Navigating the Art of Virtual Socialising

Adjusting to the “new normal” of online events has given rise to many alternative forms of socialising in the virtual sphere. Most of these take place on platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, which to some brings a sense of dread. Plagued with issues such as lagging internet, cutting off conversations at the most awkward moments- it’s not the social calendar many envision for university. Yet, with little alternative, we have found ways to make online connections work. Organisers and attendees, who have adapted to this new format, agreed to share their online event experience and knowledge with us to help others find their virtual feet.

While Zoom and Teams calls are not ideal for social events, there are reasons for optimism. Online events have allowed for all-important escapism from the varying restrictions. Eventbrite writer Helen Alexander suggest that there are advantages to planning an online event. It cuts the time and spending involved in searching and paying for venues, displays and catering. For attendees, travel logistics are also removed; all that is needed is a Wi-Fi connection and device. Our online spaces have improved significantly over the past year, despite pessimism about forming genuine relationships. While neither Teams nor Zoom can recreate the atmosphere of a Sinners’ night or fashion show, the online alternatives at least allow us to encounter new faces in an otherwise isolating time.

For societies, the impact of going virtual has been felt widely. Committee members facing the challenges of organising online events revealed ways difficulties are being overcome and even some benefits. Emily Gilson, co-director for St Andrews Enterprise Week, described how moving to a virtual format changed the experience of organising their main events. “We were used to organising a week of events with our speakers coming to St Andrews. Virtual talks have allowed speakers from all over the world to participate. We found we could get an even more diverse range of expertise… An element we used quite a lot was Spotlight, on the guest speaker, (especially when the event had multiple presenters) to keep the attention of, and allow clarity for, the audience.”

Alexandra Blanter, social media officer for Bartenders Against Temperance, shared helpful ideas from hosting virtual mixology classes. “Breakout rooms make it easier for members to follow the instructions of the committee member and ask any questions they might have. It also creates an environment in which it’s easier to have good conversations and get to know people… For Halloween and Christmas, we hosted Costume and Ugly Sweater competitions. Also, at the end of our classes, we always create polls to see which drinks people liked the best.”

Students who have attended many virtual events have also found ways to adapt to the circumstances. Watching yourself on a small boxed screen projected to others brings out insecurities in the most confident of people. Many veteran virtual attendees have found that using the camera function helps with feeling more connected. The lack of body language and gestures when socialising online can’t be ignored – but is mitigated if you can see live faces instead of blank avatars. Another advantage of the head and shoulders only view is that outfit planning is only required from the waist up. The classic combination of a nice shirt and jeans has been swiftly replaced by the new, nice shirt and pyjama bottoms. Dressing (half) up can also help regain some sense of normality and break up the routine of getting ready only for trips to the supermarket.

We are deprived of former social norms, yet new etiquettes appear to be emerging. The “raise hand” function on Teams is now commonplace, when less than a year ago raising your hand to signal a wish to speak, as an adult, might have induced high-school flashbacks. Other functions such as live chat boxes replace everyday social phenomena like cross-room chit chat. By using chat threads, smaller conversations or questions and answers can be held without speaking up over broader discussions. Much like the evolution of text shorthand, it will be interesting to see how these new norms evolve.

Though no amount of video calling can replace a real-life conversation, we will soon be bumping into faces we may have met only through a screen. The ability we have developed to organise virtual events and make real connections through them is a credit to the students and the university community’s initiative. The St Andrews bubble may feel smaller than ever, but let’s face it – big nights out weren’t our selling point anyway.