The rise of the permanent group chat

Smartphone messaging is huge. So huge that WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have both been downloaded more than 1 billion times – for Android alone.

As often, in hindsight, the rise of chat apps seems obvious and predictable. After all, people had direct conversations since the beginning of humanity. The popularity of letters, telephone calls and text messaging (SMS) showed that people happily use every solution and technology available in order to satisfy their personal communication needs.

In many ways, messaging apps simply allow people to optimize and improve their one-to-one communication. It is an evolutionary process, not a revolution. Existing needs are satisfied in new ways – unlike with traditional social networking, which invented a kind of barrier-free, low cost one-to-many communication unheard of before.

However, there is one usage pattern of messaging apps that did not exist in the past. Something which truly changes our communication habits and lets us have a type of conversation that just was not possible before: the permanent group chat.

The permanent group chat is a group chat on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Hangout, Line, Kik, Kakao Talk or any other messenger, which is not specifically tied to a certain event or date. It has no end, and apart from the day the group chat was opened up – possibly many years ago – it has no beginning either. Instead, a constant flow of chat messages is being exchanged by the group members. Sometimes there can be days, weeks or even months without anyone posting anything. But then, all of a sudden, a member of the group has something to say, and pushes the group back to the top of the chat list and thereby back into everyone’s attention.

I am member of about 4 permanent group chats, consisting of about 3-5 people. A quick Twitter survey indicated that 5 parallel groups (+-2) could be a good average among people who participate in permanent group chats.

Each of the groups I am member of represents a different kind of friend circle. Some of the groups are receiving messages on a daily basis, some less frequently. One or two of the groups experience their biggest activity around events in the physical world (like when planning a dinner or beer together), whereas the others are mainly about sharing links and discussing topics of interests. I know of many others who participate in permanent group chats with family members, and I actually also have created one with both of my parents (which receives a lot of messages by the way).

The permanent group chat is like a digital representation of people hanging out in a casual setting with no specific purpose and lots of distractions. In the physical world, these scenarios naturally always are limited to certain periods of time. With messaging, we get the opportunity to hang out with people we enjoy exchanging thoughts, ideas and the occasional trash talk with on a regular basis – with no obligations or pressure to participate. No other technology before has made this possible in a practical and cost-effective manner.

Admittedly, there have been early forms of the permanent group chat before the likes of WhatsApp came onto the scene, such as threads in Online Forums (remember phpBB?), e-mail conversations between multiple recipients or even “private” IRC chatrooms. But in the end, the use cases, communication patterns and grade of connection between the “group members” were quite different from those of today’s permanent chat groups, so I do see reason to indeed label the permanent group chat as something completely new.

For myself, the permanent group chat helps me to stay in touch with people I maybe do not meet very often in the physical world (because of geographical or time limitations), and it is a great source of ideas, inspiration and information. Also, it bridges the gap between far acquaintances and close friends. With a person you just met a couple of times, maybe initially in a work context, it could be awkward and a possible breach of social norms to immediately start to have regular one-to-one conversations. But as members of the same permanent chat group, you can get to know a person better in a relaxed, casual environment.

Currently, there is no end in sight to the rise of messaging apps. With each new smartphone user, there soon will be an additional user of messaging apps. Thus the phenomenon of permanent group chats will keep growing as well. The long term consequences for human interaction and our social network are yet to be determined. But it is clear now that messaging apps do not only substitute old ways of communication but also have created a very meaningful and powerful new way to converse.

4 comments

  1. if one takes the facebook news feed and strips away everything that is bad, annoying and shareholder driven, you’ll arrive at something very similar to the modern phenomenon you just described: the permanent group chat for specific circles of friends or relatives…

    facebook saw this coming without being able to prevent it, so they simply acquired whatsapp. the fb messenger itself was competitive enough to be on par with whatsapp (it is based on the beluga messenger acquired in 2011 – so there was at least some foresight), but the group chat phenomenon would have eventually taken huge chunks out of the news feed relevance, because there is another recent phenomenon attached to the rise of modern messaging apps: sharing links to news articles or headline screenshots thereof, giving quick personal travel updates via geo-posting one’s location or a picture of a recent party/dinner etc.
    the group chat use you describe is a black hole for facebook’s newsfeed.

    and it is my firm belief that better product design and understanding of customer interests on facebook’s behalf could have prevented whatsapp and snapchat from rising up. instead they even emphasized the need for something else by being stubborn. it got to the point that people simply stopped trusting regular posts on facebook, because to them it’s puzzingly random whether all, some or any friends will see their posts. this has gotten better again in the last year, but users already left the boat and as a result we now form chat groups on other platforms.

    at least for me, everything i put into my facebook feed in 2012, i now put into whatsapp groups.

  2. I totally agree with the need for group conversations, and I also have several whatsapp groups going on.

    But what I am still seeking is a way to combine all the different platforms: some people use whatsapp, some prefer email, some web interface. Couldn’t someone create an app that solves this problem? :)

  3. @ Christian
    I think there have been attempts for social media messaging aggregation in the past, but without success. But of course today the phenomenon is much bigger, so maybe someone should give it a try again.

    @ Sonya
    Interesting that you find this to be a problem. I do not mind having multiple messaging apps installed. Apart from the screen space it does not inconvenience me or costs me additional time.

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