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The Actual Experience of Virtual Experiences

You can tour a museum at 9, take a mixology class at 11, and swoop over Machu Picchu at 3, but do these online versions of “doing stuff” really scratch the itch? 

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Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

Most of us are currently missing things like Outside and Proximity to Other Humans. For the lucky ones, at least, monotony and loneliness are our most prominent enemies, as we stare down seemingly endless nights of Netflix and bean soaking, longing for the day we can experience somewhere else. If you run a business that requires anyone travel from one place to another, this means that you’re particularly reeling. Airline capacity is down 73 percent, hotels are empty, and even the potential reopening of restaurants and bars comes with heavy caveats. Because of that, brands like Airbnb, Viator, Google, and various tourism councils have begun offering virtual “experiences,” so that hypothetically you both keep spending money and also don’t die of boredom. But can paying to stare at a screen for culture really rescue you from the monotony of staring at Twitter? Or are they, you know, both screens?

Broadly, there are two types of experiences happening today. First, there are interactive classes and group activities, where you can learn to make pasta or Irish step dance or listen to a museum docent talk about statuary on a video call — all with other people looking to emerge from this time with a new skill set. In Philadelphia, one restaurant owner is trying to mimic the experience of dining out. He video calls you for your order and then, once it’s delivered, calls back to check in on your wine and see how everything is. Aside from the fact that they take place over a video call, these experiences are pretty close to their in-person counterparts: you sign up for a particular time and date, you follow directions, and supposedly you learn something, or at least pretend you’re in a restaurant.

And then there are the experiences that aim to “immerse” you in some locale that is not your apartment, whether that’s Rome’s colosseum or an orchard of cherry blossoms in Japan or the British Museum. Often, the entirety of the experience is just a 360-degree camera or other pre-recorded video footage of a beautiful place, and sometimes it’s free. Maybe for a brief moment it will seem as if you aren’t on the couch with your partner who won’t stop bouncing every time they try to catch a tarantula in Animal Crossing, but instead are surrounded by skulls and a haunting breeze in Paris’s catacombs. Or seeing the Faroe Islands through the eyes of a local with a camera strapped to their shirt and whose movements you can control with a joypad (yes, this is real, and no, it does not seem ethical).

Both of these types of experiences are not new, except for the joypad thing. Virtual cooking classes and workouts are offered by plenty of companies, and Google has long allowed you to tour the world’s museums, or plant yourself in the middle of a national park on Google Earth. Normally, these offerings are an invaluable tool for those who don’t have the ability — whether financially or physically or because there’s only so much time — to visit these spaces in person. Personally, I’ve avoided them all. Aside from the occasional video yoga class, it just didn’t seem worth it — too much potential for technical difficulties, too easy to open Twitter in another tab. Plus, I could just go there if I really wanted.

But now that the pandemic has wiped out any in-person plans for the foreseeable future, boredom is my primary struggle. I finish work and move from my dining table to my couch, queueing up another movie or TV show or video game. The idea of a plan, of something to look forward to, feels increasingly distant — and online experiences increasingly appealing. Can they actually fulfill our collective void of “doing,” or just highlight how far we are from ever “experiencing” in person again? I decided to fill up my calendar again to find out — or at least see if I could forget about the confining walls of my apartment, even for a few minutes.

The instructions for Airbnb’s “GINspiration History & Cocktails at Home” said that points would be given for the best outfit, so I put on earrings and an actual shirt before signing on. The company best known for providing vacation and short-term rentals offered “experiences” — both real-life and virtual — before the spread of COVID-19, but has taken care to promote the latter on its homepage recently. You can learn to cook tacos or pasta or tapas, or watch a man wandering the streets of Prague in a plague doctor costume as you learn about the Black Death. My hour-and-a-half long class promised the bartender would teach me to make some great gin cocktails, as well as tell me a bit about the history of the spirit itself. It took place at 11:30 in the morning EST (the host was in England) but time is meaningless now, right?

I assume I won the best outfit contest, as I was the only student.

Signing onto what you assume will be a bustling Zoom chat only to find yourself the only one there is a little like showing up early to a party; it’s deeply embarrassing for no specific reason, and the only way through is to act like being a party of one is your favorite thing. We waited a few minutes for the other student who had signed up, but he never came. He is my enemy now, and I began the class feeling resentful that I had no other participants to hide behind, and that I had to make an extra grocery run to pick up the limes and juices necessary for cocktail prep. These should have been provided for me, I thought. There should have been more people. It shouldn’t be like this.

But as I listened to my instructor’s story about accidentally spilling a bright pink Cosmo all over a bachelorette’s white dress, I realized I was experiencing what felt like something new after weeks of monotony: talking to a stranger. For an hour and a half the bartender and I chatted, he told jokes, we traded stories and watched each other’s reactions, I drank a French 75 on an empty stomach, and he taught me how to make daiquiris and Cosmos as well, because I came woefully unprepared in the ingredients department. And I know it’s a bartender’s job to make everyone feel like their friend, but I felt like his friend, which meant I felt like my kitchen was a bar. The magic worked, and I’m not sure if my socialization itch would have been scratched had that other guy (still my enemy) showed up.

So I tried another one. I have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art countless times in my life. As a New Yorker, I can name my price and visit my personal highlights on any rainy day — the Arms & Armor section, the Asian and “Arab Lands” wings, jewelry, “Inferno” by Franz von Stuck. The Met is currently offering 360 degree video of some of its corridors, but to see any art up close right now, I had to sign up for a tour with Walks. The hour-long tour promised a docent would uncover the “scandals and secrets that lie behind some of the artifacts in America’s greatest art collection,” and an art lecture would mean I’d experience the Met in a way I haven’t since I was a kid on a class trip.

