The rise of the ‘group chat’
Gone are the days when most everybody posted everything on Facebook — the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the certificates of achievement they or their children received.
Gone are the days when everybody would broadcast the minutiae of their travels, from the visa that got approved to the flight that got delayed.
Of course, many still do the above — and they certainly have the right to do so. The whole point of social media is self-expression and nonjudgment as to how people use (or not use) this freedom.
But many seem to be abandoning this modus vivendi — a trend backed by the decline in Facebook engagement over the past two years (by 50 percent, per some reports). It is not that people have stopped sharing. It’s just that the sharing has gone elsewhere. Your travel and lifestyle photography may have migrated to Instagram. Your political punditry may have moved to Twitter (where you can express your views without getting trolled by strangers in full view of your relatives). Or you may have simply restricted your posts to your friends and “friends of friends.”
As for the mundanities of our lives, they have found an increasingly popular venue: the group chat.
Sports teams and academic cliques have group chats. Classmates — long past their school years — have mostly ditched their ancient e-groups for their own group chat. Families can have multiple group chats, with as many permutations as group photos. Indeed, more and more people are sharing particular aspects of their lives not to all their “friends” but to specific sets of people on messaging apps like Viber, WhatsApp, Signal and Facebook Messenger.
Like Facebook friendships, group chats have a performative quality — that is, they do not just mediate group communication, they can also inaugurate the very existence of groups. And just as Facebook has given rise to new forms of social interaction (e.g. unfriending, blocking), group chats are also creating new forms of enacting — and ending — relationships, both professional and personal. Hence, the preponderance of jokes like “Rodrigo Duterte left the group.”
A number of factors can explain this phenomenon.
First, many have become disenchanted with Facebook, with one privacy breach after another and report after report of the social media platform having enabled the rise of fake news, to the detriment of many nations.
Another possible factor is the loss of the platform’s novelty, and the dilution of the value people place on once-sought-after things like shares and likes.
Perhaps there is also growing recognition that what people post on Facebook can go viral in a wrong way, or be interpreted negatively by others, as when people unfriend each other over opposing political views. With employers and governments alike taking interest in the digital footprints of people (i.e. the US state department’s recent decision to screen visa applicants’ social media profiles), this is bound to be even more of a concern.
Finally, the fact that everyone is on Facebook can turn off people, particularly the younger generations. Who would want to post about their grades, love lives and foibles in full view of their parents and grandparents? For these things, they may turn to Snapchat or Twitter — whether as themselves or through “alter” accounts.
Group chats are not without privacy issues, as the proliferation of scandalous screenshots show. While they can serve as a venue for voyeuristic exchanges, there is also a growing voyeurism on what particular groups of people are talking about. As with public posts, people will have to learn what to share — or not to share—in these supposedly confidential settings.
Meanwhile, people will continue to use Facebook, albeit with less visibility and frequency (a trend that Mark Zuckerberg, who recently articulated a “privacy-focused vision for social networking,” seems to recognize). I suppose that with the rise of the group chat, the “Facebook profile” may become a platform for a more self-aware “presentation of online self,” a place where we can do a “press release” on what we consider to be the important moments of our lives.
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