Lonely in Lockdown

Helena Merk and Brian Li, co-founders of the app Glimpse, hope to positively impact the way people interact during the pandemic under quarantine. / Photo courtesy of Glimpse

A countdown clock appears above the name Nidhi. I click “Start Video” and suddenly, I’m in Nidhi’s room in Adelaide, Australia. The upper righthand corner of my screen shows a 120 second timer that slowly ticks down. The 20-year-old University of Melbourne student in front of me giggles. Light peeks through a shaded window behind her, betraying the time difference. We talk for a minute and 45 seconds.

“It’s the first time I’m actually talking to strangers around the world,” she says. Then, as suddenly as she appeared, she disappears. “Would you like to connect with Nidhi?” the next screen prompts me. I click yes, curious to learn more about this woman, and am transferred to a new screen with a new name and another countdown clock. The process begins again.

It’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night and college and graduate students calling themselves “Zoomers,” a Gen Z play on the name “Boomers,” flood into an app called Glimpse which pairs strangers randomly for two-minute conversations, like mine with Nidhi. The Facebook event “Ok zoomer, speed dating iv,” advertises Glimpse’s fourth round of “speed dating,” which started on March 19th.  The majority of attendees belong to a Facebook group, “Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens,” where the 21-year-old Glimpse co-founders Helena Merk and Brian Li have been advertising the events as ways to alleviate loneliness and boredom for students during quarantine.

Co-founders Merk and Li and another early employee at Glimpse test out an earlier version of the app. / Photo courtesy of Glimpse

In a span of 45 minutes, I had dozens of two-minute conversations with college and graduate students all over the country. I met Zoe, a freshman studying nursing at Sacred Heart, Oscar, a Chapel Hill bio major looking for friends on the Nintendo game Animal Crossing, Malcolm, a sophomore at Amherst who says he had an odd encounter with a 65-year-old Indian man on the app a few minutes ago, and Sara, 20-year-old musician from New Jersey.

The welcome screen in the new app Glimpse shows you different “rooms” that you belong to where you can chat with friends. / Photo courtesy of Currie Engel

After opening the app, users are prompted with a name and a 10-second countdown. Do you want to talk to Alex? Ivy? Yasmin? Last names are not provided and there are no photos. As soon as both parties click the “Start Video” button, they’re suddenly face-to-face with someone they’ve never seen.

The start-up says that in four events, they’ve had 2,060 people sign up– 899 of those from the first round alone. Over those four nights, 31,421 unique conversations occurred, and users, which the company calls “Glimpsers,” have created 328 “rooms” within the free app, meaning that they’ve started their own conversations with friends outside of the speed dating event.

While the app has seen successful with the speed dating events, meeting strangers wasn’t what the free app was originally designed to facilitate. It’s been adapted, as most businesses have, to the current pandemic.

Nine months ago, Merk and Li created a product that they hoped could combat what Merk calls the “growing loneliness epidemic” that she says is the “silent epidemic” of their generation. And, certainly, loneliness is something more and more people are facing in the wake of coronavirus quarantine measures. Now, for many college students accustomed to living in a world overflowing with social interaction who suddenly find themselves shuttered at home with only family members to talk to, online speed dating— whether that means meeting new friends or flirting online— has become a welcome distraction.

Bored at home, many individuals seem to love the idea of speed dating, even just to talk to new friends. Maggie Guetersloh, a 22-year-old psychology major at Ohio State, says the event she attended was a welcome distraction. She enjoyed the experience and was excited to meet people from all over the United States, as well as Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and India. A self-described introvert, Guetersloh explains, “even introverts might feel like there’s too much isolation now. It was just kind of a mood booster.”

Technically, the app is meant to connect friends, acquaintances and families for short conversations, because two minutes, Zoomers on Glimpse agree, isn’t quite long enough to actually get to know the person on the other side of the screen. While the events have helped generate interest and downloads, the founders hope connections extend beyond the sessions.

The app was created to help make quick catch-ups easier, to offer an alternative to an impersonal text or an aimless Instagram scroll. Merk and Li say the app has also been used by some companies for remote happy hours, and for speed networking and speed mentorship events.

But by no means do the Glimpse co-founders think that their app replaces face-to-face interaction. The ultimate goal, Merk says, is to help people shift away from the impersonality of social media to a more long-term ability to stay engaged, even briefly, with important people in your life.

Say you’re waiting in line at Starbucks, Li explains. You don’t have an hour for a call— you just have a few minutes. Many people turn to social media. But instead of a pointless scroll, you could be having a short “hallway” conversation with your best friend, college roommate, or sibling. A user doesn’t have to commit to a long catch up that inevitably gets pushed off, the co-founders explain. Commitment is low, and Merk and Li hope this will encourage more interactions.

Marc, a junior at Yale, wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. “A lot of people seemed like they were pretty eager for interaction,” he says. “I thought that was kind of nice and heartwarming.” But he’s not so certain he will use the app again, and doesn’t feel like the two-minute conversations relieve loneliness. “It seems pretty niche,” he explains.

The afternoon before their fourth speed dating event, Merk and Li appeared in the now-familiar square frames of a Zoom conference room. The CEO and CFO smiled in greeting as they settled into the conversation. The young co-founders explained their decision to drop out of Duke to pursue the world of start-ups. At that moment, Li sat at home in Princeton, N.J., while Merk appeared in the house in San Francisco where she and Li lived with other groups accepted into Y Combinator, a program that funds early stage startups. The wall behind her is covered in multicolored sticky notes.

Merk did most of the talking while Li interjected at some points, occasionally looking up from his second screen to make a point. He was working on an app store update ahead of the speed dating event that night.

This Friday the entrepreneurs are hosting a more exclusive virtual “bar” experience titled “Quarantini: The First Virtual Bar Happy Hour.” It’s a 21+ event capped at 50 people. Glimpse suggests attendees play some background music and even dress up for the event, as though they’re in a real bar. Merk and Li are also in talks with a local San Francisco bar to host a future event, and are thinking of charging a $5 cover to help bar owners generate some revenue.

“Texting someone just isn’t cutting it anymore,” Merk says. “The loneliness that people feel right now is a magnification of what they feel normally.” In the time of coronavirus, that assessment couldn’t be more true, timely, or relevant.