life in pixels

Group Chats Are Making the Internet Fun Again

Photo: Shutterstock (pigeons)

Depending on how you count, I’m in between four and 18 active group chats, across half a dozen different apps that occupy most of my time on my phone. Right now, I’m in a one called “Ramius’s Boys,” which is devoted to sharing quotes from the film The Hunt for Red October and submarine-related links; another called “News and Politics Discussion Group,” for arranging Mario Kart matches and, most important, talking shit; and a third, “No More Furry Nudes I Promise” — though, to be fair, that one probably shouldn’t be counted as “active” because no one trusted the promise its creator made in the title. One friend described to me a group chat she’s in with one “overriding rule”: The only thing allowed is GIFs of the Hulk. Another friend told me she’s in a group chat dedicated to sharing photographs of Cobb salads called, naturally, “COBB COBB.”

In some ways, group chat feels like a return to the halcyon era of AOL Instant Messenger, once the most widespread method of messing around with your friends on the internet. But in my life, group chats — on Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp, Slack, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, or any number of other apps or platforms — aren’t simply additional modes of socialization, drawing on the IM conversation or the chat room. They’re an outright replacement for the defining mode of social organization of the past decade: the platform-centric, feed-based social network. For me, at least, group chats aren’t the new AIM. They’re the new Facebook.

Like Facebook at its best, they’re pocket sources of interpersonal nourishment. Some of my group chats were created for utilitarian reasons, like planning a bachelor party, but have since outgrown the limiting stricture of “having a particular reason to exist.” Most have been freewheeling and themeless since their inception, cast haphazardly and sustained by gossip and boredom and the opportunity to make fun of someone else’s typos. The paradigmatic message of the group chat is one my friend Sam sent recently: “Wanna see something mildly funny?” In group chats, the answer is always “yes.”

It’s easy to forget, 15 years, 2 billion users, and an ethnic-cleansing controversy or two later, that Facebook was a place for this kind of purposeless sociality before it was a place for repeatedly blocking and reporting your step-cousin. More than that, it was a piece of essential social infrastructure — a new layer of life that efficiently, and aggressively, reorganized social existence, describing and enabling friendships, cliques, parties, and even memories, formalized as they would eventually be by Facebook photo albums uploaded on hungover Sunday afternoons.

As it happens, Facebook’s mandate was never to facilitate social life. It was to draw new users in and keep them there, even in alienating and potentially antisocial ways. Over the years it grew beyond the original, limited social contexts in which it began, and chased user engagement at the expense of its users’ well-being. The arrival of parents and bosses into the same social space as college friends, and the introduction of the implicitly competitive News Feed, with its opaque multi-metric ranking system, created the sense that this once-friendly space had turned against us. But by the measurements important to investors, it was successful, and the endlessly updating, always-available feed was adopted as the model for all social networks. The result was, depending whom you talk to, either every single bad thing that’s happened in the last five years, or just most of them.

As feeds grew hostile, though, the rise of the smartphone, with its full-screen keyboard and its array of free messaging options, gave us a new, context-specific, decentralized social network: the group chat. Over the last few years, I and most of the people I know have slowly attempted to extricate our social lives from Facebook. Now it’s the group chat that structures and enables my social life. I learn personal news about friends from group chats more often than I do on Facebook; I see more photos of my friends through group chats than I do on Instagram; I have better and less self-conscious conversations in group chats than I do on Twitter. I’m not alone: The Avengers are in a group chat; the actresses of Big Little Lies are in a group chat; Beyoncé is in a group chat with her mother and Solange. (Jay-Z was apparently not invited.) Group chats have become so fundamental to daily life, in some cases, that they are the first place people turn for help: During the shooting at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, on May 7, BuzzFeed News reported that students took to group chats to share moment-to-moment updates.

And Facebook knows it. “The future is private,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told developers at the company’s annual F8 conference on April 30. “Over time, I believe that a private social platform will be even more important to our lives than our digital town squares.” He unveiled a new design for the Facebook homepage that emphasized private, user-created Facebook Groups, rather than the default-public News Feed, and announced to the crowd: “This is about building the kind of future we want to live in.” I doubt everyone is as invested in group chats as I am. But if Facebook has its way, they soon will be — on Facebook.

