Friday October 23, 2020

Appetite For Distraction

From friendly advice to secret recipes, WhatsApp groups have proven to be real chicken soup for the soul. And when it comes to national talking points like Storm Ophelia, they make for compelling viewing

22nd October, 2017
As the gusts of Storm Ophelia put the country under virtual house arrest, the jail telephone was the family WhatsApp group Pic: Collins

As a nation, we really came into our own this week. Given free rein to talk about the weather ad nauseam? Finally granted the Monday duvet day we’ve all dreamed about since we first realised that school wasn’t just a fun party of mála and tiny milk cartons, but rather an invisible cage of phonics and overhead projectors? Competitive missives about how many plant pots you lost to Ophelia, or the decibels at which your windows rattled? We embraced it all.

As this little island hunkered down to take on the hurricane, others watched from further afield: a smattering of international media – Sky News, for example, always eager for a 24-hour feed of some sort of disaster; the good people of Wales and Scotland who were next in Ophelia’s path, and the Irish abroad.

“I’m finding the family WhatsApps hard today,” wrote one Irish journalist living in London. “I know! Everyone is all curled up in bed together like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents,” replied another.

For many, a ‘Family WhatsApp’ has become an essential extension of their flesh and blood connections. My own one only got going last Christmas when mam finally gave in and got a smartphone.

It’s not my most active group, but it too saw its fair share of Ophelia memes and damage updates (a bent trampoline, an upended tree). In other family phone cliques up and down the country, there were reports that “I’ve taken in all the geraniums and the dog is allowed up on the couch” or “the bins are in the conservatory with the washing and dad is on the roof unscrewing the Sky dish”.

I’m constantly amazed by the breadth and depth of any one person’s WhatsApp groups, even though I’m in dozens myself. They’re an extension of my social media. I check Twitter, I check Instagram, I throw an eye to Facebook, and I settle in to catch up on my beloved groups. What’s the latest in Soup Share, a 20-plus strong gang of soup consumers and admirers? What beauty products have the 40-plus Glam Gals recommended today? And what of Eat Pray Diarrhoea, the pals I travelled to Cambodia with in January? How are their bowels?

One of my most beloved groups is the one I share with the Girls From Home, a gang of women I’ve known for more than 20 years and the only people I have actual, physical photos of in a box.

Most of them have kids and mortgages and have done what we all surely agreed we would never do . . . moved back Down Home. I gleefully digest their breast pump recommendations and house-building updates, despite renting alone with three cats.

Most of my groups are muted, which is not necessarily a slight on their members. They’re muted mainly because I like to save up all that delicious content and consume it in one go. Also, I feel like the notifications are just a cruel taunt to the feebleness of an iPhone battery. Others you mute because you have nothing more to add to the conversation, but you’re just waiting for the right time to leave.

Among WhatsApp’s failings is the lack of a feature which allows you to secretly part ways with a group. If you could just slip away unnoticed, it would be fine. But a honking great “Emer McLysaght left the group” just after someone excitedly pre-books a booze cruise for a holiday you’re not going on just seems a bit rude.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that women tend to be part of a lot more groups than men, and that the conversations in men-only and women-only groups might veer in ever-so-slightly different directions.

At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, one men-only rugby team WhatsApp group was described to me as “training, farm machinery and piss-taking”.

Another appeared to be dedicated mostly to pints and occasionally ‘roasting’ a particular group member. Groups dedicated to sharing Simpsons quotes are rampant among men, while women are particularly fond of setting up new WhatsApp gangs that deliberately omit one member of an original gang, in order to plan a birthday/hen party surprise for that omitted member.

Many female groups share pictures of their taxi driver details on the way home after a night out, because you never know.

Both men and women tell of being in at least one group where they can say anything and seek advice on anything and there will always be at least a couple of pairs of eyes and ears ready to pick them up or talk them down or tell them to run for the hills. God bless the humble group chat.


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