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CONNECTING ONLINE

Residents close social distance with technology

April 16, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

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Andrea Salapow of Mars rcently gathered with her friends for a virtual happy hour during the coronavirus pandemic.

With humans being social creatures, what happens when gyms close, bars are takeout only and hanging out with friends in person is considered ill-advised and possibly dangerous?

Our social lives move online.

During the past two weeks, stocks of video chatting applications like Zoom have skyrocketed as schools, businesses and individuals move their lives almost entirely online in order to comply with Gov. Tom Wolf's stay-at-home orders.

According to Nasdaq, a share of Zoom Video Communications has doubled from $71.51 on Jan. 28 to $142.36 as of Tuesday morning.

Not only has work become remote but so have workouts, happy hours and game nights.

For 51-year-old Andrea Salapow, a retired medical technologist in microbiology living in Mars, the pandemic has curtailed much of her busy social life.

“I was out every day before all this happened,” said Salapow, who now works as a school paraprofessional. “I'm always driving into Pittsburgh, and I have friends in Plum and Ellwood City so I'm usually all over the place and that has stopped.”

But what she's lost in in-person connections she's made up for with virtual happy hours on Zoom with her Delta Chi fraternity sisters, online yoga, weekly game nights with family and friends, a blanket-making workshop with family over video, along with her twice weekly trip through her neighborhood to the U.S. Post Office to send out surprise letters and packages.

Salapow is using Zoom for the first time as her two children, Maddie, 24, and Mike, 20, help her connect for the happy hour with the Gannon University alumni.

“I do want to learn Zoom,” she said. “I want to be able to figure it out myself, but learning it isn't a priority, being around people is.”

She has seen some of her fraternity sisters recently, but at the time of the interview, Salapow was planning a large virtual meetup to replace a canceled dance night at a local restaurant.

Game night

Along with virtual happy hours coming into vogue, game nights have moved online as well.

Salapow has been using Jackbox Games to catch up with friends and family.

According to the Jackbox Games website, the company allows users to purchase and download games to a variety of platforms, including Xbox or Apple TV. Users can then set up a playroom so their friends can play along using their phone or web-enable device while the game displays on another screen. Only one person needs to own the game being played.

Salapow isn't the only one turning to gaming with friends on Jackbox. Evan Gray, a Carnegie-based 2011 Butler Area High School graduate who mostly works from home now, uses Jackbox to socialize.

Gray's friends, who used to gather for trivia at bars, have set up a Google Hangout to play various games on Jackbox. Those players are working at essential industries so play is still set for weekends.

“They are like trivia or comedy games that people can play remotely and only one person has to have them. Everyone logs into their site online and you can play together,” Gray said.

Even board games known for face-to-face matchups have online equivalents including Dungeon & Dragons.

Many adventuring groups, including Gray's, have moved their campaigns to Roll20, a website dedicated to roleplaying games.

Outside of work, playing games online, be it through Roll 20, Jackbox Games, or PlayStation is his main way to socialize.

“I wasn't an introvert or anything. I'd go out with friends one or two nights a week. I tried to do more, but most of my friends live up in Butler,” he said.

For Gray, staying at home meant staying alone.

“It's all surreal, the whole thing,” he said.

Online action keeps Gray connected, but it's only a substitute.

“I prefer playing in person. It's just something about being in the same room with everyone and being able to see stuff and see face-to-face interaction that I don't think webcams can really capture,” Gray said.

Technical difficulties, be they the result of a player or server issues, during a game can lead to misunderstandings that can greatly affect the momentum of a campaign.

“The voice chat on any of those online things, it's hard to hear people, so maybe you mishear a word and it totally changes how you react,” Gray said.

Working out

While the move online could lead to a more sedentary lifestyle for some, Andrea Coyle, 35, an emergency room nurse at Butler Memorial Hospital, has used the opportunity to work out and reconnect with her two sisters.

She and her husband had just joined a local gym — a week before Wolf ordered all state residents to stay home and nonessential businesses to close. It looked like getting in shape for the couple's 10th wedding anniversary trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was going to be a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, a locally led Facebook group filled with workout sessions including strength training, yoga, and dance classes recorded by area trainers, including one of her friends, has been Coyle's saving grace.

“It's almost like being part of the gym in the comfort of my house,” she said. “I stream it onto my 65-inch TV, so it's right there in front of me and I follow their steps. You can do as many as you want until you're sore. And you can go back and do the videos you are comfortable doing.“

For the mother of a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old with a demanding job, her free time is limited and workouts are critical.

“My work family is different from my family of friends. I do get the social interaction at work yes, but I get my stress relief from not being able to be out in the world from doing these (workout) videos,” Coyle said.

And adding a mix of FaceTime and the Facebook group, Coyle was able to reconnect with her sister in Minneapolis.

“My sister was supposed to visit a couple weeks ago and wasn't able to so (working out together) was my way of getting to do an activity with her without her being here with me,” Coyle said.

She also was able to rope in her other sister in Seattle, and now all three work out together.

“It's more fun because I can laugh at them and I'm allowed to because their my sisters,” Coyle said.

This move to online platforms for socialization has shown people what they care about and what they may be taking for granted. For Salapow, the move online put her in touch with friends and family that she wasn't keeping up with. Gaining those connections has reminded her when this is all over there are those she wants to be with, face to face.

“This whole experience has made me realize I need to go visit them. I want to see people in person,” she said. “I feel like maybe I took my friends for granted, and this is making me realize how blessed I am to have friends.”

Staying Safe Online

People are using many video conferencing apps to connect with each other online including: Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and Houseparty.

Those using these applications should keep in mind the importance of security, with the FBI reporting a rise in what it calls Zoom-bombing. Zoom-bombing, according to the bureau, is when hackers disrupt conferences and online classrooms with pornographic images, hate images, or threatening language.

The security issues, particularly with Zoom, have led multiple organizations, including Google, to ban Zoom and the U.S. Senate to advise members and staffers against using it, according to the digital media website Mashable.

In order to stay safe, the FBI, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and U.S. Attorney General Scott Brady suggest the following:

Do not make the meeting or classroom public.

Do not share a link to a teleconference or classroom on an unrestricted publicly available social media post. Provide the link directly to specific people.

Manage screen sharing options.

Ensure users are using the latest version of remote access/meeting applications.

Understand the features of your specific teleconference platform, including how to close a conference call in the middle and how to kick out people who are disrupting.

Ensure that your organization's telework policy or guide addresses requirements for physical and information security.

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Lauryn Halahurich

Lauryn Halahurich

Lauryn Halahurich started as the social media editor at the newspaper in March 2018. She graduated from Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., in 2016 with a degree in communication arts with a focus in film. On her college newspaper, she worked her way from a reporter and photographer to campus editor and then social media manager. Halahurich, originally from Chicora, made her home in Outer Banks, N.C., before moving back to Butler.