WhatsApp, I need some space!

The group-chat. It’s a love-hate relationship.

During the darkest depths of the UK’s national lockdowns, the group chat was undoubtedly a lifeline. The little bubbles of chatter were about the closest we could get to casually hanging out with a group of friends. Okay, there’s Zoom, and that Houseparty app. Is anyone still using the Houseparty app? I wonder if it’ll feature on one of those televised nostalgia countdowns in 10 years-time.

To be honest, I don’t find video calls casual. I’m either fretting about my “mute status”, running out of charge on my phone, struggling to get a WiFi connection or attempting to set the screen up at a decent angle.

WhatsApp is the opposite. Everyone gets WhatsApp. It spans the generations, and its universal appeal means that WhatsApp groups are set up for pretty much everything. Work colleagues, former work colleagues, the school parents’ chat, old friends, new friends, family chat, the volunteer group, “Neighbours of X Street”. 

Throughout the trials of 2020, these groups served practical purposes, made us feel less alone and were a way to “keep tabs” on loved ones. However, I recently heard someone talking about how she’d decided to leave her street’s WhatsApp group chat. Leaving a group chat is a big statement to make – the app flags up a little notification so that remaining members are 100% sure to be aware of your rejection. The shame of then seeing these people in the street – yikes!

For the individual concerned, the balance had simply tipped and the benefits of belonging to the group no longer outweighed the detriment. Whilst it had been hugely helpful during the lockdowns for tracking down flour or yeast, borrowing bits of DIY equipment or sharing local resources, she was now finding that the concerns of the group were becoming, in her mind, increasingly petty and an unwelcome drain on her time and attention. 

Is this fair enough? Or a sign that we’re slowly slipping back into our pre-pandemic ways – dismissive of our local community and the mutual support it can provide? 

In her defence, I think there’s a lot to be said for setting boundaries and weighing up what brings value to your life. Does Marie Kondo need to turn her hand to WhatsApp? Is this group chat sparking joy? And let’s face facts, we only have so much headspace and therefore we need to prioritise where our attention is focused.

For many people, the rolling chats are also infinitely distracting, catching your eye as you try to involve yourself in a task or activity. And for those of us who value a clear inbox, being a member of several group chats inevitably means there will always be something you haven’t yet responded to. Depending on your temperament, this can be a low-level source of stress!

So, what to do? We all know the – frequently ignored – advice about keeping your phone out of the bedroom. But if they are feeling oppressive, don’t let group chats be the first or last thing you see. A quick search online will also show you how to mute groups, buying you some peace, and how to disable the “last seen” and “read receipt” options. 

Let’s also all do each other a favour and get out of the habit of expecting instant replies. It puts a pressure on all of us, and we should be mindful that people will always be more or less present depending on what they’ve got going on in the background.

Note from the founder’s office: I personally go out of my way to not use WhatsApp, because it is clear to me that people become too highly dependent on such services and it can be extremely unproductive. So, I am a one-woman WhatsApp free zone.

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