What does friendship have in common with porn, journalism, and terrible opinions? They've all moved online. Friendship still exists IRL, of course. But the stories of our friendships are now more than ever played out through the filter of a computer screen.
Keeping in touch when not physically together has gone from the letter-writing of Austen and co, to the phone calls of Sweet Valley High BFFs, to our generation’s ongoing thread of online messages. Before, the two-person best friendship was king. But now, there’s a new brand of camaraderie on the rise: group chat™.
My most life-altering group friendship lived and breathed in the not-quite-hallowed halls of our group chat. We were the three musketeers, but instead of rifles we used keyboards, firing off anywhere from 50 to 300 messages a day. Our relationship wasn’t a far-flung romance spaced out between phone calls and notes on the back of postcards. It was a constant hum, vibrantly woven into life’s fabric and near impossible to separate out.
The messages we wrote were an online mirror of our friendship that crystallised into a startlingly real world.
As if to signal this, we gained new group chat nicknames: the final part of our baptism into the online world. A group member replied to a status about eating spaghetti carbonara with a Facebook sticker of a glamorous shark, and one weird and wonderful conversation later, we had our Dream Team aliases: Gin Penguin, Acrobat Cat, and me, Glamour Seahorse, first of her name and mother of absolutely nothing.
Group chat became, for us, both a quiet backdrop to our lives and an eventual cache of all our major life moments contained in a thread of over 100,000 messages. There were messages to be read first thing when you woke up, messages to be read on your commute home, and messages to be read before you went to sleep. Because why spend hours on end talking on the phone when you can put your friends in your pocket and take them with you?
In our case, we put our friendship in our pockets when one of us moved abroad. Acrobat Cat, true to her name, danced her way over to Morocco two years ago, had a brief pit stop in Beirut, and finally landed in Dubai, where she decided to stay. We answered the question of whether you can continue being the three musketeers when one of your members is 4,431 miles away with group chat.
Group chat also answered another, quieter question: Could I be part of a functioning group friendship? Growing up, I interacted with books far more than I ever did with people. This is still apparent whenever I pronounce words wrong, because I’ve only ever read them on pages. “Ethereal” was “eth-er-real” rather than “i-theer-e-ul” for years. I read The Baby-Sitters Club and watched Charmed voraciously, sat by myself, lusting after the kind of female companionship their characters had.
Decry the negative effects of the World Wide Web on human interaction all you want. Part of me is with you, comrades. But no matter how much I love ink and paper, the truth is inescapable: It was a glowing screen that helped turn my fiction into reality.
I met Gin Penguin first, at a cake-baking party thrown by an old schoolfriend. As the story goes, our eyes locked across the room and the rest was history. Through Gin Penguin I met Acrobat Cat, who went with me in her stead to a Fashion Week party. We bonded immediately over our shared realisation of, “Oh shit, this sounded great on paper, but actually it’s our worst nightmare." That and getting drunk on all the free booze. Sparking friendships with both, I suddenly found myself as the previously missing third member of their two-person best-friendship. It was heady and intoxicating and made me constantly nervous about how I was going to fuck it all up.
I don’t remember exactly when the group chat grew out of the friendship, but the details of its beginnings quickly became irrelevant. It seemed as if it had always been there, silently stepping alongside us wherever we went, no matter how far away that was. When we were in the same city, the group chat was important. But after the move, it became the glue that held us together. Our individual friendships might have survived without it. But our Charmed-style power of three would have fallen apart in Acrobat Cat’s absence.
Outside of keeping our group friendship together, the chat had more tangible uses. Unsure of a potential paramour? Screengrab their messages and drop them in group chat. Don’t know if you’re in the right in an argument? Group chat has the answer. Can’t decide which filter best brings out the melted cheese in your burger shot? GROUP CHAT IS HERE FOR YOU. The group chat made me feel less like I’m crazy and more like maybe that guy is actually a dick and maybe being faithful is an absolute concept and not something you can describe as “largely” being. It was both a pocket courtroom that meted out firm yet fair judgments and a mini focus group of my favourite people rolled into one tidy package.
Across our thread you’d find messages that spanned our heartbreak, our upheavals, our betrayals, and our joy, all peppered amid the bread and butter of our chat – a stream of consciousness that included cat GIFs, in-jokes, and hundreds upon hundreds of odes to our deep and abiding love of cheese. After meetings, I’d check my phone and find that fierce debates on whether or not you could keep a raccoon as a pet had been going on at the same time.
“If you have a thought but the group chat doesn’t hear about it, did you really have a thought?” mused Gin Penguin one day.
Like a cult, the chat had its own rituals. We became dedicated to deciding which thing we were in all pictures that featured three things. We once had a conversation about how I was a spoon, Acrobat Cat was a knife and Gin Penguin was a fork. We were also briefly Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Cheryl Kubert eating spaghetti, and a Pekinese, a Poodle, and Still a Cat (Acrobat Cat refused all canine qualities) when a dog breed recognition site did the rounds online.
As we grew up, our messages formed a map of our progress. There was a startling moment when all three of us realised we had hit the age when men we were attracted to might now quite legitimately be divorced, have kids, or, horrifically, still be married – and that wasn’t completely ridiculous. What we unanimously learned shortly after this realisation: Stay away from men whose divorces have not yet finalised. It doesn’t matter how “separated” they are, they’re still bad news.
It was at this point that the bleeding of our group chat into our day-to-day lives took a more physical turn. Our messages and pictures used to pop up on the side of a member’s laptop screen. The laptop she used to tutor. Which led to one wide-eyed teenage boy seeing a scantily clad picture of another member accompanied by a message that asked, “Can I send this to him captioned #NotYourWife or is that too much?” That’s one way to learn about biology, I suppose.
But the last lesson I learnt from my online confidantes wasn’t quite so sexy. Biology Rule No. 173: Everything has an end date. Even the adventures of a gin-fuelled penguin, an acrobatic cat, and a glamorous seahorse.
I don’t know why romantic breakups are the stock image of heartbreak. My broken friendships have left me far more wounded than any former sweetheart. In the end, my exit from our group of three wasn’t that dissimilar from the worst of lovers tiffs: rife with escalating tensions and poorly thought-through decisions, and ending with a request for temporary space that was earnestly meant but turned out to be the final line to our script.
The skeleton of our chat is still there, propped up in my inbox. Our last few messages now are just bones to archaeologically pore over, a reminder of everything we did right and everything we did wrong.
I’ve often wondered if our addiction to online messaging means that despite the naysayers, we now enjoy closer relationships. In ye olden days, letters could take days, if not weeks, to reach your nearest and dearest. Does frequency of communication correlate to closeness? The argument swings both ways: Our friends are now a bigger part of our day-to-day lives, but there’s also more opportunity to fall out. Friendships come and go, some in a quiet drifting apart, others in a blaze of fire that leaves you reeling, and online messaging can act like gasoline to the first lighted match of dissent. A few keenly worded messages misread over a phone screen and you can end up Brexiting a friendship faster than Boris Johnson dodging an inquisitive reporter.
Once, when I was in tears over a heated online exchange with a former friend, my mum told me she and her best friend had screamed things just as terrible at each other in their younger years but that luckily for them, there was never any hard copy left as evidence. Turns out things are easier to get over when you’re not able to commit each horrible word to memory.
Their friendship survived. Mine didn’t.
The question of whether the rise of online messaging has impacted our friendships negatively or positively is one I can’t answer. But I can tell you that I struggle to see how my friendships, both in the present and the past, would be the same without it.