For those seeking socialization, Quarantine Chat pairs strangers across the globe

Mura Tierney from Galway, Ireland, had no idea who she’d speak with when she used the Quarantine Chat app. She’s seen here with her mother. (Courtesy Mura Tierney)

For those who love to travel and are miss connecting with the outside world during the coronavirus crisis, a new app works to pair strangers across the globe in quarantine to talk to each other on the phone.

When signing up for Dialup’s Quarantine Chat, a voice-chat app you access on your phone, a user registers his number and picks a name, which is all the partner sees.

Mura Tierney from Galway, Ireland, had no idea who she would speak with or that a WTOP reporter from D.C. would be on the other end of the line.

It was the first connection through the app for both of us and we hit it off, talking until one of us had to leave.

Max Hawkins co-founded the free Dialup app with his friend Danielle Baskin, and launched the Quarantine Chat feature in March after seeing how lonely people became in isolation in in China.

Now, more than 10,000 people worldwide have signed up to converse with a stranger.

“Every day you get a phone call, and the caller ID says ‘Quarantine Chat’, and then if you pick up the phone, you’re paired with one other person at random who also picked up the phone at the same time.

“You can talk about whatever you like for as long as you like,” Hawkins told WTOP.

When we picked up the line, Tierney and I were prompted to start the conversation sharing a recipe.

Instead, we discussed travel, how we are both faring in quarantine, a little about our jobs, and how we like to spend our days off.

For a time, our conversation turned toward the impact social distancing is having on the climate.

“All of us, our car use, we weren’t questioning how much we were using our cars. I was always bringing my car to go for a walk, and I’ve just realized, I now go for a walk every morning and there are so many beautiful walks within walking distance of our house,” she said.

It would seem those who sign up to talk to a stranger are taking a chance and perhaps are outgoing in nature.

But when Tierney and I began talking about our concern for our aging parents and the realities of trying to protect someone who could be considered high-risk, it struck me how deep the conversation was becoming with someone I was talking to for the first time.

The substance of users’ conversations is what most surprises Hawkins when he reflects on what he created, he said.

Hawkins said it’s not only those who get energy from others, but also those who are lonely and need connection who are using the free service.

“I think the coolest thing is that even though people on the app are from all over the world and are all different ages and different backgrounds, people are finding things to talk about and are then keeping in touch after that,” he said after telling the story of a 78-year-old man in South Carolina who shared a two-hour-long chat with a 19-year-old man in London.

Making human connections is part of maintaining emotional health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which encourages personal connection.

However, it does not say anything about sharing with strangers.

“Share your concerns and how you are feeling with a friend or family member. Maintain healthy relationships, and build a strong support system,” the CDC notes on a page devoted to tips for coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

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Tierney learned about the app through coverage in The Irish Times and shared the idea with her mother, who she is currently caring for.

“It’s just terrifying if you’re in the vulnerable category and if you’re just sitting there listening to the news all day and all you’re hearing is how at-risk you are and how many people are dying,” she said of keeping her mother distracted from constant coronavirus coverage.

The drama teacher and her “strong and positive” mom are doing well and trying to plan a day trip to have something to look forward to in the future.

And she and I plan to stay in touch, hopefully getting a pint on my next visit when the pubs are back open in Ireland.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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