March 23, 2016

THE PSEUDOSCIENTIST | The Group Chat: Redefining Friendship One Message at a Time

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While reading through my group chat notifications the other day, I noticed a little scuffle building in one of the groups chats that I was in: What had begun with a playful changing around of group nicknames soon escalated to personal jabs at different group members and real life drama. And at this I scoffed. For someone to be actually hurt by something said in a less-than-half-serious online space where memes, stickers and other online shenanigans run rampant is absolutely childish, no? Possibly, but reflecting upon my own experiences, this isn’t the first time, nor the first group chat that I’ve been in that’s had its online problems leak into the real world.

Experiences like these that have led me to question: Is there something more to group chats? Do they have an integral presence in social relationships today? I’d like to think so, and especially in the context of friend groups, I believe that group chats have redefined the social psychology behind modern friendship dynamics.

Group chats create an air of exclusivity by drawing clear lines between who is and who isn’t in a circle. They add a certain rigidity to the definitions of social circles: group inclusion can be easily determined by whether or not one is in the group chat. And without a chat, is every member of the group on the same page of who is and who isn’t in their “friend group”? In turn, the exclusivity of these group-chat-centered social circles soon leads the group chat itself to become something sacred. Buried within the myriad of nonsense that happens within group chats — jokes, memes, kicking people in and adding them back in, etc. —  is sensitive and personal information. Members feel that they can trust others under the assumption that “what happens in the chat stays in the chat,” and are therefore more inclined to express their true opinions, which they may be unwilling to share with others. It’s for this reason that introducing a new member or showing the chat to someone outside of the group can be a big deal —it’s a breach of trust, a violation of privacy.

Furthermore, because of this exclusivity, group chatting has seemingly become a whole other dimension of friendship in and of itself. Events or comments made in group chats can sometimes hold equivalent weight as real world activities. For example, the phrase “Did you see what [Insert name here] said in the group chat?!” has become quite commonplace. And connecting back to the beginning of this article, group chats can also serve to create real-world drama.

Interestingly enough, while group chats can work to exclude, they also provide a means of inclusion. Group chats have allowed for groups of friends to form in numbers that would exceed what would be “naturally possible.” By this I mean the following: Try organizing an event, or even a casual gathering of 10-some people, and you’d find it to be plenty difficult. Friendships develop over time through shared connections and moments, and in order for meaningful relationships to form, gatherings like the one above must be repeated over and over again. While it may be possible to solidify these 10-some people into a social unit, a copious amount of effort is required because it’s difficult to coordinate and get every person to meet up altogether. However, with the advent of the group chat, everyone has a presence at all times, and no one is missing out. It’s a space where every voice can be heard and everyone can listen in.

Group chats have especially found their niches on college campuses where organization and communication are absolutely essential to manage friendships amid large student bodies and busy students. They are undoubtedly a central component to friend groups today, but whether or not the group-chat-influenced social circle is for the better or the worse? That’s not for me to say.

Charles Yu is a freshman pursuing Computer Science in the College of Arts & Sciences. A San Francisco Bay Area native, he is a listener of pretentious music and a tech enthusiast. He enjoys twenty-minute-turned-two-hour naps, Oolong tea and Amazon Prime two-day free shipping. The PseudoScientist: Commentary and explanations of the world as seen through the eyes of one Cornellian appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].