I pocketed the suggestion, and remembered it when my grandmother’s health started to deteriorate. If there was a time to connect with strangers — to startle my life out of its humdrum at-home routine, this was it. I hoped, if only for a few minutes, to be reminded of life in other corners. I wanted to remember what it felt like to be curious about someone else — to meet them for the first time.
My first match, on May 6, was with a man in Bangkok. He told me about his haircut. “My barber was wearing a mask and a face shield,” he said. “It was really weird, but I felt so good.” He lost his job as a copywriter last month. I exhaled and told him about cutting my own hair with the scissors on a Swiss Army knife, a habit I’d picked up years before while traveling on my bicycle. It felt good to laugh and think about other places. I didn’t have to make eye contact or worry about what I looked like.
When the man found out that this was my first QuarantineChat call, he was jubilant. “You can speak very freely and randomly,” he said. (We never exchanged names.) “Everyone who is on here is very curious and interested in the world.” Since March, he said, he had spoken with 20 people from 14 countries.
QuarantineChat was founded in March by Danielle Baskin and Max Hawkins, two artists with a mind for computer programming and a love of telephone calls. Mr. Hawkins developed an early iteration of it in 2012: Call in the Night, a telephone network that woke up strangers in the same time zones between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. for conversations about dreams.
“It was unexpectedly compelling,” Mr. Hawkins said. The conversations were “really different than other sorts of telephone conversations.”
In early 2019, Ms. Baskin and Mr. Hawkins founded DialUp, a voice-based network that connects strangers at different times of day.
As the world went into lockdown, the two realized that their app could help combat loneliness. Since March, 15,000 new users, from 183 countries, have joined the app. Most are from the United States, Britain, India, Canada, Japan, Italy and the Netherlands. The interface offers a selection of 25 languages — only people who overlap are matched. (The text on the app is only in English.)
In addition to prompting spontaneous conversations, QuarantineChat has inspired art: An architect has been taking portraits of some of the people she meets (they connect again via video chat). A woman in Indonesia and another caller in the United States write blog posts about their calls — some of which include haikus. Two people who met on QuarantineChat are working on a screenplay together. When we spoke, the app’s founders told me about an ice fisherman in Canada, a user who has an air of mystique. Others on QuarantineChat tell each other about him, and he has become part of the lore.
But QuarantineChat is unique for the kinds of connections (fleeting, unvarnished, unhurried) that it fosters, while preserving elements of randomness. The conversations are meant to “kindle unexpected friendships based on a shared interest,” Ms. Baskin said. “I’m excited about creative storytelling that could happen through the phone.”
On May 7, my phone rang again. This time it was Emily, a high school student from a place I had to find on the map: Curaçao. The next day would be her last of quarantine. The first things on her list: Go to the beach, and go diving to see the coral reef. Then she would try to find turtles.
The shortest of my six conversations was on May 11. A woman from Ohio started telling me about a quarantine gift exchange in her community. A few minutes in, the call dropped. Even that fluttering, the disconnect, felt essential.
This week, I spoke with Emily, a painter from Texas who makes custom jeans. “I love my life, but everything I do, I do alone,” she said. The coronavirus has taken the spontaneity out of her days.
Our call also ended unexpectedly, this time after 43 minutes — maybe an internet problem. We were talking about showering, orthodontics and going to the grocery store in a mask. I could hear her washing dishes. I was folding laundry. We had no way to call each other back.
Perhaps part of the magic of QuarantineChat, and a reason behind its popularity with such a broad swath of characters, is the reintroduction of randomness into our stymied lives. After months of video calls, stripping down to just our voices is refreshing.
QuarantineChat “is not going to change the world,” the man from Bangkok told me, “but it’s something in your day which is different.” He added, “It’s just one of those things where you can talk to somebody and forget about what you are doing for a minute.”
Each conversation provided me with the illusion of floating, even briefly, into the slipstream of someone else’s life. The conversations were, for the most part, effortless, inconsequential. I didn’t know when they were going to come, and I didn’t know where they were going to go. When I hung up, I felt transported.