How Do We Become Social Again? Lessons From SXSW

This year was the first time the SXSW interactive, film and music festival went fully online. Usually held in March, it got cancelled at the last minute in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic took a turn for the worse. Hence, for a second year in a row, we had to stay away from the warm Texan sun, Austin’s iconic street food and trade the serendipitous encounters we make while waiting in line to hear about the next innovation to blow our minds for a series of dates with our computer. When it is no longer possible for us to see each other in person, how do we recreate this sense of connection, of belonging, of affinity in a virtual space? 

One of the preeminent topics of this year’s edition was indeed the role technology is playing in the pandemic and its ability, or lack thereof, to recreate the world we once knew. The Covid-19 crisis has forced us to do many things differently, including how we socialize. Can technology of any kind truly replace physical touch? How are creators of shared online spaces trying to make up for what has been lost with social distancing? 


When asked to name one thing that would go right back to the way it was after the pandemic is over, the famous historian, philosopher and best-selling author of 'Sapiens' and 'Homo Deus’ Yuval Noah Harari mentioned hugging. “Aids didn’t kill sex, Covid won’t kill hugging”. 

That is quite the statement and yes, we all look forward to the time when sanitary measures are lifted and we can safely hug our friends and family as we please. The pandemic introduced us to new notions like touch starvation or skin hunger. Indeed, the need to hug will not go away as it is clearly embedded in our biological functions. 

That being said, we did learn a new way to connect with others during this pandemic. We spent most of the past year online, on one platform or another, trying to connect for work, for play, for love. In the panel What’s next in social? enter the metaverse, Jessica Freeman, Head of Minecraft Marketing, Microsoft Corp. spoke about an encounter with a grandmother who mentioned she now plays Minecraft with her grandson every week. Even when Covid constraints are lifted,  the connection brought by online gaming will allow them to maintain their close relationship. 

Of course, we knew how to connect online before the pandemic but we also had other options. Now it has been made a part of our socializing routine. That is one of the reasons why Lauren Bigelow, Chief Product Officer, IMVU, Inc. thinks “we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” We are going to want to socialize in person but will most likely keep  some of the new interactions we learned how to make online. 


As we all experienced, getting together online is not always a seamless experience. Even when the technical issues are dealt with, it still takes a lot of adjustment. As Shasta Nelson, a Friendship Expert, said: “Interaction is not connection. Belonging does not just happen.” Indeed, we can feel lonely in a crowd. Although we don’t always intend to make friends online, no offense to our beloved colleagues, we do need our online connections to feel safe and positive. 

Enters the metaverse. A collective shared space and a great way to experiment the ways in which human interactions adapt to the online world. It is all about creating a digital representation of ourselves  that  enables us to connect with one another in a virtual space. The people creating those spaces therefore have to think about how people want to be represented (like their true selves or not?) and how they want to experience interaction with other avatars. 

These are precisely the types of questions the folks at Facebook are thinking about as they develop Facebook Horizon, a virtual space intended for play and creativity. As Mark Rabkin, VP of Oculus at Facebook shared during a talk about the new Quest 2 VR headset, they are taking cues from the real world to build those spaces but they also have to explore new norms. “The laws of physics are different in virtual worlds. I think it’s early, I think the products will evolve, I think behaviours will evolve. I think that based on experiences that become the most popular and the most valuable to people, I think those norms will take over. We are thinking about sound interruption, space, distance, how close is too close? How far is too far?” 

Unlike the usual 2D platforms like Zoom where it is not always easy to decide whose turn it is to speak, spatial audio in VR naturally directs the conversation in a more fluid way. Rabkin also mentioned the impact of physical presence on our recollection of an event. When we are in a room with people, we remember the peripheral context much better, where they were sitting, the otherwise unimportant details of the meeting, the general mood. Rabkin said he had much more vivid memories of being with coworkers in VR than with Zoom, for example, because of that online shared space. 

How Do We Become Social
Illustration by Nandita Ratan


Rabkin feels technical and artistic progress have allowed avatars to finally feel very real in metaverses. He could recognize himself and his gestures in Facebook Horizon. It felt like he was himself, only online. That may not be everyone’s wish, however. Last August, Facebook got VR users very upset when it was announced it would require a Facebook account to use its VR headsets. 

During a conference where he shared the online stage with Rabkin, ,, CNET journalist Scott Stein recalled that ill-received decision. Having a choice on how we represent ourselves and the freedom that comes with that are of utmost importance, according to him. Indeed, people may not want to use the same identity everywhere. And Rabkin agrees in some ways. “I think there are so many things people are going to do in VR, number one thing people are going to need is to present themselves correctly in each space they inhabit.” Rabkin believes the Facebook login enables that person to have access to his or her own social graph built over time on all Facebook social networks or messaging systems. That being said, he thinks pseudonyms may be important for gaming and a different avatar may also be needed for work. He stated that flexibility around that issue was also key. 

Turning virtual spaces into a positive experience through product design is one of Meaghan Fitzgerald’s priorities as Head of Product Marketing, at Facebook Reality Labs Experiences. Users may want to express themselves differently in a virtual world.  Of course, there is a fundamental difference in connecting with people we already know, which Fitzgerald is exploring with the development of Messenger in Oculus, and helping strangers make new connections. 

Regarding that second endeavor, there is a lesson from gaming to be taken here. Kim Cook, Director, Creative Initiatives for the Burning Man Project thinks that video games taught us about being social in virtual spaces. Gamers have been building relationships through esports and gaming for years. “They are 20 years ahead”, she said. Still, having hundreds of avatars all in one metaverse remains a challenge. 

In the panel No Spectators: Community-built Virtual Multiverses, Timothy Waldron, from the band Courier Club talked about setting up Block by Blockwest, a virtual music festival hosted in Minecraft. The interaction with the audience, which he cherishes as an artist, was missing from all the early pandemic livestream music performances.  He was looking for ways to recreate that connection with the crowd and to see  audience members connect with each other. Making that happen at a large scale without technical problems remains an issue. Social norms in the metaverse, whether it’s for large-sized crowds  or a party of two, are still being crafted. But what if we end up with a better way of interacting with each other that way?

Catherine Mathys
Catherine Mathys has worked in the audiovisual production and media sector for almost 20 years. Chronicler, reporter and animator, she specialized over the last decade in the analysis of technological and media transformations. She holds a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's degree in communication, and she particularly appreciates our relationship with technology and its impact on our daily lives.
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