chain re­ac­tion

Love it or hate it, group tex­ting is here to stay. Anna Deutsch comes to grips with the eti­quette mine­field

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

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.

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