Virtual (and Free!) Ways to Stay Connected While Social Distancing

Most of us understand that self-isolation and social distancing play a critical role in protecting ourselves, our loved ones and the greater population from the spread of COVID-19. These practices, however, run counter to our deep-rooted human instincts to stay connected with one another and the outside world. Fortunately, many organizations have risen to the challenge of helping us communicate, educate and entertain ourselves online while public spaces are off-limits.

Take a free virtual field trip (even to Disneyland)

Feeling disconnected from the wider world and looking for some family entertainment other than video games and Netflix? You’re in luck. From the Smithsonian to Disneyland, popular destinations around the globe have created virtual experiences to help us “visit” their attractions for free—all from the safety of our own homes.

For example, at the San Diego Zoo, live cams give you a peek into the animal kingdom and let you see what the wildlife is up to in real time. Museum-lovers can take virtual tours of 12 world-famous museums in Paris, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Amsterdam, Florence and Mexico City. And Smithsonian Magazine has compiled a collection of 68 cultural, historical and scientific collections you can explore online, as well as ten museums with virtual walk-throughs. You can even ride Disneyland attractions from the comfort of your living room!

Connect with others using free tools and services

Thanks to a wide variety of free video, audio and screen-sharing offerings, it’s now easier than ever to socialize and collaborate with coworkers, friends and family. Here are a few options to explore:

Zoom: A video, audio and screen-sharing service for desktop and mobile. Until now primarily used by businesses, Zoom offers a free plan that includes unlimited meetings—from one-on-ones all the way up to 100 participants—that you can use to host virtual book clubs, happy hours, family get-togethers and more. And while free group meetings are limited to 40 minutes, you can always start a new session as soon as the first one ends, to keep the fun going.

Discord: A free audio and screen-sharing service for desktop and mobile. Primarily geared towards gamers, Discord also connects clubs, communities or just friends who want to hang out. Discord is similar to the chat tool Slack in that it enables you to create “servers” that are much like Slack “workspaces.” Within those servers, you can set up different chat and audio/video channels that server members can join and use to communicate any time. In light of COVID-19, Discord has temporarily upped its live streaming and screen-share limits from 10 to 50 people.

WhatsApp: A free text, voice/video call, audio snippet and image-sharing mobile app. Because WhatsApp operates over Wi-Fi or your mobile network, you don’t have to worry about voice or SMS (texting) limits. Just keep in mind that if you aren’t on Wi-Fi, WhatsApp will use your phone’s data plan. For those of you who prefer to use your computer, WhatsApp also offers a desktop web interface.

Marco Polo: A popular private video messaging app that combines texting, social media and video chats. Marco Polo lets users record and send videos—complete with filters and added text or drawings—directly to friends or groups. Any user in the group can watch and re-watch videos in the chat history and either respond right away (like using a walkie talkie) or send a video reply when it’s convenient.

FaceTime: A quick, easy way for Apple device users to video chat with one another—and it’s already built into iPhones, iPads and Macs. Like WhatsApp, FaceTime uses your phone’s Wi-Fi or mobile data to connect for video calls.

Google Hangouts: Free chat and video conferencing software. All you need to get started is a Google account (also free), and you can invite others to join you for a virtual catchup.

Distant, but not disconnected

Staying connected to the outside world and engaged with family, friends and colleagues doesn’t have to cost a fortune—or anything at all. What’s more, you might find yourself adopting some of these tips and tricks to help you stay in touch in the future. Here’s to staying healthy, safe and connected!

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