Six months into the pandemic, my mother started suspecting that I had a secret boyfriend. With late nights spent typing away on my phone or laptop, an extreme increase in my screen time, smiling while looking at my phone, and video calls that went on into the wee hours of the night, it was quite a reasonable conclusion to reach.
I couldn’t bring myself to dispel her suspicions because that would mean telling her the truth, which any parent would be uncomfortable with: I had recently been added to a group chat where I was close friends with exactly one of the eight other members. I was having far too much fun engaging with these smart, fun, and interesting new people, to care about things like ‘eye strain’ and ‘a healthy sleep schedule’.
Since the pandemic hit us, group chats have become one of my favourite ways to communicate. As an extrovert, the initial months of lockdown were very hard as I struggled to adjust to the sudden narrowing of my social horizons, along with all the general hopelessness and uncertainty that had become so characteristic of our times. I tried to mitigate my social unfulfilment by calling close friends regularly to feel connected, but I still felt empty, jaded, and unfulfilled. I couldn’t figure out why, until one day when my parents sent me out to run errands, and the cashier at my neighbourhood store, who is always nice to me, asked me how my family was while billing my purchases. I smiled widely the entire walk home.
I was missing a form of social interaction we often take for granted — the unintentional, fleeting, effortless moments of connection that some of us have with other human beings. Having close friends is essential, but multiple studies show that not-so-close friends are equally important for our wellbeing. Small, positive, mini-encounters (like a brief interaction with a colleague or neighbour) can boost happiness and feelings of connection among people.
These ‘weak ties’ bring novelty and positivity to our lives, while also requiring lower investment of time and commitment compared to stronger ties, which affect our emotions more and also require more dedication. The pandemic has strained these weak ties simply because the opportunities to engage with acquaintances are less now (we aren’t really going to the gym or to college or to our favourite coffee shop anymore) and this is impacting our mental wellbeing.
My very first group chat reinforced this realization — I was missing the excitement of unexpected connection, of learning about mutual interests and hobbies, of tiny moments of care, which require little input other than a mutual desire to engage with each other. When I was added to the aforementioned cult/group chat by my friend, we spent the first hour doing personality quizzes and political compass tests to see how similar and dissimilar we all were, the next few hours talking about our mutual love for competitive quizzing (the reason I was added in the first place), and then spent days and weeks getting to know each other, playing online games, and helping each other cope with the life-changing event that the pandemic was shaping up into.
Over these last twenty months on the group, I have written (and published) poetry with one of the members, co-hosted a college quiz with another, and exchanged cake and thepla recipes with them with the same ease that we now exchange advice about work, relationships, and life.
Within the next few months of this endless pandemic, my one group chat became two, then five, then ten. I’m now in a WhatsApp group chat where all communication is done solely using cat stickers and memes, another where questions about obscure film trivia are asked and answered, a Twitter chat where people dissect online drama, a Telegram group where we discuss long-form articles, a now-defunct Dungeons and Dragons channel on Discord, and two groups created to play Among Us and Wordle respectively. All groups have their own social norms and inside jokes: in one chat, members regularly take on the responsibility to drop reminders for everyone to drink water and stay hydrated, in another, the ‘crossed swords’ emoji ⚔️ is our signal that we want to do the New York Times crossword together.
Before the pandemic, most of my group chats were designed for a specific purpose, like planning a trip, or sharing notes at college, and they eventually ended when that goal was accomplished. In contrast, group chats that have emerged in the last two years have a more abstract purpose — to offer one of the closest possible virtual recreations of the ‘weak tie’ feeling, a collection of people you vaguely know through some shared connection spending time together. They are also low-stakes in the way that very close personal relationships are not — you do not fear being judged by people who are barely a tangible part of your life, and also feel more intimate than social media platforms like Instagram or Twitter. “You get to be more candid in group chats. There is no feed to curate, nothing to filter, and more spontaneity. I do not stop and think if I am oversharing,” agrees Vindhuja Vijayan, 22.
The one thing that keeps group chats going is everyone's unspoken understanding of the absurdity of our times — we have spent years indoors due to a highly infectious disease, and texting together on our seven-by-four inch screens is what is keeping us sane. You cannot be a bad group chat member because arbitrary rules of social interaction do not apply anymore. Memes at 4 AM are okay. Typing a sentence in all emojis is okay. Ignoring all rules of grammar and syntax is okay.
“Group chats eliminate the pressure of always being present, replying within a certain time frame, and continuing the conversation that one feels in one-on-one interactions. You can log off or mute the chat and the conversation will carry on without you. This makes them much less demanding,” elaborates Swapnil Sinha, 24.
In a world that is still grappling with the losses of the past while preparing for the battles of the future, the group chat exists in a never-ending present — there is always some new update, some good news, some new question, some meme to share or typo to make fun of. They are distractions, but they are also deeply meaningful in their shared experience. The best kinds of group chats are those that are fully aware of both the potential magnitude and the absolute ephemeral insignificance of every interaction that happens in them. When (if?) the pandemic passes, I will look back at these group chats with fondness, and remember how we reached across different time zones and geographies to huddle together for comfort, to make each other feel less alone, to bear witness to uncertain and fragile times, together.
Ria Chopra is a management consultant by day, and freelance writer by night. She is based in New Delhi and is @riachops on Twitter and Instagram.