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September 15, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Social Lives of Group Chats

Three of my friends’ phones dinged in concert. They picked them up and stared at the screens. I looked at the nearest friend, askance.

“It’s just the group chat,” he told me. Addled, I leaned over to look at his screen. “Depressing Memes for Suffering Single Teens,” it read. Memes about communism, mental health, faith. A meme every minute.

I was drunk enough to ask outright. “I’m single. I’m suffering,” I said, although only one of these things was true. “Can I be in the group chat?”

“Can I add Shanti to the group chat?” the nearest of the friends asked. Three glances; an assent, and my phone was chiming too.

The next morning, I scrolled back in the group chat. There were about ten members.  I knew these people, but it was almost summer, and I hadn’t quite figured out their strands of connection’ how they wove around each other when I wasn’t there. It was the kind of relationship—the kind of close-knit group—where I felt privileged to be included, not remotely upset about not being added in the first place. 

I saw which members sent which sorts of memes, when they were awake, who reacted, who was always online, who knew others well enough to change their nicknames. I started to figure out the lingo of the group chat; I started to send memes of my own.

Summer began. We were hundreds of kilometres apart. The chat grew more fraught. It was distracting—the constant buzzing—when I was trying to catch up with other friends and see my family, so I muted it, only perusing it when I was free. 

The group chat plays a largely unheralded role in my social life. It is useful for organising events, sharing photos, and telling my flatmates to please sort out the dishes, please, it has been three days of this. Yet it is host to its own species of conversations and peculiar social dynamics.

I asked Kathleen Kuehn, a Media Studies senior lecturer specialising in social and digital media, about group chats, in the hopes that she could give me some language to articulate their nature. Kathleen studies the sociological aspects of media, in terms of interpersonal relationships and power dynamics.

I told Kathleen about my experience with the meme group chat, the sense that an entire ecosystem of friends was crystallised in my screen. “There’s no archive of live conversation,” she pointed out, noting that this is one of the chief axes of differentiation between group chats and in-person conversation. “So, online, you can do your own mini textual analysis of what you’re seeing, and start making connections that you might miss in the moment.”

Brianna Nichol, 20, is a University of Otago student who has developed a reputation among her friends for constant involvement in group chats. “I’m big on reacts,” she tells me. “As the reacts come in, I’ll check on them and I’ll see who’s seen it and what time they’ve seen it.” This is certainly voyeuristic, but is it any more so than observing body language in a group conversation? 

In New Zealand, at least anecdotally, the biggest platform for group chats is Messenger, owned by Facebook. Internationally, WhatsApp is more popular (also owned by Facebook). By conducting our conversations on Facebook, we are giving one of the world’s most powerful corporations nuanced data about our social lives; Facebook has confirmed that it monitors content on Messenger.

“Facebook is really good at capitalising on its network effect,” Kuehn says. The ‘network effect’ refers to business models where the product is more desirable when it has more users (as opposed to operating strictly on supply/demand). As I message someone I’m interviewing next week, send someone else my bank account details, and commiserate with my flatmates about the dishes problem—my attention and time are being directed into Facebook’s system—and I can’t help but agree. I need Messenger to make my life work, even if I’m uncomfortable with Facebook’s relentless appropriation of data.

As Bri suggests, much of the meaning contained in group chats goes beyond the text, and is held in polls, nicknames, and reactions. Kuehn calls these features ‘affordances’. “[Non-text features] afford or enable [Facebook] users to not just talk, but to create social events to create a sense of community. It’s like an elevated form of socialising where you’re performing multiple roles.”

I asked Bri how many active group chats she is in. She scrolled through her phone, counting: 14 active group chats and more that she has made for events or photos or meet-ups, and not kept up with. As we talked, her eyes sparkled with fervour. “I’m addicted to Messenger in general… I get very distracted by Messenger, which is fun, and I love it.” Her phone kept dinging with more messages, more distractions.

She sent a message to a group chat earlier, an in-joke with her friends about a blind date, and I watch her analyse the response. “I’ve made everyone’s day and I can see the reactions, Tania [name changed] didn’t react, but she’s seen it, why did she not react? She called me like ten times last night…” It takes a moment for her attention to return to the interview.

The nickname feature is also frequently used. “It’s easy to make fun of [people] using it. In one [group chat] I’m “edgy teen” because I listen to Billie Eilish,” says Éimhín O’Shea, 19, a barista. He doesn’t customise memes or group colours because he “doesn’t really care,” and tends not to create events as “you can just put it on Facebook” where it’s open to everyone.

