We’ve been in this pandemic for a while now, and we’ve sort of gotten used to a primarily virtual social life. Meetings and classes on Zoom are adequate, the catch-up call while you tidy your kitchen works quite well, and the coworking video with the sound off is surprisingly effective. I’ve actually enjoyed being able to attend panels with people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to be in the same location. But there’s one thing that still glaringly doesn’t work—the virtual party.
Whether that’s the Zoom cocktail hour, the Google Meet birthday party, the Microsoft Teams pub night, or some other unholy combination of video platform and wishful Before-Times Social Event Name, these screenfuls of video faces fail to even modestly replicate the fun of a party. So, with the holidays and the long Covid winter bearing down upon us, I decided to pinpoint the exact nature of the problem and figure out how to do it better. I found that a realistic-feeling party boils down to two factors: group size and autonomy.
First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what we’re trying to solve. Say you’re having a Zoom birthday party. You’ve invited a couple dozen people and, liberated from the constraints of geography, most of them can come! You’re seeing their faces as they pop in, how exciting! But suddenly, the birthday person turns into an ungainly hybrid of game show host and middle manager, calling on each friend and family member to give a snapshot update of their life for a few minutes before turning to the next. It’s a birthday party filtered through the structure of a small classroom seminar. Unsurprisingly, guests tend to make an appearance, take their few moments in the spotlight to wish the birthday person many happy returns, say hi in the chat to other friends attending, and then … awkwardly come up with an excuse to leave half an hour later.
The Zoom-birthday-party-slash-quiz-show is not terrible, and it is better than nothing—not to mention far better than hosting a Fun Party for Viral Particles in your friends’ respiratory tracts. But this birthday-board-meeting simply doesn’t feel like a party. (I’d hereby like to apologize to my friends who’ve hosted said Zoom gatherings. No really, please invite me back next year, it’s the medium that’s at fault!) One possible solution is to embrace the necessary structure of large Zoom events, and organize a more formal type of fun, like book clubs and game nights and powerpoint karaoke and show-and-tell events.
But, internet help me, I was still determined to have an actual virtual party. Which raises the question: If getting a bunch of people together on a video call doesn’t feel like a party, then what does? (A question which, I have determined through extensive empirical investigation, makes me very fun at parties.)
If too-large events are the problem, I thought, then maybe reducing the number of people would do the trick. So I tried scheduling a series of smaller video calls, from two to eight people, all in the same evening or afternoon. Perhaps, I reasoned, jumping from chat to chat with smaller groups of people will replicate that party feeling of moving from one conversation to the next.
Research backs up this preference for smaller conversations: Social scientists consistently find that four is the maximum number of people that an average conversation contains before potentially splitting into smaller conversational groups. This holds true for contexts ranging from Shakespeare plays and various film genres to everyday conversations in Iranian public spaces or English-speakers in university cafeterias and even waiting outside of buildings after fire drills. When a fifth or sixth person joins, people will sometimes valiantly try to keep the conversation on a single thread, but it inevitably fissions—that is, unless you’re in Zoom.