How to have Zoom parties that are actually fun

Jessica Roy
  (Kay Scanlon / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

We have all suddenly and somewhat unwillingly been ushered into the age of the social video call.

Yes, we've all been on a few video conferences for work here and there — a necessary evil of remote teams and global businesses. But this is the first time we've all found ourselves celebrating birthdays, baby showers, engagements and even weddings with our friends and family compacted into boxes on a screen. The ink was barely dry on the shutdown orders last month before people started organizing virtual happy hours, game nights, book clubs, watch parties, brunches and other gatherings.

The age of social distancing has proved to be remarkably social. But there's a bit of a learning curve to using video conferencing, even if you've done it for work before. The etiquette and expectations are a little different when you're just vibing with your friends — but they still exist.

Technical techniques

There's a lot of overlap between pro tips for using Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts for work and with your friends. (Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is an investor in Zoom.)

If you've never joined or set up a video call before, our ultimate guide to hanging out with your friends online has instructions. Once you're ready to attain the next level of video-conferencing capabilities, come back here.

  • Using your laptop is better than your phone.

You'll quickly discover that holding a phone up at face height for an extended period of time is no fun. The video and sound quality tend to be lower coming from your phone. Also, if you have your laptop set up on a table in front of you, it's easier to eat and drink. It also makes it feel a little more natural if you need to get up — like you're just pushing your chair back from the table at a dinner party instead of making everyone else stare at your ceiling as your phone sits face up while you refill your drink.

  • With Zoom, gallery view is better than speaker video.

With speaker video, the person making the most noise is a big picture, while everyone else is in a little bar at the side or along the top. Speaker view makes sense when you're watching a work presentation but feels less natural in a group setting. Sometimes, more than one person is talking, or some other noise prompts the camera to switch over, like sirens outside or a dog barking. Gallery view gives you the "Brady Bunch"-style grid in which you're all in the same size window. To change the view, go to the top right of the screen and click "Gallery View."

  • Muting yourself still applies.

In a get-together with a couple of other friends, sure, leave yourself unmuted. But when five or more people are joining the video call, it's polite to mute yourself when you aren't speaking. Laptop and phone microphones pick up sound differently than our ears do. What sounds to you like the normal hustle and bustle of making dinner in the background while you listen to your friends talk might be a magnified banging and clashing to them.

  • To look your best, put your laptop on a stack of books and check your background before you go live.

I covered this in my complete guide to working from home, but it all still applies here. Put your laptop on top of a stack of books so the camera is at about eye level while you're sitting down. Otherwise, you risk incurring the dreaded down-facing double chin.

Your friends are going to care less about what your house looks like than your boss might, but it's still good to tidy up before guests come over, even if only virtually.

"In a sense we've all become set designers," said Mark Marino, who says he'd used Zoom a handful of times before coronavirus but now uses it regularly as a professor who teaches writing at USC.

Just double-check that people aren't staring at a mountain of dirty laundry or empty cans before you click "join meeting." An alternative: Queue up some good virtual backgrounds.

  • Be the host with the most.

If you're hosting the meeting with Zoom, you'll need to upgrade to a Pro account or have to restart the meeting every 40 minutes when the free version runs out. Google Hangouts and Skype don't set time limits. Start your gatherings on time so people aren't left hanging on the hold screen.

Plan some games that take advantage of the technology instead of trying to work around it. For more on that, keep reading.

OK, we're on the call. Now what?

Social events via video conference require a bit more planning and finesse than a casual hang.

  • Plan things to do other than just talking.

In a normal party setting, you'd split off and have side conversations among a few people and migrate around to different groups. Here, you have to keep a conversation going among everyone at once. That's challenging. If you're hosting, it might be more helpful to set an agenda so people know what to expect: "We'll chat from 6 to 6:30ish, then I was thinking we could (play some games / do a scavenger hunt / watch the new season of "Nailed It!" on Netflix / work on our separate crafting projects simultaneously.)"

We have a ton of ideas for that in our ultimate online hangout guide. A few to get your started: Jackbox games, virtual card and board games on Playingcards.io, or tabletop role-playing games — either standbys like Dungeons & Dragons, or ones designed specifically to be played virtually, like the #ZoomJam games Mark Marino's students have been challenged to make. Party classics like charades, Pictionary and bingo are easily transferable to a video call.

Another idea: Be apart, together. Pull out your Nintendo Switches and play "Animal Crossing" (the ultimate game for this moment in history) at the same time. Do crafts or a DIY project. You don't have to be actively engaging with one another the entire time to feel together. Jennifer Peepas, who writes the advice blog Captain Awkward, called it "parallel socializing." She said her friends have logged on to Zoom to knit together.

Scavenger hunts can take advantage of your separate locations and be a fun opportunity to move around a bit. The host names an object and everyone else has a certain amount of time (say, 30 seconds) to find it in their own house. A coffee mug with writing on it. A twist tie. A sock in a color other than white. A roll of toilet paper. (Credit where credit is due: I first heard of this idea on Twitter and vowed to steal it. Mission accomplished.)

Powerpoint parties take advantage of digital screen-sharing technology. Everyone prepares a short presentation on a topic they're enthusiastic about, whether it's sourdough discard recipes or obscure unsolved mysteries or reality TV contestants. Then you take turns sharing.

  • Know when to say good night.

You aren't the only person who feels totally worn out by these. A video call requires you to be "on" and maintaining conversation and eye contact in a way you don't have to if you're all meeting up at a bar. Marino likened the psychic exhaustion to "encountering a dementor in Harry Potter" — just a weird, soul-sucking experience. And the fact you can see your own face all the time is frankly perturbing. Feel free to have a sticky note on hand to keep yourself out of your line of sight.

So don't plan an all-nighter. The general rule of thumb is that the more people on the call, the shorter it should be. I have found that the one-hour-to-90-minute range tends to be the sweet spot for most online gatherings that involve more than one or two other people.

Excusing yourself from the call can be a little tricky. Most of the reasons we give to leave a social situation no longer apply. You don't need to beat traffic. You don't have to get home to let the dog out. You probably don't have somewhere else you need to be (though more and more people are finding themselves double-booked for Zoom hangouts these days).

"Just say, 'It's time for me to take off,' 'time for me to go,' that's it," said Lizzie Post, the president of the Emily Post Institute. She said to resist the urge to pretend you're having technical difficulties or the WiFi is going out. Your friends will get it and probably be relieved to have an excuse to say, "You know, I'm gonna get going too."

"Most people are going through waves of being in weird headspace of wanting to connect or not wanting to connect or needing to get things done," Post said. "Have confidence saying things like, 'Hey, guys, I'm gonna take off; it's been really fun chatting with you all; see you soon."

Peepas, the Captain Awkward advice writer, said if you don't feel comfortable being that assertive, use some outside help: an oven timer.

"If you're trying to keep in touch with people, you do want to talk to them but you know you don't want to do it for an hour, set a timer in another room (for however long you'd like to talk), and then enjoy your call," she said, "and when the oven timer goes off, just say, 'Oh, that's my timer! I'll talk to you next week.'"

It creates an invisible external force that the person you're talking to likely won't question. Up to you whether you put something delicious in the oven to bake first.