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How our social lives have changed in the time of social distancing

All over the world, online watch parties, dance jams, and music battles are keeping us connected. In some cities, like Baton Rouge, there are even virtual proms to help the Class of 2020 keep some traditions alive. (Baton Rouge Youth Coalition via AP)
All over the world, online watch parties, dance jams, and music battles are keeping us connected. In some cities, like Baton Rouge, there are even virtual proms to help the Class of 2020 keep some traditions alive. (Baton Rouge Youth Coalition via AP)Associated Press

Somewhere between Zen and depression. That’s where you can find me on any given day.

I think it’s a normal emotional space to live in during a pandemic. I maintain the swing of my pendulum with prayer, but also with Zoom, Instagram, and Twitter. FaceTime can’t replace time we once had in person, but it’s a close second.

Never have I counted on social media more than I do right now. I live alone, and through these platforms, I have people.

We’re all feeling it. And for people of color, who have often only felt safe in the comfort of their home, having home become a place of isolation is especially hard. Black and brown people are infected and dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates. So many people of color are essential workers, on the front lines risking their lives, and lots of us in Boston are transplants, many states from home.

Now is the time for us to wrap our arms around one another. But we can’t. So we look for other ways to find relief, to cultivate community, to remember happiness still lives here.

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In hopes of finding a new normal, I’ve been on virtual dance floors with Michelle Obama thanks to D-Nice. I’ve watched Beyoncé's “Homecoming” and “Love & Basketball” with thousands of “friends” on Twitter. I’ve dressed up as characters from “The Matrix” and Dave Chappelle’s “Playa Hater’s Ball” for birthday parties on Zoom. Every Wednesday, I tune into Live with The Guys on IG.

And I am one of the millions of people who crashed Instagram trying to get into the R&B, New Jack Swing battle between music legends Babyface and Teddy Riley last week. Instagram directed users to their desktops to log in because the mobile app couldn’t keep up with the crowd. Even then, many viewers had to count on Questlove to livestream his own stream of his screen in order to watch the main event. Week after week, these battles, started by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, have been a big draw on Instagram Live.

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Instagram Live has been busier than ever, because of battles, parties, and just plain boredom. Usage is up 70 percent. And Zoom, which had about 10 million users in December, now sees over 300 million daily. It’s gone beyond meetings and panels. Zoom is a place for parties and proms, too.

We’re lonely. A TikTok dance challenge we may have left to teen geniuses months ago makes us feel a part of something now. Downloading Netflix Party and House Party so we can binge with friends and play games makes a lot more sense when socializing means maintaining six feet of space between you while wearing a mask.

Yari Blanco, senior manager of multicultural partnerships at Twitter, is helping curate watch parties and conversations on Twitter.

“People are grieving the loss of normalcy, whether that’s something as simple as the ability to go over to a friend’s house after a rough week for wine, or hyping up a friend at their birthday," Blanco says.

"Having virtual events and watch parties on Twitter gives our communities, Black, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ+, an opportunity to pause reality and escape together into a moment where we are united by the joy that our favorite characters, sports icons, and artists bring us. Seeing the jokes go off on Twitter and actually laughing out loud, is medicine for the soul.”

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In Boston, just like in cities all over the world, online gatherings are a respite during unprecedented uncertainty and fear.

At Chica Project, Latina students and other students of color in Greater Boston are used to coming together every month for hugs and mentorship. Kisses on the cheek are a cultural norm. Breaking into small groups and huddling close together is love. Now, it’s dangerous.

On Zoom, they’ve created a virtual village. Erika Rodriguez, Chica Project executive director, says it’s all about innovating.

They share screenshots. They have breakout rooms with small groups. Icebreakers include rounds of “Two truths and a lie.” They perform TikToks and poetry. And though they can’t touch each other, they still huddle at the end before signing off, by placing their hands at the center of the screens and saying an affirmation on three.

Finding ways to keep community, while innovating how we connect, is what’s helping us get by.

Sheena Collier, founder of The Collier Connection, has long been dedicated to creating community for Black Boston — specifically transplants. Known for her powerhouse networking and social mixers, Collier has moved her platform online. She’s hosting parties, known as Virtual Vibes, with DJ Owtlaw. The next party starts at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 9.

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Every other week, 100 to 150 people log on to Zoom from their Boston homes and dance. They’ve even done the Electric Slide together. Sometimes, halfway through the party, noted guests like State Representative Liz Miranda and City Councilor Julia Meija join in to share COVID-19 economic resources. Collier also does birthday shoutouts and graduation cheers to help remind people we still have cause to celebrate.

“This is one of the hardest, most uncertain, saddest times many of us have lived through,” Collier says. “As we are trying to maintain, we also need opportunities to suspend the anxiety and fear we are facing and have fun. Particularly for Black people, we have experienced enough struggle. We have to be intentional about seeking out joy, too.”

There’s less than six feet to spare between life and death these days. But for as long as we’re here, we’ve got to dance, to love, and laugh our way through this thing we’re calling a quarantine. Even if it’s from the other side of a screen.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.