My WhatsApp chain, started six years ago with three girlfriends, has been my lifeline during this bizarre year. OK fine, it was my lifeline pre-pandemic, too, because I am the mother of three children under five-and-a-half, which means my in-person social life has been naturally curtailed for ages. (And you may reasonably ask, can you really call it a “social life” if the vast majority of one’s non-work time involves reading Clifford for President five times in succession to a listener who insists on wearing her diaper as a hat?)
But as any fellow group texter knows, our chains got an extreme hit of adrenaline during the pandemic. One study found that WhatsApp saw a 40% increase in usage, and another that 78% of consumers reported texting to be their most frequent pandemic smartphone activity.
As the Delta variant rages and we hurtle into another autumn of uncertainty, I wanted to take stock of the value of this kind of communication, long dismissed as inferior to in-person interactions or letter writing.
“You guys are my internal monologue now,” one friend responded, when I lobbed a question about the depth of our virtual friendship into the Cloud. “Imagine if Sex In the City were a group chat.” It would sure be boring to watch, but she had a point. And when I read that, I couldn’t help but wonder: was there something about the immediacy, the omnipresence, that made group texting one of the most intimate forms of modern communication available? Could it be the savior of another horrendous, anxiety-filled season? Or, as we’ve so often been told by skeptics, curmudgeons and the media, is it merely a Band-Aid to isolation that will soon fall off and reveal us to be slack-jawed, glassy-eyed Soylent-eaters who are as emotionally in-touch as Norman Bates?
Our group is named, perhaps wistfully, for the reasonably priced bottle of Italian red table wine we used to drink together in our 20s, before two of us moved out of the city, three of us had kids, and life, essentially, got in the way of in-person friendship. We see each other at most twice a year, but ping each other daily – when we find a good recipe for dinner, when we are on a hours-long, gouge-your-eyeballs-out work Zoom, when we need advice and support about an ageing parent, when the line turns from a minus to a plus on the pregnancy stick. Six of our seven babies’ births were announced on the chain. (The first babe pre-dated it.) Nothing is taboo. I frequently laugh so hard I cry when reading exchanges, and often receive hundreds of message notifications a day. And yes, we all talked about how insane it was that Heidi Cruz’s group chat friend outed her to the New York Times when she fled freezing Texas for a Cancún vacation, because nothing in a million years would ever rupture our safe, sacred space in that way.
And it seems we’re not alone.
“More people said the biggest change to their friendships over the pandemic was that they deepened,” said Janice McCabe, a sociology professor at Dartmouth who’s been studying friendship for years. She spent this summer following up with former subjects, getting a sense of how the pandemic had affected their relationships, and was shocked at this initial finding.
“Even though we haven’t been able to be together physically, some of these digital ways to connect can actually lead to deeper friendships, deeper ties,” she told me.
And when I emailed with philosophy professor Stephen Asma, I got another heartening perspective. Just about a year to the day before Cuomo shut down New York City, Asma wrote a New York Times op-ed lamenting the bonding challenges of remote interaction.
“The ‘shared space’ of digital life is disembodied space,” he wrote then. “We cannot really touch one another, smell one another, detect facial expressions or moods, and so on … Real bonding is more biological than psychological and requires physical contact.”
When I reached him this summer, he promptly responded that during the pandemic he’d forged a close relationship with, of all people, Paul Giamatti – entirely online. They talk about art and philosophy and books. He has, essentially, done a 180. And while he urged that we be disciplined about how often we exit the real world for the virtual, he likened group chats to note passing. “It’s a secret club you’re in – sharing jokes and commentary,” he wrote to me. “It’s slightly subversive and private and this creates its own kind of intimacy.”
Bottom line: “Kindred spirits seem to find each other despite the constraints of time, place and medium.”
Thing is, our location never really mattered, as my chain pointed out to me when I asked them for a kicker to this article (yes, we do that, too). The last time we saw each other was at a random Residence Inn, where we’d cashed in our points on two side-by-side rooms. We spent the night eating CVS candy and drinking wine and talking until the wee hours. It seems, one in-person night a year is all we need to keep our virtual relationship thriving the other 364.