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'Bring your own cake': Poker, dinner parties and birthdays move to video chat

"Just knowing we could see each other and be together — even though we weren't 'together' together — was a huge relief," said a woman who hosted her birthday party online.
Image: Elizabeth Minkel, left, Jonah Shepp, right, and James McNally and Myra Palmero, top right, video conference over Skype.
Elizabeth Minkel and Jonah Shepp videoconference with James McNally and Myra Palmero, top right, over Skype.Courtesy of Elizabeth Minkel

Kellie Sprinkle has an annual tradition for her birthday: renting a cabin in the woods of northern Georgia with friends who fly in from as far away as Arizona.

The coronavirus pandemic means it's not happening this year, with air travel and personal contact officially discouraged. So, on Saturday night, they did the next best thing they could think of: a four-hour group video chat.

"Just knowing we could see each other and be together — even though we weren't 'together' together — was a huge relief," said Sprinkle, an Atlanta-area school teacher who turns 32 in a few days.

Different people joined and dropped off over the four hours, and her friends made sure to sing "Happy Birthday to You."

"I didn't expect time to go by that quickly, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, it's midnight,'" she said.

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Sprinkle said she hadn't really used group chats before and wasn't sure what to expect, but now she and her friends are planning to do it again weekly while they're mostly stuck inside at home to try to slow the spread of the pandemic through social distancing.

Digital hangouts are up for a historic moment as people around the world search for ways to connect with friends and family without leaving their homes. Online videoconferencing may be familiar to corporate office workers, but for everyone else, there's suddenly a much clearer need.

It's also easier now than it was back in 2010, when Skype began offering group video calls for up to 10 people. Broadband internet and high-speed mobile service are more widely available, improving the quality of the video, and there's a range of free to mostly free services to choose from, including Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Facebook's Messenger and Houseparty.

And combined with other technology, it can prove effective at creating some semblance of normalcy.

Brian Koppelman, creator and showrunner of Showtime's "Billions," said his weekly poker game was canceled until a friend suggested that they use an app available for iPhones and iPads to play their game over the internet. They added a videoconference over Zoom, as well.

Koppelman said it took about 20 minutes before his group was back to its usual feel, with the addition of a few thermometers people had to take their temperatures and occasional cameos by his friends' family members.

"It was the same group of people busting on each other, laughing with each other, telling the same stories," said Koppelman, who also co-wrote the poker movie "Rounders."

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People in the U.S. face weeks of social distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday that it recommends canceling all gatherings of 50 or more people until early May, and many major cities have ordered bars and restaurants to close temporarily.

Many companies and schools are turning to videoconferencing software to maintain their operations. U.S. internet experts say the country's infrastructure can handle a significant uptick in people working, learning and socializing from home.

And mental health experts have warned that social distancing for long periods of time can have adverse effects on people, particularly those who already struggle with mental health problems.

But in addition to providing a way to be social, digital hangouts offer their own advantages.

Amanda Bennett, a graduate student at Boston College, is planning a video-chat birthday party for Sunday and is thinking of inviting 80 people to drop in and out over four hours. "My plan right now is just to have one big session," she said.

Rather than feeling limited by technology, Bennett said, she's decided to take the opposite view.

"I've decided to make it a feature, not a bug. I can technically invite anyone I've ever known, not just people in Boston," she said.

Conversations with many people can be difficult, of course, but she's hoping people will spread out over the evening. And if a few people want to start a side conversation — like at a regular birthday party — she plans to free them to drop off and start a separate call and then come back if they like.

She's considering buying the $15-a-month Zoom Pro plan for the occasion.

"In that case, it would be a $15 birthday party. It's still pretty cheap compared with buying snacks for 80 people," said Bennett, who's about to turn 29.

One drawback, however, she can't fix: "Bring your own cake."

Elizabeth Minkel, 35, a culture writer and consultant who lives in Brooklyn, hosted a virtual dinner party Sunday night with three friends: one who lives in New York City and two who live in Chicago. She said she's always hosted a lot of dinner parties.

"That's been a priority of mine, to have my own apartment and to have people over a lot," she said in a phone interview. By taking the parties online, she said, "I'm hopeful this will make me feel a little less isolated."

In New York City especially, she said, there's an expectation that people are going to be social, going out after work or visiting one another's apartments. "It's like Seinfeld going to the diner," she said.

But that may be what counts as having a social life for a sizable part of 2020: regular group video chats.

"I feel like we're all already going stir crazy, and that's a bad sign, because it's been only a few days and this could go on for weeks or months," Minkel said.

After Sunday's dinner party, she said the experience reinforced what she thought going in: Why haven't I done this before?

"Why do I always wait until we're physically in the same place to catch up with people I like talking to so much?" she emailed.

A friend had a theory for why group video chats work so well, she said: Not being able to see the physically closest people spurs you to connect with your favorite people, regardless of distance. "It's a strange sort of silver lining to self-isolation, but one I'm really grateful for," she said.