Health

Everyone has left the chat: weary threads in search of an exit

When her husband had a stroke, in early 2020,
the six members of a trusted text chain that had formed before the pandemic
“were checking in every few minutes.” Her husband quickly recovered, and the
conversation carried on, gaining momentum as it dawned on the participants that
it would be a while before they got together again.

The group discussed books and movies, and
delved into deep talks at all hours of the night. They traded fears about their
parents’ death and notes on sightings of weirdos in the neighbourhood. “You
feel like comedy-writing partners in a good group text,” O’Dell said.

Or she used to, anyway. The jokes and
neighbourhood gossip have been coming in at an unsatisfying pace over the past
six months, as pandemic fatigue has set in. “I experience a pang when it gets
slow,” said O’Dell, 45, a content manager. “I panic and think: Is this the
end?”

The answer for a lot of group chats is yes.
Like so many features of our lives these days, our text message chains are
undergoing a great unravelling. No matter how stimulating, all conversations
must eventually come to an end. Even — and perhaps especially — the texting
conversations that emerged and kept us company in the early days of lockdown
have grown quieter as pods have disintegrated, interpersonal dynamics have
shifted, and people have tired of prattling on about the same old thing.

Jasmin Bollman, a freelance writer and
marketing consultant in Ottawa, Ontario, had long texted with her local friends
en masse, to share memes or plan the occasional Friday night meetup. But come
spring 2020, the trusty thread had become the group’s primary forum for
processing the news in real time.

“I found it all so overwhelming,” Bollman, 39,
said.

She recalled that whenever Justin Trudeau, the
Canadian prime minister, appeared on TV for a news conference, “it was like
there was a need to be the first one to report what he was saying. But we were
all literally watching the same thing!” So she started pulling away.

“It felt like the world was ending, and I
didn’t want one of my last things to be reading these group texts,” Bollman
said. Soon enough, the others followed suit; the chat is effectively over.

‘A NATURAL PROGRESSION’

Group chats, like all chats, are not meant to
go on forever. Scroll to the bottom of your messages and you’ll probably find a
conversation long forgotten — a planning chain for a friend’s March 2020
surprise party, or a big group filled with contacts who fell off your social
map when virtual happy hours stopped feeling fun. There wasn’t any drama;
things just petered off, as they do.

For Ellen Schiller’s chain of three, the end
was a bit more abrupt. “We were all texting constantly in the beginning of the
pandemic, and it was so dark and entertaining,” said Schiller, a 50-year-old
fiber artist in Salem, Massachusetts, until the group’s other two members
decided to start a college consulting business last spring. Sitting alone at
her sewing machine, Schiller paused every time she was tempted to share an
observation with her friends. The idea of them sitting side by side and reading
her missive in each other’s company made her feel out of the loop.

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“They’re like a married couple now,” she said.
“I don’t begrudge them, but I really miss what we had.”

Elena Mehlman, a 25-year-old graphic designer,
said her band of five women used to trade gossip and jokes and dream up
getaways nonstop. Then things got tense. The situation came to a head when one
of the members decided to move out of the apartment she shared with another
member. “It went totally silent,” said Mehlman, who now operates on the down
low, communicating privately with individuals in the defunct group.

“It’s disappointing,” she said. “I’d always
wanted to have a clique of girls. But COVID had other plans for us.”

Alex Levy, a yoga teacher and DJ who lives in
Sacramento, California, is a member of many group chats, including one composed
of some hundred friends he’s made at Burning Man. But after a while, he said,
the text chains “start to dwindle and fade away.”

“These things take a natural progression,”
Levy, 28, said. “People start to live their own lives and go on their own
paths.” Sounding wise and calm as a Jedi, he said that a group chat that has
not lost its lustre this far into a pandemic would be unnatural. “It’s rare for
any group chat to sustain itself two years later,” he said.

After he and several fellow searchers
travelled to Peru to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony with a shaman, they
kept in touch, writing from Texas, London and New York to share updates on
their spiritual journeys. Levy said those missives are no longer common, but
that doesn’t worry him.

“Even when this thread ends we will be
connected by an experience in the past,” he said.

‘FLOUNCING’ AND SETTING BOUNDARIES

Deesha Philyaw, a writer in Pittsburgh,
estimates that the number of active group texts she belongs to has swelled to
17 during the pandemic. There are several for her “Black Twitter” friends; a
good five for various permutations of her daughters, their father and his
partner; and one for her agent and lawyer, where they pick apart literary
gossip and Bad Art Friends.

It helps, she said, that none of her groups
are as active as they were in early 2020. She further maintains her sanity by
muting chats from time to time. Turning off notifications, she said, is less
hurtful to others than leaving a group text and letting remaining members see
the “so-and-so has exited the chat” notification.

“I call it flouncing,” Philyaw, 50, said of
people who unsubscribe to group chats. “It makes me think of somebody in the
antebellum South with a cinched waist turning on her heel and dramatically
exiting.”

