The Birthday that Broke the Camel's Back

image of author Antonia Hellman

Antonia Hellman


4 min read

Virtual call on a screen

In my last blog, I left off at the dreaded birthday party… Let me elaborate.

I have to preface this by saying that the mother who threw the Zoom birthday party had only the best intentions and did what everyone was telling her to do, “Throw her a party on Zoom!”

Thinking back to my 13th birthday, the only things I cared about were hanging out with my friends and hosting the most wild America’s Next Top Model watch party. Because of COVID-19--and the cancellation of ANTM (which was probably warranted)--, neither of those was possible in March 2020. So if I were turning 13 at that time, I would be, understandably, pretty bummed out already.

But it also didn’t help that everything that could have quintessentially gone wrong with that Zoom birthday party did go wrong.

First of all, this mother--bless her heart--invited approximately twelve of her friends and their families. She invited just two of her daughter’s friends. What made matters worse was that very few of the people invited knew each other. Just a couple of loose ties here and there. As a result, when we all popped into the Zoom room, we had literally nothing to talk about. Talking about your life and sharing personal details in a room full of strangers or, at best, acquaintances is highly awkward. So silence ensues.

Second, there was nothing for us to do besides go from Zoom cell to Zoom cell and share with the group how nastily COVID was ravaging the areas where we lived. I think it goes without saying that this is not how you want to spend your birthday. At any age.

Third, the socializing--what little there was of it--was stilted. We spent more time accidentally talking over each other when trying to break the silence than we did actually holding an intelligible conversation. The call was just a flurry of “What?”, “Can you say that again?”, and “I couldn’t hear you” because Zoom only lets one person talk at a time. Everyone else is silenced, so there can be no overlap.

(This is an aside, but I have perfected the art of the “silent laugh and clap” because I know that if I am unmuted and make any noise, Zoom will shift the audio from whomever is speaking to me. I can’t be the only one.)

Fourth, the birthday girl said absolutely nothing in the whole 40 minutes that this went on. She looked like she wanted to be there least out of everybody.

Fifth, when the awkward conversation got to be too much, the mom--and hostess of this shindig--decided that what we all needed was karaoke. Either this was before Zoom allowed people to share their audio or she just had no clue how to do it, the details don’t really matter; the solution she arrived at was to play music out of her phone speaker and hold her phone over the computer microphone. That way, we could all hear it and sing along. I am going to refer you back to “Point of Awkwardness Number 3” to imagine how this worked out. A stifled chorus with one big belt coming from a random cell every once in a while, without the poor soloist knowing that we could only hear them. If you offered someone $1 million, they would not be able to guess that this ragtag group was trying to sing Pitbull and Ke$ha’s 2013 Platinum hit “Timber.”

I think you get the point. And, honestly, I’m sure you have been in practically the exact same situation sometime in the past year. This event may have been uniquely disastrous, but I have seen with my own two eyes the way that the average human shudders nowadays when you say the words “Zoom,” “birthday,” and “party” consecutively. This is not a problem that only my family experienced. Everybody around the world was coming to cope with our new normal.

It was after this party that Ethan and I sat down at our kitchen table. We initially did so to laugh about how painful the experience was, but the conversation quickly got more serious. We shared stories about how we had seen aspects of that party manifest themselves in video calls we’d had with our friends and communities back at school. We talked about how events were getting cancelled left and right because of low attendance. We asked questions about what was wrong with the technology we had. We searched the internet for a platform that could give us the social environment that we so desperately needed, and we couldn’t find one.

And that’s when we decided that we were going to build it ourselves.

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About author

image of author Antonia Hellman

Antonia Hellman

Antonia Hellman is co-founder and CEO of Toucan.

She is a recent graduate of Stanford University, having studied political science and economics.

She enjoys long walks to explore new cities, listening to audiobooks on 1.2x speed, a cup of hot water, and re-watching mediocre movies.

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