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Faced with confinement, the comfort of WhatsApp groups

Two people, protective mask on their face, in front of their phone, in Kiev, Ukraine, March 17, 2020. VALENTYN OGIRENKO / REUTERS

For lunch, for lunchtime, Alain has been observing an unchanging ritual: surrounded by friends, he takes his coffee on the terrace of a bar in his village on the Ile de Ré. “A moment that is both futile and essential”sums up this 72-year-old retiree. The containment measures announced on Monday March 16 by the President of the Republic suddenly put an end to this ten-year tradition.

Also, to continue chatting ” everything and nothing “, the islander created a group on the WhatsApp messaging app, called “If you don't have coffee …”. The latter quickly saw its number of participants increase, reaching around fifty people, friends and acquaintances, who discuss “everything and nothing”, like in a cafe.

Thousands of French people, like Alain, have created discussion groups to help alleviate the isolation induced by the containment measures. In recent days, in countries most affected by the virus such as France, Spain and Italy, audio and video calls on WhatsApp have doubled, said the World a spokesperson for the American company. During a press conference on Wednesday, March 18, Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, owner of WhatsApp, said that the current level of activity of the application exceeded the records reached, in normal times, for Christmas Eve December 31.

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Maintain “a vital social bond”

To probe the content of these messages and especially their function in this unprecedented period for the country, The world launched a call for testimonies, which gathered in a few hours a hundred responses from women and men of all ages, showing a persistent need to keep “A vital social bond”.

“On Monday, I had to receive between a hundred and two hundred messages, against ten a week usually”

Numerous testimonies show that these conversation groups have not only made up for loneliness: they have sometimes had unsuspected beneficial effects, by strengthening sometimes distended relationships between friends, families or colleagues. “I have never felt so close to my friends”, notes Valeria, 29, project manager in artificial intelligence in Paris, who “Share everything” with loved ones. “We tell ourselves that we love each other, even if we didn't say it often before”, says Drifa, a Parisian entrepreneur.

“On Monday, I had to receive between a hundred and two hundred messages, against ten a week usually”, calculates Vincent, 40, teacher-researcher in Strasbourg. “Before, I didn't use WhatsApp too much, now I spend several hours a day on it”, agrees with Anaïs, 26, who talks in particular with certain members of her family, confined to Spain.

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“Reduce the feeling of isolation”

Laure-Anne and her three sisters live in Brest, in the same city as their octogenarian mother. Aware of the risk involved at the slightest visit, the four sisters created a discussion group, “The Crown”, several weeks ago. A nod to the one they call joking ” Queen Mother “, in reference to the Queen of England – herself confined from Thursday at Windsor Castle, near London. In this group, where the whole family is gathered, everyone contributes to “Reduce the feeling of isolation”.

Alain sent to the members of his group the decree of his commune prohibiting access to the beaches

How? 'Or' What ? By sending practical information, such as the latest statements by members of the government, the document (in PDF format) of the derogatory displacement certificate or even articles on confinement instructions. Alain, for example, sent Wednesday morning to the members of his group “In the absence of a coffee …” the decree taken by the mayor of his commune prohibiting access to the beaches.

But the retiree prefers to evoke the myriad of lighter tone messages sent for ” change one's mind “. In unison, the people who answered our call for testimonies describe a space for “Play down”. Faced with a historical situation, carrying a number of anxieties and uncertainties, humor appears as a salutary, even saving, outcome. Threads of discussion abound in parody videos of parents drying in front of their children's homework or photos of shopping carts filled with improbable products.

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Drawing competition

With confinement, free time, dizzying, seems to be filled at all costs. WhatsApp groups are full of “Survival advice”. To prevent ” break out “ parents, the feminist collective Nous Tous launched a “Parenting and confinement” device on WhatsApp. Registered parents receive daily activity ideas and tips for decompressing. To keep the children in the neighborhood busy, Yoanna launched a drawing contest; Drifa, a 45-year-old entrepreneur, has made a list of his favorite books for his loved ones; Anaïs did the same with the films; Souissi, 27, shares his best cooking recipes.

Telecommuting requires, sometimes, messaging groups are also invited in the professional sphere, giving office exchanges a more intimate dimension. “Every morning we have a contest for the most beautiful mug”, says Nathan, 24, a senior technician in Nancy. Customary WhatsApp groups, teachers invest even more this application. “The pupils organize themselves to relay all the information, ask for work and advise each other”, notes a professor from Saint-Ouen (Seine-Saint-Denis), pointing out “The ingenuity of his students”, who have their own exchange groups.

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For the people most reluctant to idleness, activities are organized remotely. André, 72, continues his Russian lessons with other students; Martial, 52, provides meditation sessions from a distance; Carole continues her drawing workshop, sending her work by WhatsApp to her teacher; Grégoire, 20, has created a group for collective sports sessions.

“It allows us to have continuity with our former life”

The most partygoers and original go so far as to organize aperitifs from a distance. André and his partner, retired with a busy social life – “Some weeks we go out every night”, he recalls – organized a dinner with friends via Skype (the Internet video telephone service), the evening of Emmanuel Macron's announcements on containment. “It allows us to have continuity with our former life”, comments this resident of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Yvelines), who also mentions a surge in phone calls to get news from people of his most isolated entourage.

“Thanks to these communication tools, we feel more united with each other”, comments André: these groups “Compensate with the outside environment, where we see a lot of selfishness and inconsistency”. Cathy thus created a self-help group in Besançon “Where everyone can request a service”, like dropping food in front of someone's home. It was in particular on WhatsApp that the initiative to applaud hospital staff at 8 p.m. spread widely.

This myriad of initiatives, if it has undeniable virtues, can however cause a feeling of saturation. Anne’s wife, Anne, groans at times for the inconsiderate number of messages received on “A default of coffee…”. Her husband concludes: “These groups are of indisputable use, but we can not wait for it to end, nothing beats a good coffee on the terrace!” “

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