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.