“Virtual Nightclubs” Raise Questions about What Makes Events Social

clubbing is happening virtually on the internet while patrons attend dance parties from their homes

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

People are paying money to get into virtual clubs on video conferencing apps, Yahoo! Finance reported. Attendees log onto their laptops at home and get sorted into “rooms” where they dance to streaming DJ sets. So what makes a social event social?

Close up of cellphone with a livestreaming concert
During the coronavirus shutdown, people are finding social entertainment through virtual meeting spaces online. Photo by Piotr Piatrouski / Shutterstock

According to Yahoo! Finance, virtual nightclubs are just one innovation made by the music industry as it scrambles to replace concerts, festivals, and other events canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“As nightlife appropriates technologies built for corporate conferencing and for gaming, new party experiences are emerging to encourage interactivity and community, making the audience active participants rather than passive consumers,” the article said. “At a Zoom party called Club Quarantee […] guests purchase tickets for $10, or can pay $80 for a private room to party alongside Instagram-famous DJs and burlesque dancers. There is ostensibly a dress code.”

Philosophically speaking, events like Club Quarantee raise the question: What makes a social event qualify as “social?” The answer takes some explanation.

Empathy Is Key

One of the biggest steps in defining a social event is to differentiate it from a scientific event, like a mathematical equation. Before his passing, Dr. Daniel N. Robinson, former Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University, had taught several courses for The Great Courses. We are sharing his related thoughts on the question of what makes an event social from his course, Great Ideas of Psychology.

“We can say that the laws of physics work or don’t work, they are confirmed or disconfirmed in our experimental attempts to test them, but we never require of a scientific law that it be intelligible, that it makes sense, that it somehow match up with our own feelings and sentiments and the form of life we’re living,” said Dr. Daniel N. Robinson, who had also been a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University.

“Whereas social phenomena—bona fide historical, economic, social, and psychological phenomena—we regard as insufficiently explained or not explained at all unless the explanation contains within it the ingredient of intelligent ability, something that actually makes sense. We can go even further than that; they have to evoke something in us of the form of empathy.”

In other words, one of the most distinguishing characteristic of a social event is that it has to appeal to our own sense of reason, even if we wouldn’t make the same decision ourselves. When we say two plus two equals four, it just is. When we say someone robbed or killed, it’s an event that requires a purpose or explanation—for example, if they did so out of desperation to save a family member in urgent need of expensive medicine. The math equation is simply scientific; the robbery or murder relies on our intellectual understanding.

Telling a Story

The criteria that make an event be social, as opposed to scientific or mathematical, may not be as exciting as an in-person party or a frosty beverage, but they still require a human element, which is key.

“The quality of empathic provocativeness is what the successful novelist achieves, and the successful novel or play is successful in that its plot is credible,” Dr. Robinson said.

This idea has led to a new approach in understanding historical or social phenomena, which Dr. Robinson said is often called the narratological approach. In this approach, someone compiles the series of events or motives into a kind of story in order for them to make sense. People get together in social spaces like bars or nightclubs for a variety of reasons; those reasons form a narrative, and that narrative itself validates the event.

“The best explanation, then, is the one that works as a story,” Dr. Robinson said. “You don’t ask the question whether the explanation is true or false, the way you might grade someone on a physics examination; you ask whether the account is a credible, reasonable one that does match up significantly with the kinds of experiences the rest of us have had.”

This article contains material taught by Dr. Daniel N. Robinson. Dr. Robinson was a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University. He was also a Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Georgetown University. Dr. Robinson had earned his Ph.D. in Neuropsychology from City University of New York.