic was a creative tempest,” said Pesha Rudnick, artistic director of Boulder’s Local Theater Company, which was able to expand its audience across dozens of states and several countries through experimental virtual performances, classes and workshops.
Some of these traditions forged in isolation have lasted. Most have not. Why? Kids. Commutes. Complacency. As one respondent put it, “Regularly scheduled life returned.”
Others became overwhelmed with the burden of planning and participating in so many virtual activities, when remote work already meant spending all day on video calls. Gabbiadini said that tracked with his research in Italy.
“One glass of wine a day is said to be healthy, but if I drink 15 glasses of wine a day I have a drinking problem,” he said. “The same applies to the use of technology.”
Still others came to see these virtual visits only as a reminder of what they had lost.
“It made me feel lonelier,” said Vanessa Carter, 60, a patient-care tech at a hospital in Philadelphia, who lives alone and used to FaceTime with her sister after 12-hour shifts spent seeing so much death up close. “TV became my best friend.”
Carter was hardly the only one feeling that way. There’s a reason research has shown an increase in loneliness – albeit, a small one – since the early days of the pandemic.
“I honestly don’t understand how people can connect with a little square video on a little laptop screen,” one respondent wrote. “It makes me want to give up on life.”
Abnormal Return to Normal
For a lot of people, the return to normal has felt anything but. Yes, most restrictions have been lifted. Schools, restaurants, bars and international borders have opened, and in May, the public health emergency in the United States is set to officially end. But in so many other ways, the world that people are returning to is entirely different from the one they left behind just over three years ago.
Full-time employees still spend nearly a third of their working hours at home, compared with 5% before the pandemic, according to a recent survey. Add to that the fact that, since the pandemic began, people have moved in great numbers, cities have shrunk and births have boomed. Is it any wonder people’s social lives look smaller than they did before, or at least radically different?
For Marco Polo, at least, the pandemic peak was short-lived. Downloads of the video messaging app on the Apple and Google Play app stores, which totaled 4.9 million in 2020, fell to 1.3 million last year, according to data from analytics firm SensorTower.
And yet, said Bortnik, one upside of this moment is that engagement among users who have stuck with Marco Polo has never been higher, which has enabled the company to begin generating steady revenue.
“We’ve been very mindful about let’s grow the user base of folks who are paying and who are really in line with our purpose,” she said.
This period of transition that so many people are experiencing is normal, said Juvonen.
“There’s an expectation that now things are going to be better. No more loneliness,” she said. “I’m connecting all the time – and then finding that socialization is really exhausting. There was clearly a lack of face-to-face practice. It’s going to take a while to get back to that.”
By now, it may be obvious that I, too, have a confession: Like Julie Gauthier, I’ve had moments of missing all the weird and wonderful ways my friends and family kept one another afloat when we needed it most – from the basic FaceTime catch-ups with old roommates to the truly bizarre YouTube variety show a college buddy orchestrated. For one of his acts, he auctioned off sections of his unruly pandemic mane while his mom, typing frantically in the comments, begged him to stop. With apologies to Mom, off went the widow’s peak for $89.
I’ve often wondered why we gave it all up. Once these virtual connections weren’t our only option, many people seemed to forget they were ever an option at all. Then one night last year, a friend who lives a few hours away asked if my husband and I wanted to join her and her husband in a game of Codenames.
It felt a little strange – like an invitation plucked from a bygone era. We logged on and ribbed her a bit for proposing something that felt so very 2020. And then we had a great night.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.