Quarantine Cocktail Parties

Apéritifs en lockdown

Forward a few months to July 17, 2020

We’ve done several of these in addition to my regular geek groups that have been meeting for 8 years on live video every week. We’re beginning to see “Zoom fatigue”, as everyone has had time to do this a few times. Truth be told, though, things are coming back to crisis level and it might be a good idea to set up regular social meetings and stay home as much as possible.

It’s been official for days: we are in a pandemic. Slowly, most governments have issued order limiting all outings and mandating that those who can must work at home. Those whose work can’t be accomplish from home, cannot work, except in certain specified realms. Once home-based, whether working, out of work, young or elderly, going out for social occasions is strictly forbidden. How do we interact with friends and family under these drastic but necessary measures?

We live in a time where Internet access is widespread, especially when smartphones are included. In the USA and many other countries, Internet providers (ISP) have pledged to avoid throttling and usage limits. There has never been a better time to reach out to friends and family. First and foremost, to see how they are coping, do those in the most susceptible cases, the elderly parents and grandparents or those with serious medical conditions need help? We can help by organising delivery to them of essential items, food and medicine at a distance. As social creatures, though, we’re going to miss discussion, friends for dinner or drinks, music, movies, every activity that is now work. Technology is available to mitigate this isolation in the form of conferencing.

Jitsi Meet

Most people have at least one platform they already use, that has both text chat and audio calls. Those services are designed to keep you in the walled garden of their providers, Facebook and the likes of Messenger or WhatsApp are not the favourites of people who know the privacy issues inherent in them. There are many free services that will allow video conferences among friends. With multi-party services, you can host a small gathering of friends, old and new, over drinks or even dinner. We have done this twice in the last week. Where in ordinary times, I never had the desire to do this, even with the grandchildren, I find it charming and enjoyable. At the end of this, I will list some services that can work, but right here and now I will mention what I feel is the best candidate.

Jitsi Meet is a service that was born here in France, at a university in Strasbourg. I met the husband and wife and the team who built Jitsi Meet from a simple SIP phone, to a full-blown world class video conference platform. My telecom group friends participated in the early development of it over the years, until the project was acquired by a larger company, (Atlassian in 2015) who sold it to 8x8 in 2018. Jitsi Meet remains open source, which is an important comment on the acquiring companies’ philosophy. It is now a mature system with a free publicly available service I can whole-heartedly recommend.

Jitsi Meet was designed to remove some of the friction of joining video conferences of its kind. No registration is required. When you start a conference, you name it and send the link to those you wish to invite. Your guest(s) will click on that link and will then be asked if they wish to allow the video and audio services in the conference. That’s it.

A potentially useful feature of some of these services (Google Meet) is text captioning, allowing hearing-impaired participants and non-native speakers to enjoy the conference. There are built in text chat clients as well. In Jitsi Meet, you can assign a password to a room to control access. All participants can control whether their camera or microphone is on. Some have background blurring, which hides your mess behind you and focuses only on your head.

Jitsi Meet controls

The barrier to virtual social gatherings has been lowered to accommodate most small groups.

Call to action

Get familiar with one of these platforms, they’re not hard to use, but one person must be in charge and know how to use the admin facilities. Invite your friends, family, neighbors, or groups like fellow golfers, musicians, makers. You’ll discover a new world, one we may be living in for a long time to come.

Note that Jitsi Meet now requires an app for use on mobile devices. The good news is, it works even better. We’ve held a dinner last night using it.

Try one:

Existing services I have used, in order of my preference:

Jitsi Meet

Google Hangouts and Google Meet

(Mac and iOS only) FaceTime (built-in)

Zoom

Skype

If you happen to have a G Suite account, Google Meet allows assembling up to 250 people from now until June. This is an enterprise feature they are giving away during the crisis.

Or, search for “free video conference”. Or, if you’re part of an organisation that needs specific services, build your own with Meetecho.

I was reminded today that the “intelligent speaker” hardware is a tremendous boon for older people who need to obviate all the steps of configuration and operation. No more complicated than a phone once set up (by you), Google Home lets them answer your Duo call with the touch of one button. They can call you by simply asking it to “Call John”. Duo is available for iOS as well as for Android. Anyone with a Gmail account can use it and it will not bother you about ordering more toilet paper., which Alexa might. If relatives don’t yet have a gmail account, it’s trivial for anyone to set one up. One session for configuring the Home device for them, and they’re set. Normally, I eschew these things and do not want one in my home, but if I was older, of limited capacity and under quarantine, they’d be a lifeline.

Another idea for seniors in your family: record a video with siblings or mutual acquaintances and send them the YouTube link. They’ll feel more a part of your life.

Retired recording, touring musician, lousy coder, 1990 Internet agency founder, podcaster since 2006, learning saxophone in 2018.

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