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How virtual pints suddenly became our one coronavirus respite

(Virtual) pints?

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When Kav opened her calendar on Thursday morning, she saw a day packed with social events from start to finish. Coffee, a lunch date, work drinks, and a pub quiz were taking over her diary, leaving her wondering when she would even be able to get any work done in between. The only thing is, by this point, Kav was five days into quarantining and had no plans to step foot beyond her front door. This was her social schedule to be conducted entirely through video calls – all of which were organised by her workplace. 

Kav is one of the thousands of people who has recently adopted “virtual pints” – alcohol-based socialising from inside your home via video chat with colleagues, friends and family. Initially seen as a semi-ironic, novel way to make light of the ongoing global pandemic (Kav’s work drinks, for example, were dubbed “quarantinis”), virtual pints have rapidly become a new normal in the way we socialise while social distancing. And despite the jokiness that has permeated virtual pint discourse, people are accepting them as one of the only ways to retain sanity in the coming months. 

Offices seem to be some of the quickest places to introduce institutional web pints. Simon, a 32-year-old consultant from Barking, tells me that his office typically has free wine and beer for staff on a Thursday afternoon and last week tried out doing it all from home. “[It helped] replicate the experience in the office that everyone is used to,” he tells me. “They are in the diary for the foreseeable future.” 

Not only did it provide an opportunity to socialise, but Simon says it also helped give home-workers a much-needed work/life balance. “In comparison to an office, I have found that it can be difficult to know when to draw the dividing line and know when the working day ends,” he tells me. 

Beyond work, Simon has also begun to do virtual pub quizzes with his regular pub quiz team via Google Hangouts. “It has provided a really good distraction from talking about the virus, which so many conversations can be drawn into,” he says. 

“It has made it much easier to feel part of the communities that you just take for granted in normal times… An opportunity to do something together that mimics (to some extent) what we usually do.”

It’s not just office workers using virtual pints as a means to socialise. As the New York Times published this week, Zoom – the now outrageously popular video calling app – is where even teenagers are currently going to learn, to party, and to hang out all over the world. Over the weekend, group-calling-meets-gaming-app Houseparty saw a huge surge in people signing up, with Google Trends data showing this weekend was its biggest ever search window.

Martha, a 22-year-old chemistry Master’s student at UCL, tells me that she and her classmates are starting to use digital hangouts to help get them through finishing their dissertations – and are using virtual pints as a motivational tool as well as a study break.

“Final dissertations are stressful and laborious at the best of times, and we go to the pub most days after we’ve been working in the library to all properly relax,” she tells me. “So to try and keep our sanity up and still get to hang out with each other and relax we decided to all group call and have a pint. We all felt like it was good to have something to look forward to at the end of the day to get us through the work!” 

Martha says that she uses Facebook video calls for her virtual pints, but Microsoft Teams for coffees and lunch breaks – something she and her friends have started doing almost every single day. “It gave a sense of normality in this mad time, and also it was exciting doing something novel with your friends,” she says. “Having contact with people outside of my flat also made me feel less claustrophobic.”

While the virtual pints phenomenon has only just begun for most of the newly quarantined population, the practice is commonplace for many remote workers. Hannah, a 27-year-old consultant who works remotely in Woking, has been having digital post-work pints with colleagues for the entire time she’s been in her job, with her whole company working from home across Europe. Through regular Friday drinks, virtual coffees and general catch ups, Hannah says that she gets to have conversations she doesn’t think would happen otherwise. 

“There's no doubt that virtual pints are not the same as going for a real one,” she tells me, “but I genuinely think I'd be utterly miserable without these virtual connections. They help to make me laugh, and distract me from how depressing everything is – even if just for a little while. I also think you have to really embrace the virtual element to make it more fun.” Hannah recommends leaning into the sillier functions many video calling apps have to offer – she mentions how Zoom lets you pick your background (she’s had colleagues use aquariums and outer space) and that many offer games that you can all play together. 

Beyond work and university, normal people are using video calling apps to try to recreate the shadow of a normal social calendar.Using Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Netflix Party, people are getting together to try the same bottle of wine, hate-watch a movie and play nostalgic Sporcle quizzes to pass the time. And with most people’s diaries being wiped clean for the foreseeable future, it’s even given some people the largest amount of free time they’ve had in years. “When can you chat?” a friend of a friend joked yesterday. “I'm free until 2021." 

Most digital drinkers have enjoyed the respite virtual pints has brought them, but many feel it’s made the seriousness of the situation more stark. Others fear that the novelty of drinking with your friends on a big group call might wear off soon and that they may be left with an even lonelier reality.

“It is an odd thing,” Simon tells me. “You speak to people in a way that feels like you are recording the start of a dystopian TV drama – I keep thinking of the 2002 BBC speculative drama about an outbreak of smallpox.” While he says he mostly feels that talking to people online is a relief at the moment, he does worry that it may not be sustainable. “The difficulty is making this part of the routine, and although the social bonds strengthen temporarily, it may not last.” 

“We have the existing rapport to a) just laugh any impending doom off, and b) other things/topics to chat about,” Georgia, an NUS worker based in Edinburgh, tells me of her colleagues. “But I don't think we've quite fully realised that this kind of interaction may be the basis of our social life for a rather long period of time. I think this week has been mainly a novelty, and I think our conversations have reflected that.” 

She says that speaking to her friends from home may prove to be a different experience. “The longevity of the situation will no doubt be part of that chat.”

Before that happens though, virtual pints are starting to take on the contours of the typical pub experience – with people already complaining about being forced to chat with acquaintances they’d rather avoid and others having to cancel plans because they’ve double-booked. “It's official,” one friend said to me thanks to coronavirus, “I'm a fully fledged wine mom.” Others have complained about having to log onto their morning Zoom meetings hungover. 

But until a new phase of dread sets in for most of us, virtual pints will continue to become a respite for likely millions of people: a welcome distraction from increasing infection rates and inevitable deaths. “That’s kind of why we decided to do it,” Martha tells me, “to incorporate some normal parts of life into the bizarreness.”

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.