Virtual Communities And How Tech Can Enable Interpersonal Connection

Chief Technology Officer at Adeva — flexible, on-demand talent network that helps tech companies manage dynamic workloads and new projects.

After strict lockdowns and social distancing rules were implemented in March, roughly one-third of American adults reported feeling lonely always or often because of the pandemic. This comes as no surprise as, for many people, the lockdowns and work-from-home transitions meant having no meaningful in-person social contact at all for several months on end. 

Our mental health was already suffering, even before the pandemic. A 2010 report (via the BBC) found that 60% of 18-to-34-year-olds in the U.K. said they often or sometimes feel lonely. In the U.S., 46% of DC-area residents sometimes or always felt isolated from others in 2018. 

To make things worse, according to Time, studies have found that chronic loneliness can lead to a range of health issues, such as dementia, depression, anxiety, self-harm and substance abuse. Some researchers even say that chronic loneliness is as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

But why is human happiness so closely connected to feeling connected with others? And is there a way to stay connected even during the age of social distancing? Can technology help? 

How Tech Companies Are Trying To Bridge Communities

When the Covid-19 pandemic made it clear that it would keep us tightly confined in our homes, technology was quick to jump to the rescue. In the absence of a vaccine, technology became our “medicine” for social isolation. 

Employees working from home flocked to online platforms such as Zoom and Slack. 

At its peak, Zoom had more than 300 million daily virtual meeting participants and saw the number of its paying customers almost triple, according to Eric Yuan, the company’s CEO. As a result, Zoom’s profit ballooned to $185.7 million in the second quarter of 2020, compared to just $5.5 million in the same quarter of 2019.

Similarly, the chat platform Slack has been a popular go-to option for many people looking to stay connected with friends and co-workers virtually. “The number of messages sent per user per day increased by an average of 20% globally,” Slack said on its blog. What’s more, between Feb. 1 and March 25, Slack said it gained 9,000 new paying customers, an increase of 80% compared to the full quarterly totals for the two quarters prior.

Another interesting fact is that there’s data to suggest that collaboration tools have a positive impact on remote workers’ feelings of isolation. According to Slack, its users are nearly twice as likely as non-Slack users to say their sense of belonging improved while working from home. What’s more, roughly 27% of non-Slack users said loneliness is a work-from-home challenge, while 18% of Slack users said the same. 

Another aspect of life that got “canceled” this year was in-person entertainment. But that hasn’t stopped technology from bringing people together online. People who haven’t been able to go to the movies with their friends have been using a tool called Teleparty to watch TV and movies together remotely. 

The coronavirus pandemic brought large events worldwide to a halt, including conferences, webinars, workshops and summits. Companies had no choice but to run their gatherings online. I saw virtual conferencing tools like Zoom and Webex Meetings gain popularity fast, likely due to their capability to imitate the experience of a physical event. 

Newer online events platforms have also been attracting significant interest from investors and users alike. “I wanted to attend an event just like I had in real life, so I started creating a video platform that allows you to do that,” said Johnny Boufarhat, the CEO of Hopin (an Adeva client), a company that offers an online venue for virtual events that raised $125 million in a round of funding recently. The company reported that the number of monthly attendees of events on its platform jumped from 16,000 in March to 175,000 in June.

Another company, Hivebrite, powers private online communities. Users can organize virtual events, host discussions, facilitate networking and more. The platform helps people connect and share ideas virtually like they would in person.

But the change didn’t stop there. With many town halls closed, technology found a way to help local governments stay in touch with their citizens. “The lockdown and social distancing measures have made regular citizen consultations (such as town hall meetings and in-person workshops) impossible,” said Wietse Van Ransbeeck, co-founder and CEO of CitizenLab, a citizen engagement platform. “During that time, many cities turned to digital tools, a choice that some of them had been pondering for months or even years.” The novel coronavirus reportedly pushed the company to create new features that support deeper deliberation, such as citizen workshops that allow cities to have online workshops and engage in meaningful conversations with their citizens.

Humans are fundamentally social animals — we are hardwired to work together and help each other out. Unsurprisingly, lockdowns and social distancing orders can have a devastating impact on mental health and can lead to depression, pandemic anxiety and loneliness for many. Online communities can be a lifeline for people during these tough times.

Although I’ve heard people say that technology is the culprit for why they believe the younger generations have lost substantial human connection, we should take a moment to consider just how much technology is doing to help us stay connected during these trying times. It made amazing tech solutions possible and has enabled people to feel like they’re part of a community. I believe it’s the rescuer we all needed to bring some normality into our life and make our days a little bit easier to handle. 

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