A month ago, video conferencing apps were most important for people in long-distance relationships or conducting remote business meetings. Now, in the age of social distancing to slow COVID-19, more of us than ever are relying on these tech tools – and in ways we probably never imagined. (Charades with your entire extended family over Zoom, anyone?) Fully digitizing your social life may feel a little weird at first, but there are so many great apps these days that can help you feel more connected to the important people in your life when you have to stay at a distance.
If you’re not sure what to try or where to start – or you’re looking for new and creative ways to virtually connect with friends – don’t worry! We’ve got you covered. Here are our top picks for apps to stay socially connected, even when you’re social-distancing:
WhatsApp is a free platform for text messages, voice calls, and video calls that works on a variety of devices, including Android phones and iPhones. WhatsApp is great for staying in touch internationally, since it uses your internet connection rather than your cell phone service, letting you avoid calling and messaging charges across borders.
WhatsApp is user-friendly and convenient. It syncs with your phone’s contacts so you’re automatically connected to anyone in your contacts list who also has the app – no need to create a username and waste time trying to find the people you want to reach. It never logs you out and allows offline messages, so it works as seamlessly as texting. Its group chat feature is perfect for staying in touch with far-flung friends and family. WhatsApp Web lets you take messaging, voice, and video calls to a tablet or laptop, too. Its group video call feature works for up to four people.
2. Facebook Messenger
Facebook’s Messenger app is mostly used for text chats, sending photos, and sharing posts, but it also lets you make voice and video calls. It can be an easy way to stay in touch with people you haven’t exchanged phone numbers with – you just need to be Facebook friends. You can download the messaging app separately from Facebook itself on your phone, or use it within Facebook from your computer or tablet. The app allows group video calls with up to 50 people at a time.
FaceTime is the built-in video and voice calling app on all recent Apple devices. It lets users place calls to each other over WiFi or their device’s data connection. You can call from the app itself or just select someone in your contacts list – if the FaceTime video icon is displayed, then that person can receive your FaceTime call. You can also switch from a regular cell phone call to FaceTime by tapping the icon during the call.FaceTime’s main drawback is that it only exists on Apple products, so the option to use it will be greyed out for anyone in your phone’s contact list who doesn’t have an Apple device. FaceTime allows group video calls for up to 32 people.
Before COVID-19, Zoom was mostly used for business video conferences, because it can accommodate up to 1,000 participants with a paid account and allows screen sharing. Now, it’s being used by lots of businesses and schools to continue with work and classes remotely. Zoom is also a great option for larger groups of friends and family looking to connect through video, since the free basic version lets up to 100 people video chat together for up to 40 minutes. And one-on-one video calls are unlimited. It’s available in desktop or mobile versions. If you’ve got a big group and want to have some fun beyond catching up with each other, consider organizing an activity like a talent show, trivia contest, or even a poetry reading.
5. Instagram Live
Have you been honing a skill at home while social-distancing and want to share it with your friends? Instagram Live is a great way to stage performances or lead an activity that your contacts can follow from home. Or search the platform for concerts, poetry readings, cooking classes, and more hosted by people you follow.
Instagram Live lets people stream live video to their followers for up to an hour through the Instagram app. Followers can comment or request to go live in a split screen view with the host (the host can turn off both these features if they prefer). Live events can also be posted as recordings if the host chooses so their followers can enjoy them on their own schedule. You just need an Instagram account to access live streams or recordings through the platform.
Houseparty lets you drop in and out of video chat groups, notifying others when you’ve arrived and letting you know when your friends are available. Groups can include up to eight people. Houseparty is popular for its built-in games that groups can play together. This app has gotten more popular during COVID-19 social distancing and has some fun features, but it has some downsides to be aware of, too. Reviewers say it can be hard to delete from Android devices once it’s installed and its notifications make sounds even if your device is set to silent or do-not-disturb modes.
7. Netflix Party
Netflix Party lets you watch movies and shows with friends and family by syncing everyone’s video and letting you group chat on screen as you watch. A host creates a party and sends a link to invite others, then starts the video once everyone has joined. Netflix Party is a Google Chrome extension. To host or join a Netflix Party screening, every participant needs to use Google Chrome and have the Netflix extension installed. They also need a Netflix account. Netflix only works on laptop or desktop computers – not mobile devices.
Rave is similar to NetFlix Party but a lot more flexible – you can sync video and audio content to share with your friends while you chat via text or voice. Rave works on desktop, laptop and mobile devices and you can share content from a variety of sources, including Netflix (each user will need a login), YouTube, Vimeo, Reddit, Google Drive and more. You can create or join Raves with just your friends or search or host public Raves open to anyone. There’s also a fun Rave DJ feature that uses AI to create mashups of songs you choose – and of course you can share these with your friends, too.
9. Marco Polo
This app lets you send a friend or a group pre-recorded video messages that they can open and enjoy when it’s convenient for them. It offers fun voice effects and visual filters. And the videos are stored in the cloud so you can always see them again without letting them fill up your phone’s storage. Marco Polo is designed to make intimate, contextual face-to-face communication easier for close friends and family who happen to be apart, so this app does away with a lot of the unpleasant aspects of most social media, like ads, snap-judgment “likes” and contact requests from people you barely know (you have to have someone’s phone number stored in your contacts to connect with them).
10. Jackbox Games
Jackbox makes fun, offbeat video party games – and makes it easy to play them with friends and family at a distance. You can buy a party pack of six games – ranging from trivia and word games to personality tests to a comedy competition for $20.99. You can then use any video conferencing service with a screen sharing feature to share the game with friends remotely – your friends won’t need to buy anything. They can play along on their mobile devices by going to Jackbox.tv and putting in a code you give them.
The Bottom Line
We’re social creatures, so social distancing can be hard. Fortunately, these apps can help shrink the distance you might be feeling between you and your friends and family. Scheduling a regular virtual coffee date or happy hour each week can help build social time into your routine. Or if you’re craving more action after weeks stuck inside, try to find virtual ways to keep doing things you enjoy with people you love – or take advantage of extra free time to try something new with friends, like a play reading or a dance contest. Who knows? In a few months you might even miss all those sessions of Zoom charades with your family.
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