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Not another Zoom quiz: The struggles of a virtual social life

It’s safe to say that we’ve all had a bit of a rough one this year. Apart from being unable to go to college, being driven mad by our families, and having the near-constant worry of pandemic-related matters hanging over our heads, we’ve also had to figure out how to avoid becoming actual recluses in isolation.

For the most part, I’d say, we haven’t done too badly under the circumstances. Almost as soon as lockdown started, a flurry of activity exploded out from JCRs (shout-out to New College!) despite it being the vac, and I found that friends I would never normally speak to outside of term were staying in touch. Netflix Party, FaceWines, JCR challenges, online games, instructional videos, FaceTime hikes, and yes, the dreaded Zoom quiz quickly became staples in our lives, meaning the ordinarily socially dry vac was filled with events.

There were even new introductions into the mix: the Zoom date, for one, is something I warily got on board with, and was surprised to find they’re pretty fun. I’ve had a decent couple of ‘dates’ playing a drinking game in a virtual art gallery (recommend) or, memorably, doing those 36 questions the New York Times says will get you to fall in love (also recommend, but effectiveness is debatable). They were on a screen, yes, but as someone who lives in the middle of nowhere, this was actually a pretty busy vac. There were often people to chat to about the horrors of the impending online term, vent our frustrations to about our families, and keep up a level of immersion in college life that never normally exists over the vac.

But alas, this was the issue: it was the vac. Once term hit, so did the realisation that this was all we were getting. Though we expect (and even appreciate) the vac’s gentler pace of gossip and chat, it’s bizarre to enter a term where the most exciting event to discuss is a friend baking more cookies (not going to lie, I’m the friend, and my cookies are great), a college quiz, JCR election, or god forbid, the actual news. No balls, no formals, no sports, no music, no club nights, no drama. Everyone’s back under the term-time workload, suffering in our respective ‘unsuitable work-spaces’ and enjoying far less free time. Despite the best efforts of the JCR, it’s pretty impossible to recreate the classic Oxford play-hard social atmosphere to mitigate for the work-hard that we can’t escape.

Beyond the stagnation of normal term-time drama, the cracks begin to show in other ways. Apart from the obvious and terrible pandemic situation, the potential for isolation outside of college is worrying. Reaching out to people you don’t know can be terrifying, and so if you didn’t have a secure friendship group before the lockdown, it’s a daunting task to try and start one up. A horrendous home life can make it impossible to balance socialisation and trying to manage the stresses of family issues. I’m grateful for the way technology has made social connections possible, but the same can’t be said for everyone – before the relaxation of the guidelines, my Zoom-phobic brother hadn’t spoken to anyone else face-to-face since before the lockdown. These are thorny issues, and not ones that I can attempt to solve with a few choice words in a light-hearted article. But with everyone desperate for social interaction, this could actually be a really good time to reach out to that one person you connected with towards the end of last term. The couple of times I’ve had someone reach out to me have actually been great, and I’m hoping to meet up with some new friends once the storm passes.

Despite the best efforts of the JCR, it’s pretty impossible to recreate the classic Oxford play-hard social atmosphere to mitigate for the work-hard that we can’t escape.

Despite this hope, the more subtle failings of our current online situation begin to become clear as well. Everyone I’ve spoken to bemoans Zoom quiz fatigue, but it seems impossible to have large-scale ‘meet-ups’ without a similar structure and there’s only so many new drinking games you can think up. The fact that everyone’s back in their own rooms means we can’t properly escape the ‘work’ headspace when we swap to a social event, and it’s hard to let loose with friends if your family’s only on the other side of the door. And despite my luck in Zoom dates so far, they obviously lack the potential of a real date in so many ways, especially in regards to physical contact. But even trying anything over FaceTime becomes pretty awkward when your sibling’s in the next room.

It’s also becoming incredibly frustrating to constantly socialise within the wartime ‘wholesomeness’ of this virtual atmosphere. It’s hard to recapture any aspect of that delicious unknown you face on a messy club night when all our socialising takes place over a scheduled FaceTime. There are also very few ways of meeting anyone aside from sketchy dating-service sign-ups on Oxlove – so much for the ‘slutty Trinity’ many people had planned. This can be a blessing in disguise, though, as the element of potential usually felt at the beginning of term is replaced by the possibility of strengthening existing friendships. It’s a lovely and wholesome outcome, but at the same time feels strangely unfair – there’s a strong sense of loss over a term that might have been. Everything seems to pile together into the overwhelming conclusion: it’s just not the same.

It’s hard to recapture any aspect of that delicious unknown you face on a messy club night when all our socialising takes place over a scheduled FaceTime.

However, as the rules of lockdown seem to be lifting, hope is on the horizon. Despite the medical and political worries, it does seem that we’re sliding back towards ‘normal’. But with this, a new set of worries is revealed – for those of us in far-flung areas, the sting of hearing about your London pals’ midweek meet-ups is sharp, and visiting everyone is impossible to do in a day trip. I’m looking forward to meeting up with all two of my ‘home’ friends soon, but my uni friends live too far away for us to conceivably meet up in the middle of a busy term schedule. On the other hand, these issues seem temporary, and also solidify the sense that there’s no such thing as a perfect social situation.

As social isolation inches towards an end, I’m trying to properly appreciate the unexpected positives from this experience. I’m enjoying sitting out in the garden with my family (and G&Ts), and the experience of a slower-paced Oxford term is definitely eye-opening in terms of how much time there actually is in a week. I’ve been going on more walks and hanging out with my brother, something we haven’t really had time for in years. FaceTiming my tute partners after a tute for a good moan and late-night calling housemates in an essay crisis have been godsends, as have all the other connections it’s been possible to make. In times as bizarre as these, I’ve found that going with the flow is the only option – if we can justify this year as a wild experience, an opportunity to strengthen the relationships we have, and an attempt to remain positive within an actual pandemic, it might not be end of the world.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash