Squinting at my phone screen, I wondered if I was losing my mind – as well as my vision. I could have sworn Rosie’s 30th birthday party was taking place at the end of the month. So why were multiple strangers jabbering about plans for tonight? I was in fact, in two separate WhatsApp groups – both for Rosie’s 30th.
Two different Rosies, two birthday parties. Two tangled drainclogs of notifications obscuring the details, from people I don’t know and likely won’t speak to again. But thanks to the artificial immortality of a WhatsApp group, we’ll be locked together forever. A digital escape room where we scramble for a polite way out. I archive them both, to silence the notifications. I’m still not sure where either party is.
Thanks to the quintessential millennial experience of growing up with Facebook events – then watching its demise – friends are increasingly using WhatsApp to organise their social calendar. Groups are popping up for everything from hen dos and holidays to simple dinners. And we’re thrown deeper into notification chaos – not to mention a growing social dilemma.
Don’t get me wrong, I often love WhatsApp groups. There are so many brilliant uses, from maintaining transatlantic friendships to keeping in vital daily contact with WFH freelancers. Then there’s the absolutely crucial Group Chat – you know the one I mean. Obscurely named, impenetrably injoked and your go-to for everything from fashion advice to AITA-type therapy.
Groups for common interests like book clubs, local support networks during lockdown, and of course the ubiquitous Family Chat, stage of both the strongest bonds and the pettiest drama, usually sparked by intergenerational miscommunication and Dad’s inability to read his phone.
But then there is the meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email version. A dedicated group set up for one dinner. Of just three people. Two of whom live together. Groups for one-off events where simply copying and pasting the details to all invitees would have sufficed. And before you accuse me of some sort of bitter humblebrag – “she should count herself lucky she’s invited to anything” – consider that there is a darker side.
Friends describe the awkwardness of having to leave a partner’s family WhatsApp group after a breakup. The pain of realising that your place in the IRL group is nowhere near as secure as the near-daily banter would have you believe. The inescapable neighbourhood chat, with racist undertones and toxic nimbyism. The sneaking paranoia – often justified – of a splinter group, a VIP room, behind-your-back group. The constant, nagging pressure to be “caught up” and responsive to anything, everything, in multiple groups at once.
According to the latest statistics, WhatsApp is the most popular of all social media, with about half of UK internet users getting in on the chat. But while 73 per cent of all WhatsApp users are on it daily, on average for more than half an hour, only 39 per cent think it has a positive impact on their lives.
This isn’t some digital-only phenomenon, solved by simply putting down our phones. 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 IRL socialise – in groups that may no longer mesh. If the group is where you organise the event, the whole group’s invited. Even if you’re not really a group at all. And you find that the natural development of a relationship over time, the ebbs and flows and occasional drifts apart, are interrupted. Would you still be in regular touch, if you weren’t forced to be?
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Poor WhatsApp etiquette can also sour a dynamic, as tone is misjudged without the visual cues of long-term familiarity. Affectionate mocking can read as sly digs. Brisk efficiency as rudeness. Absence as disinterest.
Messages are missed in the thrum of daily life, and you stand accused of “ignoring” someone’s meltdown. Trying so hard to be a good friend that you’re always ready with an “I’m so sorry, that sucks”, even though you know that won’t really cut it but you’re at work and there’s no option of a hug.
Thanks to latest WhatsApp – or Meta – updates, you can now archive groups with ease, rather than muting each one. But that still hasn’t solved the etiquette dilemma of… how do you leave the group? Are we locked forever in some Sorcerer’s Apprentice-type situation, as the water levels of archived groups continue to rise? Or do we take the plunge, leave-then-delete as a matter of rote?
There seem to be only two other options. Note down the relevant information and leave immediately with a quick, “Great, see you there! Xx” – or go back months later when the chat is good and quiet, exhume yourself like an old corpse and pray nobody notices. The latter risks appearing a professional nostalgist; the former like a total bitch. Of course, neither works for regular groups.
For those, a third option may yet exist. Write a piece bemoaning the struggle to leave WhatsApp groups, and find that your friends have saved you the trouble.