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As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to upend American life, social lives are vanishing. Coffee shop dates have been traded for quarantines, face-to-face meetings exchanged for physical distance. Real conversations and opportunities for social connection outside of the immediate family are scarce.

Connecting online seems like the logical solution, but has often been an ineffective alternative. Internet communication can easily be dominated by division and tribalism, and as a pandemic and a divisive election year converge, many fear division will only worsen.

In response, a wave of new technology and tools is rising. The goal? Not just to improve the way people talk online, but enable them to build new relationships and understand each other better.

Living Room Conversations offers “conversation guides” for having respectful meetings, either in-person or virtually, between people from different backgrounds and ideologies. Often politically focused, conversations have now shifted to topics like empathy and hope — values all Americans are united by in times of crisis.

“As soon as we started pushing these new conversation guides on social media, they’ve filled up. The demand is there,” said Gayle Yamauchi-Gleason, a contributing partner at Living Room Conversations. “The times are giving us this opportunity to push back on our fears and preferences and use technology in ways we normally might not.”

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“Some people are feeling a little trapped right now,” added Joan Blades, the organization’s founder. “The guides provide a way to expand.”

Online tools combat social isolation

The need for expansion amid isolation is leading people to tools like Mismatch, a video conference service that enables discourse between classrooms across the country. Combined with conversation guides from Living Room Conversations, Mismatch uses AllSides Connect to let anyone host face-to-face, topic-driven discussions online.

“In this environment of anxiety, uncertainty and fear, there is a risk that people will feel alone,” said Kristin Hansen, director of Mismatch.org. “This is designed as an antidote to forces that pull at our social fabric.”

“During a crisis, we need to come together — with friends, family, even estranged family, even people we disagree with,” AllSides President John Gable said. “Integrating technology with expertise from psychologists and professional mediators, we are building even stronger relationships than we had before.”

It’s not just about continuing a meeting cycle, but using those meetings to foster real connections. As social distancing becomes normal, the need to maintain and improve our social fabric is made more apparent.

Movements like #InThisTogether and #WeavingCommunity have sprung up on social media, promoting unity and shared progress in response to an unprecedented threat.

“Our need for social connection is hard-wired in all of us,” said Pearce Godwin, executive director of National Conversation Project, which is helping lead #WeavingCommunity. “It may be that we needed this kind of shock to our communities to regain a stronger appreciation of each other and our shared humanity.”

The National Conversation Project, the Aspen Institute’s Weave project and the #ListenFirst coalition are helping lead Weaving2020.org to highlight social bridging movements. Their efforts, Godwin hopes, will produce a stronger national community — even after the pandemic subsides.

Church attracts more people online

For organizations such as First Congregational United Church of Christ in Boulder, Colorado, one challenge is to keep older members of the congregation connected during a shelter-in-place order. Yet, the transition to all-online events has been smooth.

“On our first live stream service, we had about 500 people join, twice what we have normally,” said Pedro Silva, an associate minister. “For a lot of our people, church is their lifeline, their community, it’s what keeps them getting up during the week …a lot of people have been very grateful.”

National initiatives are also capitalizing on ways of meeting productively online. The upcoming Future 500 summit at EarthX, an annual solutions-oriented conference of hundreds of executives and environmental leaders, is considering using AllSides Connect and other conferencing tools such as Zoom as the event moves completely online — a change that may produce both social and technical advantages.

“We now have an opportunity to exceed the effectiveness of in-person gatherings,” said Bill Shireman, president and CEO of Future 500. “With digital, you can have an unlimited number of people participating, at extremely low marginal costs, and an immediacy that allows meetings without a significant amount of planning.”

Tech and human intuition are combining to make online relationship-building more intimate and effective than ever — at a time when humans have never needed it more. In this era of shared isolation, it’s time to embrace the tools that unite us in spite of our differences. When the dust settles, we’ll be better for it.

Henry A. Brechter is managing editor at AllSides.com, which provides balanced news, media bias ratings, school programs and opportunities for civil discourse. Reach him at henry@allsides.com