Modern community: three levels being re-shaped by social distancing

Well before COVID-19 struck, the U.S. faced a loneliness epidemic: 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely prior to the pandemic. Compare this with a November 2020 study, where 80% of participants reported significant depressive symptoms. People have felt isolated because, well, they have been. Self-isolation and social distancing are our best prevention methods for mitigating COVID-19’s spread. While we protect our psychical health, people have also needed to find way to bolster mental health.

More than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.

Elena Renken, NPR

In a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, with each social door that has closed, people have tested and tried a dozen alternative doors to open. I’ve seen social connection re-imagined at three levels: one-on-one, affinity groups, and the workplace. Below I share the trends that have warmed my heart to see, and my favorite examples within each.

Three levels of community

One-on-one

With space in our calendars, our collective memories have been stirred, to think of loved ones and old friends far and wide. We’ve felt the urge to connect with them using tools we almost forgot existed: telephones and pen and paper. Paper Source Inc.’s greeting-card sales jumped 1,200% following social distancing orders in March. And phone call volume surged more than internet use in the weeks following lock-down, as people wanted to hear the sound of each other’s voices.

Favorite for one-on-one: Lovepop cards are the notes I have both enjoyed sending the most and gotten the warmest responses for. In a world that feels mostly 2D right now because of excessive screen time, it’s revitalizing to inject some 3D into it.

Lovepop cards range from the lovely to the nerdy.

Affinity groups

Lockdowns across the globe have re-shaped and consolidated our social networks. People have focused on connecting with those they have the most in common with over people that are geographically near. This includes revived interest in hobbies and affinity groups. In Ireland, over 250,000 people joined Facebook hobby groups following lock-down orders, with 30,000 people joining Irish Gardening alone.

When social interactions moved online, only certain kinds of relationships seemed to survive.

Dr Marlee Bower, loneliness researcher, University of Sydney

While incumbent social media has done well, new platforms for online social interaction have proliferated. Clubhouse has enjoyed huge engagement. I’ve been invited to many Sims-esque social spaces, from Gather to Kumospace.

Favorite for affinity groups: Toucan wins for small (less than 15 people) social e-events. It’s essentially a virtual cocktail room where you can move between different social circles. Among the ‘organic’ platforms that permit free movement, it has been the easiest to interact with. However, the organic movement of participants starts to feel chaotic if the event gets too big.

Toucan lets you mix and mingle across different audio circles in the same event.

The workplace

Remote work has changed much of how we communicate with coworkers. For many, social distance has also created emotional distance. In a study by Sharehold, mental health was the top-reported factor that impacted employees after New York’s March 2020 stay-at-home orders (due to COVID-19). Another international survey showed 40% of employers felt concern for how remote work might impact workers’ mental health.

Many employers have tried to address our yearning for informal chats and ‘micro-interactions’ with new tools (Slack, Zoom) and new norms. My company started including personal checkins at the beginning of Monday stand-ups. And working sessions quickly transitioned from ‘business-first’ to ‘catch-up first’.

Favorite for the workplace: My company instituted quarterly ‘cafes’ with trivia pulled from our personal Readmes and Slack. It gamifies getting to know each other and is full of laughs.

Community in the long run

Loneliness experts hypothesize that people will recover from the lock-down-induced loneliness spike and return to their previous baseline over the long-term. So while we’ve explored new ways to engage in community virtually, nothing can supplant the human need to be with one another in person.

We are creatures of habit. . . I think we will revert back to our social groups [in the long run].

Michelle Lim, loneliness expert