Love it or hate it, group texting is here to stay. Anna Deutsch comes to grips with the etiquette minefield
Love it or hate it, group texting is here to stay.
After graduating university in 2006, my friends and I scattered around the globe to chase our next chapters, and thus began “The G Chain” (G was for Gmail, which was novel at the time) – an epic group email correspondence that spanned three years, at least three countries and too many romantic encounters to tally up. Each of the eight participants put serious time and effort into their updates, eventually weaving together stories that went beyond one-off emails and developed into unfolding sagas. Nearly every email would finish with individual shout-outs and follow-up questions.
The G Chain eventually fizzled and died, but it’s become an honest and valuable archive of our early twenties. When writing my friend Mary’s wedding toast a few years ago, I dug through to find the specific email where she wrote to the group about meeting her now-husband at a pub in Chicago – “I’m planning my New York move,” she said. “Now’s def not the time to fall in love. But I could like him.”
A decade later, I’m still in regular contact with most of the original group, but the communication landscape has changed as drastically as our lives. Smart phones are now the predominant way we connect, and group emails are nearly obsolete, as group texting takes their place. This unavoidable and lightning-pace form of communication has ushered in a new standard of etiquette, as well as tensions between both friend groups and generations.
In the days of The G Chain, we each had our time at the podium knowing the others would read our at times poetic, often melodramatic tales of woe or triumph beginning to end. In 2017, we’re now far too spoilt with efficiency to wade through a multiple-paragraph email and far too impatient to wait a few days for a reply – especially when things can be summed up instantaneously in the form of a panda GIF.
Group texting totally makes sense in our fastpaced, attention-deficit culture: people throw out a text and can expect at least someone on the thread will reply. Recent research has shown that the dopamine released in the brain (which makes us seek the pleasure that comes with things like sex, shopping and food) is also in play when it comes to notifications on your phone. This dopamine release becomes cyclic: we feel rewarded when we read a text message, but because it’s short it doesn’t fully satisfy us, which makes us want more. Hence, the frenzied pace of group texting is probably as addictive as that packet of Mint Slice you accidentally got through the other night.
Addictive, and at times annoying – like when you return to your charging phone after running out to grab a sandwich and find 55 unread messages among 10 people, two of which are unknown numbers, discussing the tedious carpool details of a girls’ weekend that’s still three months away. A thread can start spontaneously, but you never know when, how or if it will end.
“Unsubscribe!” my friend Margot has been known to text the second there are more than three messages a minute on a group thread. “Unless you’re sharing news about a huge life milestone or sending a quick update as to where we should all meet later, unsubscribe me, please,” she tells me, adding that group texting reminds her of pointless MSN banter back in high school. “It’s impersonal, fragmented.” My co-worker Emily echoes her sentiment: “My need to feel connected to my entire dad’s side of the family is never worth the notification of 175 unread texts within a 30-minute time period.”
Often, it’s logistics rather than banter that actually spark a group message. “Hey ladies, just connecting you all so you can arrange rides to my hen’s!” Sometimes, these threads serve their purpose and taper off. Other times, for whatever reason, they stick. Such was the case with a thread I started over a year ago connecting the remnants of The G Chain crew with Mary’s husband Mike. “Putting us all in touch so you can let us know when Mary goes into labour!” was my simple request. She had a baby boy, and we’ve since sent roughly 4,000 texts on that chain.
Over coffee, Mike – not the only husband in our group, but the only one on that text thread – tells me he enjoys being included, despite the occasional onslaught of our inside jokes or TMI regarding Tinder matches. “I like to insert myself at appropriate times – send something funny,” he says, admitting Mary usually tells him when something good is going on, because his notifications for the group are turned off. Miriam, also on that thread, agrees the chain is more valuable than annoying. “It records the important moments, like the anxiety and support we shared the night Trump was elected or learning about an engagement.”
It’s true: as frustrating as a barrage of notifications can be when you’re not in the mood, it can also be comforting and not entirely insignificant. After all, we as humans seek connection, and our ability to connect is evolving along with technology. “As the means through which we can keep in touch gets easier, the technology itself becomes largely invisible,” explains David Amerland, an international speaker, analyst and tech expert who’s written a number of books about social media and the internet. He argues that as technology becomes more advanced, it’s bringing humanity to the surface more, not less. “Because technology is a lot more intentional in its usage than the ‘real world’, which by necessity places us in a local and a social group, it also demands more effort at being real, transparent and trustworthy. Like any communication medium that’s new, it needs to mature, which actually means that we do.”
In that case, “Unsubscribe!” is probably just a growing pain. Everyone I spoke to had gripes about group messaging, but if anything, those gripes mirrored real-life social anxieties about group interaction more than the technology itself: FOMO when the group is planning a dinner you can’t make it to or irritation when the chief bridesmaid makes it all about herself.
So really, we should navigate group texting with the same intuition that we’d employ in any group scenario. “I can always tell when someone on the thread is feeling down or going through a rough spot because they won’t be as active,” my friend Will says. “It mirrors real life, when you don’t really feel present because you’re a bit depressed.” That’s why it works best with people you’re already close to (hence, unknown numbers are the worst), and even then, feelings can be hurt. Recently, a friend was surprised to learn another friend was engaged. She was hardly comforted when I observed, “Oh, you weren’t on that group text?” (It can be hard to keep track.)
All you need to do is take control: make sure you message the right group the right info, be sensitive, be funny and, for the love of God, put your phone on silent when stepping into a meeting – or better yet, keep your active threads permanently on silent. Catch up on all the absurdity, and possible milestones, during your commute home. Chances are, if you scroll back to discover your nephew’s first steps or an Lol-worthy screen grab followed by on-point reactions from your funniest friends, it’ll be worth it. And if it isn’t? Unsubscribe, but do it at your own risk – those frenzied texts could hold material for a future wedding toast.