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Why you can never leave the WhatsApp family group

The advent of the WhatsApp family group has changed the way smartphone-wielding families interact

Photo: Courtesy
Photo: Courtesy

Last week, a columnist who is travelling to the US for a month, suggested we do edits over WhatsApp.

What surprised me more than the success of this digital adventure, was receiving a WhatsApp birthday greeting from an aunt who had, through the 1980s and 1990s, triumphed over the Indian Postal System—her birthday cards always arrived in the mail on the day of my birthday, and only very occasionally a day before. I was disappointed when she graduated to email. WhatsApp this year was a first.

The two incidents confirmed the app’s absolute takeover of my life. It feels like a foolish and faraway time when I used to be offended when people reached out on WhatsApp. I viewed it variously as a lack of formality, a lack of effort, or both. Then it started becoming functional: event invitations, sharing references with blouse tailors, tracking when someone was last online to understand why they weren’t responding to my important email when they were clearly doing less important things such as changing their display picture on WhatsApp.

The Mumbai architect Rooshad Shroff had told me in an interview last year that on his return from London, with little or no shared language with the artisans he was working with, he found WhatsApp to be a game changer. He could set up day-long visual feeds of what was going on in his different studios and sites. And it was unlikely that tedha (crooked) would be mistaken for terah (thirteen) again.

But more important than the many professional and personal uses of WhatsApp (I’m not discounting its use as a platform for naughty selfies), the advent of the WhatsApp family group has changed the way smartphone-wielding families interact. If you have family spread across continents and especially if you have a newborn in the fold, you know what I mean. Even if your family is in the same city, with no infants or pets whose every development goal has an eager audience, you probably know what I mean. Birthdays are the Academy Awards of family WhatsApp groups. But they are also very useful for gaining sympathy for minor illnesses. As the world—and Twitter—becomes an increasingly judgemental place, you know someone in the family group will have something nice to say when you post pictures of a failed origami project.

I have only been in extended family groups with dozen members on an average. So I was less empathetic to the painful expression of a friend when she received nine long videos of a second cousin’s sangeet rehearsal seeking “urgent" feedback. Her family group has more than 40 people, some of whom she has never met as an adult. We were at a movie and she spent the interval dutifully reviewing the videos. Unlike a school group that might get unbearable around election time and prompt you to mute it, you don’t need to be a Godfather fan to know that a family sticks together, even on WhatsApp. Familial love is an effective glue.

Currently, a WhatsApp group can have a maximum of 256 members but smaller, more personal groups are a space the company is keen to cater to specifically. A WhatsApp spokesperson shares that they intend for the “new redesigned camera in chats and new tools for enhancing photos and videos—adding text, emoji, or drawings to photos and videos" to gain popularity with family groups.

My mother got on WhatsApp a couple of years ago to fawn over photographs of my newborn nephew. She has now embraced it wholeheartedly; as a schoolteacher, she is on several parent-teacher groups and her WhatsApp activity is far more purposeful than mine. On a recent car ride together, she spent the entire time editing her chats. If she hadn’t participated in a group for more than a month, it had no place on her phone. I asked her why, arguing that she had a new phone and more space than she would ever need. “Do you keep old food in the fridge just because you have space?" she said. It was just the kind of indisputable wisdom I glean every day from the family group.

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