Digital Dinner Party

Sharing a meal with StartingBloc buddy, Nils

Sharing a meal with StartingBloc buddy, Nils

Whether from college or conferences, fellowships or far flung family, the world has brought some incredible people in my life. But youthful transience and transition frequently makes former next door neighbors into long distance friends. No matter how hard we try to make social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram facilitate a sense of connection, they fall short. We glimpse into moments of our friends' lives and minds, but rarely get the deep relationships we seek. The ebb and flow of proximity to those we love can become exhausting.

After years of phone calls, chats, video connection, and even private blogs, I wanted to figure out a way to replace what I missed most about experiences of connection with people I cared about. Sharing a meal.

Making and eating dinner with those I love has always been central to feelings of community. It's creative, collaborative, and feels like home. With the people that mean most to me slipping zip codes away, I search for ways to feel closer.

Enter: The digital-analog dinner party.

Luckily, I have a few friends who are always up for experiments. Thus, the digital-analog dinner party was born. It is the best of a casual take-out night with friends, despite distances.

In essence:

  1. Bob orders Susie delivery.*

  2. Susie orders Bob delivery.

  3. Upon arrival, they boot up their favorite video chat platform and share a meal.

*Try Chicago-grown GrubHub to order

Sounds pretty simple. In fact, you've probably enjoyed a virtual cup of tea or bottle of beer with a friend or two in your day. This digital-analog dinner party has a few basic principles that make it special:

  • So far away, yet so close. Sharing a meal makes you feel closer, regardless of the miles in between. While you may not be sharing a table in a literal sense, with your meal and conversation, you are halfway there, creating a temporary space with the feeling of intimacy.

  • The power of gift giving. Bob and Susie could surely order their own meals, boot up their computers, and say hello. For all technical purposes, nothing would be different. But there is power in the idea of the gift. In searching for a neighborhood place that will cook up a satisfying meal. In selecting a dish based on your understanding of your companion's tastes. Ultimately, you break even, but the process facilitates a sense of of social connection and reciprocity.

  • The element of surprise. Not knowing what meal is going to show up on your doorstep feels like a holiday. Or like any time you show up to a friend's house for dinner. You accept what they provide with eager excitement and gratitude for the gift of a shared meal. These small surprises are often missing in our daily life, so orchestrating experiences of surprise are that much more rewarding.

  • Timing is everything. Okay, this breed of hangout requires a small level of coordination –– addresses, timing, and the like. We suggest ordering food 60-90 minutes before your intended dinner. With phone apps and web platforms, it is fairly easy to get an estimate of a food's arrival time. But don't let coordination ruin your excitement. Be thoughtful and prompt, but flexible. My most recent meal was delayed because of a slight mistiming and bike snafu, flexible friends made the snafu forgiveable. Also, allow yourself time. I find when I do virtual hangouts with food, it is more akin to a dinner than a scheduled meeting…. 2 hours later, we find ourselves deep in conversation, forgetting that our connection is mediated digitally.

The digital dinner party has made meeting up with my long-distance friends an exciting adventure. With platforms to make ordering a breeze and make the "hanging out" experience that much more dynamic, I'm grateful to live in a world where we are increasingly less reliant on proximity for emotional depth. While digital connection will never replace the hello hug, it certainly makes those we love feel closer every day.

Variations on a digital dinner party theme:

  • Field Trip: Just add headphones and your favorite local watering hole and you have an evening out on the town. Caution: While getting burger specials and catching up with a dear friend recently, I confused a patron or two while talking intently to what appeared to be the napkin holder (with my iPhone propped on it). Discreetly get your ordering out of the way as to not be rude to fellow patrons or the waitstaff trying to make your dining experience enjoyable. Make sure you are monitoring your own talking level and being considerate of those around you.

  • Recipe exchange: Instead of ordering each other meals, exchange or mutually decide upon recipes to prepare for your digital dinner party. If you want, time your preparation accordingly to share the whole process together.

  • Coffee hour: Whether you buy a gift certificate to your friend's favorite java joint or send your favorite beans their way, abridge your dinner party to be a coffee or tea hour.

  • Date night: Have somebody take the tab on both of the dishes, turn down the lights, and dress up a bit. Who says you can't be fancy?

  • Birthday party: Send a physical gift and wait for your digital date to open it up. Building in anticipation to relationships is important, regardless of distance.

  • Surprise attack: Know your friend is home one night? Feeling spontaneous? Arrange chat and surprise them with a delivery or anything from cookies to ice cream to sushi. Perfect for a "get well" date.

  • Pick me up or special delivery: Sometime delivery can present it's own limitations –– favorite restaurants may not have offerings besides pick up. Either have your friend pick up their treat or get a local friend (or taskrabbit) to pick up and drop off your culinary delicacies.

What ways have you creatively connected lately?