What a week it had been. I had spent seven relentless days at the screenface, as part of a distributed team of Educational Technologists acting up as an institutional ‘frontline emergency service’. With little more than a few days notice and the rising national noise over the spread of the coronavirus across the country and the rest of the world, we had been charged on the Monday with supporting the teaching and learning components of an entire university switching to operating fully online. By the end of the week, we were each in self-isolation, no-one on campus in London and all up and running across platforms like Microsoft Teams and Adobe Connect.
Britain was under ever-increasing lockdown, as all schools closed, GCSEs and ‘A’ Levels were cancelled, and a Tory Chancellor had effectively proposed bringing in Universal Basic Income to stave off the risk of a social collapse that could follow an inevitable economic collapse. The Prime Minister, a man renowned for his praise of the Mayor in ‘Jaws’ who had kept the beaches open despite the shark attacks, had ordered the closure of all pubs and restaurants. Even during the last World War, Britain’s pubs had stayed open.
When I was not handling queries from academics frantically trying to shift the remaining weeks of their teaching from what was left of the term to ‘teaching online’, I was stuck glued to news and social media sources, taking in fragments of the relentless infoglut surrounding the virus. On Thursday evening, I did a two-hour set on The Thursday Night Show (TTNS), playing a tribute show to one of our DJs, the recently departed Ol’ Father Shine. Shine had been a regular weekly performer on the show since it began in 2012, and the whole night the other DJs were playing tribute sets for him too.
Then, on the Saturday, we put a new DJ on. TTNS doesn’t usually do live shows outside of Thursdays, but we’ve been making the exception more and more of late. I’d met Ian Joliet when Voice Of Doom and I played sets at last year’s Elderflower Fields Festival, in a Sussex woodland. Ian had decided to run a Social Distancing Dance Party and Doom, I think, had managed to convince him to run it on TTNS.
Usually, I spend parts of my Thursday evenings hanging out in a browser, as I listen to the week’s show and catch up with the other DJs and listeners in the chat room. On Saturday, after the week I’d had, I spent it away from the screens just with the show on in the background. I didn’t pick up on what was happening at first, but after a while I realised that the WhatsApp crew group was buzzing consistently. TTNS has been running every Thursday night for eight years, a party night in a browser for those no longer able to go out like they once used to, and we usually have a handful of regular listeners that keep the chat moving throughout the night. This time — for the first time — listeners had been locked out of the chatroom, as we’d hit user capacity. We’d had to switch other features off too, because the exponential rise in listeners was putting strains on the systems that we had in place.
I headed back to my screens to find out what was going on. Going straight for the chatroom, I found that many of our regular DJs were there. One of them — Hardy Milts — mentioned that there was a Zoom room that had had opened, so I grabbed the URL and opened that up. It was full to its own capacity too, and as well as having another bustling chatroom, I discovered that listeners had their webcams on. A collection of video feeds laid out on one of my desktop screens. There were people from around the world, at whatever time of day it was, dancing on screen. People in Argentina, Australia, California, Canada, Hong Kong, and across the UK and Europe were listening to the Ian on The Thursday Night Show, and dancing in their houses, on their porches, at their kitchen tables, with their pets — all at their own screens. Ian was one of those video feeds, which seemed to also be broadcasting out on Facebook Live as well.
In a week when a world of human activity had shuddered to a halt, it turned out that lots and lots of people had really needed to switch off from the relentlessness of the coronavirus crash and just party on for a bit. The trouble was, literally no-one was able to go outside and have a regular Saturday night out. So, they stayed in and had one inside instead. It seems that, having been pottering along doing this amongst ourselves for years, The Thursday Night Show had now brought the party to the pandemic.
I asked Ian for a few of his thoughts on the evening, in an email interview afterwards. Here’s what he had to say:
WHAT HAPPENED ON SATURDAY NIGHT?
It depends how you look at it; the casual observer in my flat may have wondered why a bloke in a neon-yellow boiler suit and a giant clock round his neck was getting so excited about playing tunes to himself.
I am led to believe, however, that by the expedient addition of the internet, nearly a thousand people joined me, in fourteen countries, including the USA, Australia, Canada, Argentina, Hong Kong, India, Egypt and Turkey. And the really exciting part was, by adding a Zoom video channel, I could see them too.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO HOLD A SOCIAL DISTANCING PARTY ONLINE?