To me, the reorientation of Facebook around private groups feels less like the company “building the kind of future we want” and more like its attempt to force itself back into a social life I’d rescued from its feed. Last year, the technology writer Navneet Alang wondered in a column in the Globe and Mail if it would be possible “to save social media from Facebook.” That is, could we extricate from the globe-spanning behemoth that is Facebook, Inc., the many uses and experiences that can make Facebook, the website and app, so enjoyable? The flowering of group chats points us in one direction. In almost all ways, I find the group chat an improvement over the machine-sorted feed. Freed from the pressure to stand out from thousands of other posts, conversations on group chats tend to be comfortably subdued — even appealingly boring — in a way that Facebook status updates or tweets never can be. Because most group chats exist on platforms or apps that don’t rely on advertising money or user engagement to support themselves, they’re only as addicting or exploitative as any social interaction might be.

You don’t “check” chats the way you check an endless feed: Conversation flows when enough people want to have it, but there’s no algorithm to find and surface an unseen chat message that you might engage with. What you get instead is distraction the old-fashioned way: with intention. The feed, at its worst, is a passive and slack-jawed experience. The group chat requires some level of active engagement. Whatever conditioning has led us to seek validation from the glass-and-metal rectangles in our pockets is obviously at play in the group chat as it is on other social platforms. But it occurs at human scale, with distinct reactions from a handful of friends for a minorly funny joke, rather than at the alien scale of behemoth platforms, with likes endlessly mounting for a Facebook post in which you dunk on the president.

Like any social network, the group chat has its own social mores and prerogatives. Every group chat contains recognizable archetypes — the out-of-it person who asks “wait, what?” about every conversation; the (psychologically self-actualized and professionally successful) member who keeps the group chat on mute, meaning they don’t get alerted every time someone sees a Cobb salad — and undergoes regular cycles of high and low activity, depending on the schedules and time zones of participants. Every group chat has smaller orbiting sub-chats featuring new constellations of the original group’s members, created to plan surprise parties, or, worse, to complain about the guy who keeps asking “what, what?”

Which is another way of saying that group chats aren’t always beautiful and healthy expressions of friendship. The distraction of the group chat may feel more fulfilling than the distraction of Instagram, but it’s still a distraction — sometimes even from fulfilling in-person socializing. Orienting your social infrastructure around sharply circumscribed friend groups might help avoid the dreaded collapsing of social contexts that occurs on Facebook, but it can also reinforce cruel in-group/out-group dynamics. (Though, in their defense, because group chats can’t be crashed by angry strangers or malicious trolls, they’re only ever toxic in the familiar and reassuring ways that friend groups have been since middle school.) Private group chats can create echo chambers as distorting as the decontextualized noise of a public social feed.

Nor are any of the many companies whose products I use to talk to friends particularly benevolent. Apple’s iMessage, my most frequent group-chat app, ties my phone number up in difficult-to-extricate ways with its proprietary system, and splits friends in two tiers — blue and green. (My friend Dan became so incensed at being left out of iMessage group chats that he rigged a home server so he could receive iMessages chats on his Android.) WhatsApp is routinely accused of being a vector of misinformation in India, where it’s been linked to mob violence, and in Brazil, where it’s a source of far-right “fake news.” (Not surprisingly, WhatsApp is also the most “frictionless” of any chat platform, and it’s telling that the first step in reducing the flow of misinformation on the app is to disable the “forwarding” button.) It’s also owned by Facebook, the very company I took to group chats to get away from.

But even if most of these corporations are untrustworthy, at least there are many of them. The key advantage of the group chat is that “social graph” of your friend network exists in your head, and not only on a server in Iceland, which means you can easily abandon one platform for another without any trouble — or, as most of us do, occupy many platforms at once. The result, as Facebook knows all too well, is an internet much closer to the one we might want. “The only thing I still enjoy doing online/with technology is texting,” Sam, the friend who wanted to share something mildly amusing, told me. “All of the rest of it is torture/agony/hell. But I fucking love iMessage.”

*A version of this article appears in the May 13, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Group Chats Are Making the Internet Fun Again