There are several layers to group chats: Firstly, the convenience for organising logistical things. For some people, it doesn’t go beyond this. “Group chats are just for organising shit [otherwise] it’s easier to one-on-one message,” says Caitlin, a BCom/LLB student. Zeina Ibrahim, an International Relations and Media Studies student, says that she mostly creates group chats because “I can’t be bothered to message people separately.”

For others, it’s a manifestation of their relationships. “I’ve got my work friends, my flatmates, people from [last year’s hostel]. It’s a tangible way of seeing friendships in different groups,” says Éimhín. Bri notices that “there’s different levels of group chats as well, one group chat just has real close friends. Then there’s wider friends and then even wider.”

Clearly, not all group chats are made equal. As Bri and Éimhín talk, group chats unfold as Venn diagrams, loops of friends and flatmates and sometimes total strangers, building something together. Kuehn calls this ‘context collapse’. “In what world would you have your parents, grandparents, your best friends, the random kid you met as a first-year then forgot about… right on the same space?”

Kuehn is keen to emphasise that, at least for media studies scholars, “the digital world is part of the real world… it’s all still part of your embodied lived experience.” Group chats, for the most part, spill between reality and pale glass screens. Events organised on a group chat become real. Conversations begun in-person are supplemented by articles on the group chat.

In some ways, group chats are fundamentally the same as talking face-to-face: words are exchanged and responded to. People are remarkable at adapting to new means of communication, from telegraphs to walkie-talkies, to the internet—but for the most part, people say the same things to each other. Letters, for instance, can contain archives of entire relationships, and it was not uncommon in the past to copy out pieces of other people’s letters into private correspondence to share news, just as we might forward or screenshot messages today. Tapped-out, abbreviated telegraph messages carried just as much potential for misunderstanding as tapped-out, abbreviated Facebook messages, both devoid of the context of vocal inflections and facial expressions. Group chats are just a more recent iteration of how people have always communicated in groups.

In a group chat “you’re willing to say stuff you wouldn’t in real life,” Bri says, because there is less immediate feedback of how what you say is recieved. Sometimes this is good, because what Bri calls “strong” conversations need to be hashed out between friends. 

“In a [face-to-face] conversation we try not to talk over one another [as] that’s considered impolite, and you need to hear what the person is saying,” Kuehn notes wryly. In a group chat, everyone can talk at once. 

“In person, you can keep up with people… online, several people [can] message at the same time,” Zeina says. Tsunamis of notifications mean she keeps most of her group chats muted, as do Caitlin, Éimhín, and I. “[Group chats] are like trying to catch up with a race, trying to understand what everyone has to say and not answering questions,” Bri says. “Sometimes I do turn [notifications] off but not often at all, as usually I’m the one making all the notifications.”

Group chats are different from private messages, just as one-on-one conversations are different to conversations with big groups of people. “Like being in big groups of people [in person], I feel less confident to speak out, compared to when I’m messaging a group of close friends,” Éimhín says. 

As in all social groups, there are rules and norms in group chats, which are usually unspoken (compared to, say, Facebook groups, which often have guidelines). To ask about the rules is to risk exposure as an outsider. In one group chat I’m in, someone asked “What’s the nickname policy?” when several others had received new monikers. Swiftly—brutally—I christened him Nickname Policy. I could easily have asked the same question: I too, would like to be known well enough by the people in that group chat to have earned a nickname. Simply to acknowledge this, that I have noticed the rules of the group chat, feels intimate—like by acknowledging my role in a social order, I will cement it.

In a group chat, you also have to discern what to say to everyone and what to say privately. In my flat group chat, for instance, I have to determine when to ask someone in private, to do the dishes (please! I love you! I hate plates!), and when to @ them in the group chat.

As for my memes group chat, it met its demise. Slowly, as the new term started and people disappeared into different flats and classes and work, the memes petered out. I could see it happening and I mourned it. I sent one last effort at revival on March 19, more than ten days after the previous message. No one reacted to the message, and I am left forever with a line of profile picture bubbles telling me that I had been seen and ignored; a long ellipsis, a shelf added to the archive of my digital life. 

I worry that the people from that group chat left to form another one without me, but I don’t want to ask. Group chats are hidden and private. I’m only actively friends with a few of those people now.

In the group chat, everyone was my friend. Beyond the relationships I’ve kept up, my social orbit still intersects with the others, and out of my screen they look more like acquaintances. I wonder, in a moment of eye contact, what the emoji reaction to the presence of Shanti would be, if I were contained in smooth glass and not three messy dimensions. Press, hold down; do I merit a reaction any more interesting than a passive thumbs-up? But I’m trying to worry less about how other people respond to me, and group chats don’t help. So I smile—genuine, if wry—and walk on.



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