It’s the conversation that never sleeps; no rules, no such thing as an overshare. Emma Clifton pays tribute to the power of a group chat.
When I was growing up, I would finish school, go home, pick up the landline and spend minimum one hour discussing the events of the day with my best friend. You might be surprised that we could find something to talk about, after seeing each other for eight hours that same day. But we were girls, and the limit did not exist. Sadly, homework, dinner, etc, would force us away from each other at some point, only to have the running conversation continued the next day.
If you could go back to my 12 year old self, and tell her that there would be a form of technology that meant she could be in contact with her best pals 24/7, she would have thrown that landline against a wall.
There is something about the group chat that distils the meandering intimacy of a four-hour long lunch into the tight efficiency of a telegram.
Even though I am an elder millennial, it is still hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t able to be in constant communication with my loved ones. Before messaging apps, there was a tier to how you communicated with people. A text was for normal chit chat, a phone call was for emergencies. Still, to this day, that is how I and many of my peers operate – if someone from my family calls me out of the blue, ‘Who’s dead?’ is still my first thought.
But Messenger, WhatsApp et all have removed those tiers. Everything and anything gets covered and a group chat means a sort of rolling conversation that has escaped all sense of boundaries and conventions. There is no daily minutiae too mundane or life event too grand to not get mentioned in a group chat. Hell, turns out I even sent a voice memo to my best friend straight after giving birth – not that I can remember as I was high! As! A! Kite! – and sent pretty gruesome photos of the C-section to multiple parties. Why not? There is something about the group chat that distils the meandering intimacy of a four-hour long lunch into the tight efficiency of a telegram. The safest of spaces; allowing the kind of admission you would normally only expect after the next bottle of wine gets opened.
Break-ups, babies, illnesses, bad mental health, recommended TV shows, favourite articles, particularly gnarly in-grown hairs…
I cannot remember the exact origin story of any of the group chats I belong to, but I remember the feeling of being invited into one or – the boldest of moves – starting one. It is like adult version of being invited into the treehouse, or secret club, complete with whack-a-doo nicknames. Now defunct group chats act like a time capsule for a particular season of life or trip away – every organised tour I have ever been on is now immortalised in a dormant WhatsApp group: Team India, Persian Veils, Camp Glenorchy. Also abandoned are two group chats set up during the longest Auckland lockdown – names: ‘Plague City’ and ‘Karaoke Emergency’, which I think speaks to the deranged nature of that time.
Yes, it can be a lot of communication. There is a particular stress to coming back to your phone and seeing ’75 unread messages’, and feeling like you’ve just missed a week’s worth of your favourite show. But they are also a lifeline. Break-ups, babies, illnesses, bad mental health, recommended TV shows, favourite articles, particularly gnarly in-grown hairs… I once flatted with boys who were part of a group chat where they sent each other photos of their poos, which is truly the most male thing I’ve ever heard. But look, I sent graphic photos of a C-section with I’m pretty sure no warning, so who am I to judge?
When my best friend moved away to LA, it was easy to fear that our friendship would suffer. But instead, the time difference means that our friendship has evolved into a 24/7 helpline (great name for a group chat?) with my favourite person. In our Motherhood Diaries interview with Sharyn Casey, she spoke about telling her new mother friends to ask any question, that ‘nothing is too weird or too gross’ and if that isn’t the theme of your group chat, then I don’t know what to tell you. A group chat is the emotional equivalent of being your grottiest self, and always finding a soft spot to land. It’s the coffee shop from Friends, the diner from Seinfeld. It’s your teenage bedroom, your best friend’s couch. It’s the landline that never goes off the hook.