Our docent first started by highlighting all the benefits of an at-home video tour, as if we had a choice. On a normal day we’d probably have to wait outside in a line, waddle through security, and check our coats before seeing any art. Now, he joked, we could be “naked with a glass of cabernet” on hand, and because our “tour” took the form of a slideshow of images, we could zip from the Egyptian wing to “Washington Crossing the Delaware” nearly instantly. In the museum it would have been a 15-minute walk. Our docent clicked through works I’d never stopped to notice before, and famous paintings I’d never really considered that deeply. I learned who Madame X was in John Singer Sargent’s portrait, and that Monet’s water lilies were more staged than I’d previously imagined. I regretted that I’d spent so much time at the Met cycling through what I already knew.

But I found myself missing that 15-minute walk. Our tour was an hour long and featured 87 PowerPoint slides. As soon as we were done with one painting we hopped to the next, leaving barely any time for our new knowledge to sink in. I pictured myself in the alternate-universe version of the tour, following a man holding a flag, maybe chatting with a stranger on the tour about what he’d just said as we weaved through galleries, feeling whether the energy of the group was “bored” or “amused” or “laughing politely.” Our video host turned off everyone’s cameras, so I couldn’t even see the nine other participants’ faces as our docent spoke, or allow him to see my genuine laughs at any of his jokes. I joined to stave off the loneliness, but once the call was ended, I felt newly alone.

In an online conference hosted last week by Arival Online, a resource specifically for the tours and attractions companies, members of the tourism industry gathered to discuss the pros and pitfalls of virtual tours, and whether they were worth investing in. The short answer was yes. Andy Lawrence of Vox Group (no relation) noted that this is what business will be like for a while. “From that we know social distancing will become a norm, and the easiest way to deal with this is to give someone the power to take a tour how and when they want,” he said. However, he denied it was a long-term solution, as people can get free videos of monuments and museums on YouTube. Online education may be a need now, but there’s no telling how long it’ll last.

But others noted it didn’t seem like interactive tours were really competing with the videos on YouTube. “I don’t see it as a full replacement for travel, but a new initiative that’s complementary for travel when we get back to normal,” said Matthijs Keij of Withlocals. After all, streaming a video is one-way. “Our hosts also want to connect with other people, everyone likes that interaction.” The point of a guided tour or a lesson is rarely just the accumulation of new information. We had cookbooks and Wikipedia before the pandemic. What we want is people.

Public anonymity is one of the things that keeps me in my hometown of New York. I’ve cried in parks, in museums, and at well-renowned bars. I’ve sat quietly with my thoughts at crowded restaurants, and I’ve had life-changing conversations in front of world-famous monuments. Some of the most important things have happened to me while I’ve been shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers.

Now, all of these things happen on my couch. There is no white-noise of humanity to provide cover to my sobs or my half-baked ideas. I am not anonymous, but alone, and the thing I am missing the most is being in public with strangers. What I wouldn’t give right now to attend a book reading, have a drink, or look at a painting with people I’ll never know. What I miss about the world isn’t being told about an artist’s life by a docent. It’s meandering through a museum, talking to my partner about why a newly seen painting is hitting us, quietly experiencing the beauties of life alone in company.

As soon as I named this craving for myself I started feeling it in anything else I tried to do. I clicked around a virtual tour of Machu Picchu where tourists in bucket hats and cargo shorts stand frozen and warped by the circular camera. I tried to recall what the wind felt like on my own trip there over a decade ago, but I could only focus on what it would be like to overhear another person’s conversation. I looked at cherry blossoms blooming in Prospect Park, and thought of the last time I was there, which happened to be the same weekend as the West Indian Day Parade so the Japanese garden was juxtaposed with booming dancehall music from the street. I tried “going” somewhere I’d never been before, the Great Wall of China, only to find myself focusing more on a tourist squatting while drinking a water bottle than any of the sights.

“The same” is too high a bar to set for these experiences. Nobody is advertising that these virtual tours and classes will provide an identical experience to one in person, but rather they’re a way to support docents and guides and bartenders who would otherwise be out of work. But even then, it’s too easy to recall the other version of this experience, the one where your conversation isn’t studded with glitching video, where you can shake the bartender’s hand after he’s taught you how to make a lemon twist, where even after you’ve found a quiet spot at the top of Machu Picchu where it feels like you’re the only person in the whole world, you can walk back down and watch everyone else having their own moments of transcendence without ever having to ask them about it.

Most everything about life right now is both deeply essential and muted. We’re instructed to leave our houses only for necessary work or supplies, and only touch those we live with (which could mean no one at all). Every decision carries the weight of literal life and death. And yet every action feels like a photocopied version of reality, like we’re in a holding pattern until life gets switched back on. The virtual tours and classes are no different. Human interaction, however it happens, feels newly vital. But mostly, these tours and experiences don’t provide that any more than watching Too Hot to Handle on Netflix does. The majority of them are one-way entertainment, good enough if the topic interests you, but the equivalent of an interesting PBS special. And even when they are slightly more interactive, there is no lasting release. You say goodbye, feeling smarter or tipsier or full. The video sputters and freezes and then it ends, and you’re still in your living room, with no one to even ignore you.

Anyway, I love Cosmos now, so at least there’s that.