The dark red line on my rapid Covid test was so thick it was rude. Reinfected after just five weeks, I was tempted to tweet the image, adding to the chorus of bewilderment at the contagiousness of the latest variants.
But no. I knew how it looked: I was a 45-year-old woman who had caught Covid at a BTS dance party. I had just shared Instagram selfies from a crowded club filled with K-pop fans. I could hear the social media trolls already: Was I irresponsible? Getting what I deserved? These were the questions spinning through my own mind.
I’m what you’d call a “very online” person. I love the high of connection, and at another time, Twitter or Instagram might’ve been where I posted that Covid test pic, along with all my feelings. But I’m also Gen X. My reluctance to over-share in public, and the rising toxicity of social media platforms, often holds me back from posting. As Roxane Gay wrote last year, on social media “we have all become hammers in search of nails.” I’m not interested in being either.
Instead, I first dropped the news of my re-infection status in my book club group chat. There, I didn’t need to explain or justify myself. My friends know how I’ve spent the pandemic — fully vaccinated, shivering outside with spiked hot chocolate for winter meet-ups. They know I’ve been masking, including at that dance party.
They reacted to my news with horror emojis (you know — the one screaming like that Edvard Munch painting) but they offered reassurance, too, as I blubbered my regret. “No, Hannah!” one friend replied. “We are living through a pandemic — and remember, the important word is LIVE.” It was just what I needed to hear.
I couldn’t disagree more with people proclaiming the decline of the group chat. They are not a replacement for in-person communication, but for me, these chats are a much-needed refuge from social media. I know I’m not alone: In 2015, the number of users on the most popular messaging apps caught up with the top social media platforms, and there were more than three billion monthly messaging app users worldwide in 2021, according to the research firm Insider Intelligence.
By my count, I’m in eight group chats of varying intensity and longevity, between SMS and messaging apps. My longest-running group chat rose from the ashes of a failed workplace diversity committee. Over time, the conversation roamed far beyond work problems. (If you find me silently shaking with laughter over my phone, I’m probably in this chat.)
When the pandemic took hold and several members moved, the chat didn’t experience even a blip. This is the beauty of group chats for people dealing with work, kids, aging parents and pandemic restrictions — there’s always a party going on in your phone, with no scheduling or snack platters required. Unlike on social media, there are no likes or shares or points to be scored, unless you count dropping gossip so hot it elicits the coveted one-word response “Screaming” — no punctuation.
My other chats sustain me in different ways. In a smaller one, we discuss heavier family drama, and I’m convinced each of us has revealed things there that we have never told another living soul.Some chats don’t even need many words. With my parents, I drop pictures of my kids, and we trade emojis. (Asian parents might not say “I love you,” but my mom’s got a damn good GIF game.)
On my Twitter feed, strangers rant. Instagram feels like a beautiful day at the beach with the theme song to “Jaws” in the background. Facebook is like a phone book to me, something I need in the house but don’t use often. My group chats are where I go with work drama, or an article I can drop like a bomb, or my random hot take about the best carb (where my potato people at?). They’re serious. They’re frivolous. They’re where I can be online but stay human.
I’m a Signal girl myself. The platform’s end-to-end encryption and disappearing messages (also a feature of other apps) help me to let go and treat chats like verbal conversations, with all their reassuring impermanence. But the real secret to a good group chat isn’t disappearing messages — it’s trust. My group chats are made up of friends I would unbutton my pants in front of after a big meal. What we say to one another is unguarded and real.
That’s not to say that these should be places where anything goes. The unwritten rules of group chats are the same as in real-life friendships: Be a decent person. Walk away from anyone toxic.
Privacy comes through human discretion, not the app itself. Heidi Cruz, the wife of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, learned this the hard way in February 2021: A member of her Houston neighborhood group chat leaked her messages about the family’s vacation to Cancún, Mexico, planned as Texans weathered a deadly winter storm — leading to a public relations disaster for her husband.
It always makes sense to do what makes you better company in real life, too — read the room. I’ve never experienced truly offensive talk in a group chat, but in my more casual or utilitarian chats — about neighborhood issues or parent pickups — I’ve sometimes found myself reading my phone with raised eyebrows, navigating misinformation and witnessing the resulting dust-ups.
But I appreciate how, in the apocalyptic landscape of our algorithmically juiced culture wars, a group chat is a refuge where my ideas and thoughts don’t have to be fully formed and battle ready. We grant one another a little grace, even when discussing polarizing topics such as defunding the police or the high cost of housing (a topic that can make Torontonians apoplectic).
It’s ironic, perhaps, that I love group chatting so much while I’m in major hand-wringing mode about giving my eldest child his first phone. What will be the rules of engagement for younger generations? Don’t ask me — really, I don’t know.
But as they develop their friendships, online and off, I will tell my children that integrity, principles and kindness matter, and you can find and nurture them no matter where you are.
Hannah Sung (@HannahSung) is a co-founder of the Media Girlfriends podcast company and host of “At the End of the Day.”
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