But even if muting feels kinder, it doesn’t
always go over well. Philyaw recalled a chat in which she’d gone from
participant to silent onlooker. “The dynamics were getting weird and I got
quiet,” she said. Her fade-out did not go unnoticed, and one member of the
group became upset and dealt with her hurt by starting another group with all
of the same members except Philyaw.

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Maggie-Kate Coleman, 42, who works part-time
at a university in Philadelphia, had a group chat with colleagues that was
rebranded as “Galpacas” at the beginning of the pandemic, after the alpaca
photos they often shared. “It became a lifeline,” said Coleman, who is also a
musical theatre writer.

The group of six were closer than they had
ever been as co-workers, and the focus of conversation soon switched from
university business to their personal lives. Coleman let her guard down,
sharing details about her private life, but pulled back at the beginning of the
most recent school year.

“I thought it would be a good idea to have
some boundaries,” she said. “It hit me that it might not be so healthy for me
to be telling the people I work with about all the details of my love life.”

She has found a couple of new places to focus
her group-text energy. One chain is a group of her cousins who are scattered
across the eastern United States, and another is a group of four friends who
are divided between New York and London. The small number suits Coleman, and
there is a symmetry in the group: Break up the quartet into any configuration
of two, she said, and each pair has something in common to talk about, be it
ageing parents or a city where they live.

She still has a couple of group texts “that
I’m trying to kill,” she said. “I’m actively not responding the way I once
did.” For her, it’s a matter of burnout. “The rate of communication at the
height of the pandemic became unsustainable once we were vaccinated and trying
to be living out in the world a bit more.”

‘A NONSTOP REUNION’

When Kalei Talwar was in college, group texts
were how she and her friends ironed out logistics. “It was just to ask if
somebody can bring ice to the party,” said Talwar, who is 31 and lives in
Brooklyn, New York. A more intense side of the medium revealed itself during
the pandemic, when she and childhood friends from Hawaii started what she calls
“a nonstop reunion.”

For the first six months, the thread — which
they kept renaming — was going at all hours of the day, with memes and articles
and book recommendations, but when it started to feel as if the world was
opening up, the conversation became quieter. “It turned into an index of how
sad and lonely we were,” Talwar said.

She has become more active on a chain of
nearby friends who use their thread to cook up plans. But the local nature of
the group can have downsides. Talwar said that sometimes she gets the sense
that members have gotten together without her. A recent scroll through
Instagram provided proof of that suspicion.

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“It’s not the fantasy realm,” she said of the
neighbours-only group chat, recalling the time she came across a picture in
which the whole group, except Talwar and her husband, was enjoying a night out.

Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of
Technology professor who studies the role technology plays in our social lives
(you can read about that in her memoir, “The Empathy Diaries”), said that many
of these challenges are endemic to the medium. The cues and clues of
face-to-face conversations and phone calls are nowhere to be found in group
chats.

“If I told you about a death on text, you
won’t be able to read how I’m feeling,” she said. “You won’t see my tears, or
be able to tell if I’m typing something for the 50th time or scarfing down
Haagen-Dazs. You can’t read me so you don’t know how to respond.”

But for friends keeping in touch over long distances,
texting may be the next best thing to hanging out. Kelsea Norris’ group texts
were extremely active even before the pandemic. “I remember I was hooking up
with a guy and my phone kept going off and he was like, ‘I think somebody’s
trying to get in touch with you,’” she said.

Norris, 31, recently moved from Brooklyn to
Knoxville, Tennessee. One of the hardest parts of relocating, she said, has
been watching bonds get stronger between friends she left behind. “It’s a
reminder of the path not taken,” she said. “It’s hard enough to leave your
friends during a pandemic, and watching them become closer or send me a picture
from their dinner is a reminder of what I’m missing out on.”

Bearing witness to group dynamics revealing
themselves in alphanumeric characters was also hard for Kira von Eichel, a
writer in Brooklyn. She loved the way that the group texts allowed her to keep
her relationships with other women alive, to commemorate birthdays and share
articles and recipes. But one group she found herself in, entirely composed of
women, including an “alpha” member and a couple of devoted supplicants, proved
challenging.

“It was awful,” von Eichel, 49, said. “It was
like watching your worst middle school nightmares play out in slow motion.” She
said that it became impossible not to see the social hierarchy embedded in the
dialogue. She came to notice how a couple of members leapt to action every time
the “alpha” wrote anything, and how the same two members’ dispatches would
often go unacknowledged. “It was like watching ‘Dynasty’ or ‘Dallas,’ but with
a bunch of clog- and Apiece Apart-wearing women,” she said of her group, which
has largely gone quiet.

Wait around long enough, though, and just
about anything can rise from the dead. O’Dell’s chat is lighting up like a
Christmas tree, with messages about local COVID-19 test positivity rates and
school protocol, home tests and symptoms.

“It’s so exciting,” she said with a roll of
the eyes. “I guess omicron was good for something.”

©2022 The New York Times Company

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