Squinting at my phone screen, I wondered if I was losing my mind – along with my vision. I could have sworn Rosie’s 30th birthday party was at the end of the month. So why were several strangers jabbering about plans for tonight? I was actually in two separate WhatsApp groups – both for Rosie’s 30th birthday.
Two different Rosies, two birthday parties. Two tangle of notifications obscuring the details, from people I don’t know and probably won’t talk to again. But thanks to the artificial immortality of a WhatsApp group, we will be locked together forever. A digital escape room where we scramble for a polite exit. I archive them both, to silence the notifications. I still don’t know where either part is.
Thanks to the quintessential millennial experience of growing up with Facebook events — then watching its demise — friends are increasingly using WhatsApp to organize their social calendar. Groups are popping up for everything from bachelorette parties and vacations to simple dinner parties. And we’ve plunged deeper into notification chaos, not to mention a growing social dilemma.
Don’t get me wrong, I often like WhatsApp groups. There are so many brilliant uses, from maintaining transatlantic friendships to maintaining vital daily contact with WFH freelancers. Then there’s the absolutely crucial group chat – you know the one I mean. Obscure names, inscrutable banter, and your go-to for everything from fashion advice to AITA-like therapy.
Common interest groups like book clubs, local support networks during lockdown, and of course the ubiquitous Family Chat, scene of both the strongest bonds and the smallest drama, usually sparked by bad intergenerational communication and dad’s inability to read his phone.
But then there’s the meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email version. A dedicated group set up for a dinner party. Only three people. Two of whom live together. Groups for one-off events where a simple copy-paste of details to all guests would have sufficed. And before you accuse me of some kind of bitter humility – “she should consider herself lucky to be invited to anything” – consider that there is a darker side.
Friends describe the embarrassment of having to leave a partner’s family’s WhatsApp group after a breakup. The pain of realizing that your place in the IRL group is nowhere near as secure as near-daily banter would have you believe. The essential neighborhood cat, with racist connotations and toxic nimbyism. The sly paranoia – often justified – of a dissident group, a VIP lounge, an upside-down group. The constant and nagging pressure to be “caught up” and to respond to everything, to everything, in several groups at the same time.
According to the latest statistics, WhatsApp is the most popular of all social media, with around half of UK internet users participating in chat. But while 73% of all WhatsApp users are there daily, on average for more than half an hour, only 39% believe it has a positive impact on their lives.
It’s not a digital-only phenomenon, solved by simply putting our phones down. WhatsApp Groups are increasingly symbiotic with real life in a way that Facebook Events never were. They can artificially prolong a friendship dynamic, forcing you to coexist – and socialize IRL – in groups that can no longer mesh. If the group is where you are hosting the event, the whole group is invited. Even if you’re not really a band at all. And you find that the natural development of a relationship over time, the ebbs and flows and occasional drifts, are interrupted. Would you still be in regular contact, if you didn’t have to?
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Bad WhatsApp etiquette can also alter a dynamic, as the tone is misjudged without the visual cues of long-term familiarity. Affectionate teasing can be read as sly digging. Lively efficiency as coarseness. Absence as disinterest.
Messages are missed in the rhythm of daily life and you are accused of “ignoring” someone’s breakdown. Trying so hard to be a good friend that you’re always ready with an “I’m so sorry, it sucks” even though you know it won’t really be enough, but you’re at work and there’s no option of a hug.
Thanks to the latest WhatsApp – or Meta – updates, you can now easily archive groups, rather than mute them. But that still hasn’t solved the label dilemma of…how do you leave the group? Are we forever locked in some sorcerer’s apprentice-type of situation, while the water levels of the archived groups continue to rise? Or do we have to take the leap, let-then-remove rote?
There seem to be only two other options. Jot down relevant information and walk away immediately with a quick “Great, see you soon!” Xx” – or go back months later when the conversation is good and calm, exhume yourself like an old corpse and pray no one notices. The latter risks passing for a nostalgic professional; the former like a total female dog. Of course, neither works for regular groups.
For those, a third option may still exist. Write an article lamenting the struggle to leave WhatsApp groups and find that your friends saved you the trouble.