You should blame my friends, Jamie Inman, Zoë Nattress and Tom Houston, who independently suggested that I do something, which turned into SOCIAL DISTANCING. Although Tom admittedly wanted me to take on the Tories with a massive sound system in Parliament Square.
It was, in retrospect, quite a stupid idea, because I very quickly committed myself to doing something with an adamantium-hard deadline and no idea how I was going to achieve it.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU?
I am quite tired, it’s true, but nevertheless, Saturday night was extraordinary. I’m a bit overwhelmed by all of the everything and the people who joined in collectively made me VERY happy.
It was genuinely moving at some points — I don’t know whether it was more amazing spotting characters I knew, people in different corners of the world, or faces I’d never seen before, wondering how they found us.
I could pick any example of so many and, I mean, I know how time zones work, but it still blew my mind watching my friend, Janine O’Malley, dancing in her garden, in the Australian sunshine, at 8am, whilst daughter, Georgie, bounced on her trampoline in the background.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IT WAS LIKE FOR YOUR LISTENERS?
At the beginning of the week, I really had no idea what the reaction was going to be. I put a post on Facebook, which got a much bigger response than I was expecting. I put up an event page and people kept saying they were coming, but Facebook is the most unreliable of social contracts.
But then it started and people showed up, the chat room was full and I could see all these people dancing. Zoom’s gallery view really is powerfully addictive, like honey-coated crack.
I could see people were having a good time, but it didn’t prepare me for quite how kind and generous they would be with their comments. Someone told me it was “one of the ten best nights of my life” and another that we “brought the party to the pandemic”, which has a nice ring to it. That and demanding that I do it again — it was a lot of work, so I was happy to have another party this Saturday but, equally, I didn’t have a lot of choice.
WHAT IMPACT DO YOU THINK SOMETHING LIKE THIS COULD HAVE IN A TIME OF SELF ISOLATION AND SOCIAL DISTANCING?
As my friend, Miriam Zendle, mentioned, some people may accuse me of being an extrovert and it’s true; I love people and thrive in their company. Saturday made me think about how much I miss my friends who live far away and, now, that I’ll also miss seeing mates only a few miles from me in London.
With this in mind, I would love to foster what I hope could be a nascent community of like-minded lovely people and, in the immortal words of Saint Etienne, everyone is cordially invited to join our club: SOCIAL DISTANCING DANCE PARTY // www.facebook.com/groups/socialdistancingdanceparty/
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
YES — I’m glad you asked. It’s been a crazy week and the second hasn’t calmed down much. I’ve had press enquiries from the BBC, online media and a production company making a documentary for Channel 4.
We all need to stay at home; my sister, Shona, and her partner, Alex, are both doctors, their hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients and the numbers keep getting worse. This isn’t going away, despite idiotic claims by fools like Trump, telling the press that “we’re going to be opening relatively soon… I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”
The second SOCIAL DISTANCING DANCE PARTY is this Saturday 28th, 8pm-12am GMT and I’ve just bought the domain to take you there: socialdistancingdanceparty.com. You can also find the most current information in the Facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/socialdistancingdanceparty/
I’ve committed to at least the next three months, or as long as it takes, every week, plus I’ve just started a second, weekly show on Wednesdays, 7pm-11pm: SOCIAL DISTANCING: slow motion //
Slow Motion is a different mood; it’s a Wednesday, it’s a school night and you’re not going out, admittedly because you’re not allowed to, so I’m playing downtempo, dystopian bangers.
It’s the yang to the Saturday Dance Party’s yin; where there is darkness, we find light, or something. If you’re looking for a (relatively) quiet place to help you through a global pandemic, we are your safe harbour.
So, there you have it. The Thursday Night Show brought the party to the pandemic, and it seems that people came. On the first night, we were even turning them away, as being a visitor to a Zoom room when the room’s full to capacity turns out to be the online equivalent of being stuck in a queue outside a club.
Ian’s joined the TTNS gang and we’re expanding too, beyond our regular Thursday nights. We’re shaping up to be live now on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and even Sunday afternoons. If you want to find out more, then Like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter for updates.
Who knew that a night in could be so much fun?