The Group Chat and The Network

Across Facebook and WhatsApp I am part of six group chats. As long as I am accompanied by a suitable phone and app these avenues know no spatial barriers. These communal networks can pervade my daily existence, at work, on the tube, or in a nightclub. These group chats exchange information that will organise my day and construct my imagination; instructions may be given over what to do on the weekend, or alternatively, someone may link my new favourite song. While Facebook profiles and Instagram pages are too public, WhatsApp and Facebook group chats combine effective tools of sharing information with the informality and intimacy of conversation and have therefore created one of the most important communal areas on the internet.

Matt Houlbrook’s seminal text Queer London demonstrates the significant impact spaces have on the establishment of networks. Houlbrook argues that spaces, such as the WhatsApp or Facebook group chats, are ‘not simply a passive backdrop against which social and cultural processes are enacted but constitutive of the cultural and social formation’ suggesting that these groups and chats are culturing the networks we form. Writing about Soho in the 1960’s, Houlbrook argues that ‘at home, men could be isolated from wider social networks. In certain venues, by contrast, they could make friends, find sex or socialise’. While in the 1960’s nightclubs may have provided the space for socialising, in the 21st century the group chat is where people build social networks.

For better or worse, our phone makes us both involved and vulnerable to a series of different group networks at any given time of the day. For some, this increased networking may provide a transcendence from a tricky home life. For others, this may constitute an extreme disturbance from a deserved moment of privacy. The group chat is the concrete paving the avenues of cyberspace and regardless of where you go, you must walk on the pavement.

The Cultural Transformations of the Group Chat

I am part of six group chats constantly. Of these six tribes, one is for my family chat, three are from school and two are from University. Each group relays different information. One chat from school constitutes a group where music and only music is shared. The University chat allows people to organise events as well as share job opportunities, while my family chat allows my parents to update their children on their hourly location. Each group constructs a network where different forms of information can be transferred instantly towards one another. The platforms of WhatsApp and Facebook provide the tools to easily transfer text, photos and videos. Depending on the group the style of language differs. Niall Ferguson forecasts that ‘literacy will ultimately cease to be a barrier to connectedness’ as we transition from text speech towards the language of the image, video and microphone. I can draw two conclusions from the groups that I have been part of. Firstly, group chats made me present in a multitude of groups at the same time. Secondly, oral and textual language are increasingly being replaced by the sharing of photos and videos. The group chat helps us organise our lives and in doing so conditioning the way people communicate.

While the previous paragraph demonstrates how the tools of the group chat shape our own cultural practices, a comparative study by UCL has demonstrated how national cultures are subsequently conditioning the way different nations interact with group networks. Trinidad, for instance, demonstrates how the group chat has worked to reinforce familial connections; many families in Trinidad have members who have migrated around the world. Anthropologists found that Facebook and WhatsApp were imperative for sustaining these family relations.

Contrastingly, research suggested that in Europe people tend to ‘live together with the people with whom they socialise online’ suggesting that the group chat may be replacing familial ties with groups of friends or groups from work. Rather than organising family life greater amounts of information are relayed towards group chats outside of the family, however, this does not suggest that the family is being displaced. Instead, this could merely suggest that the group chats are strengthening our bonds towards collective groups, including the family.

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Hierarchy and The Networked World

Niall Ferguson’s new book The Square and the Tower gives warning to the troubles of the hyper-networked world we have built. Ferguson’s diagnosis is that ‘the lesson in history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy’, adding that ‘those who lived through the wars of 1790 and 1800s learned an important lesson… unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some… hierarchical order on the world and give it some legitimacy’. Applying this thesis to social media networks Ferguson argues that ‘the world today frequently resembles a giant network on the verge of a cataclysmic outage’. Thus, for Ferguson, the networks constructed on spaces like WhatsApp and Facebook are argued to be a destabilising force in society as these networks offer little or no legitimacy. Our mass connection to large numbers of groups allows memes to be ‘spread even more rapidly than natural viruses’.

Efforts to legitimise networks have been forwarded by Anne Marie Slaughter who has argued that the networks of NATO have to turn into ‘hubs of network security partnerships’ and thus be ‘flatter, faster, more flexible’ incorporating ‘good web actors, corporate, civic and public’. Similar efforts at legitimising networks have been highlighted by Labour MP Lucy Powell who admits that she is part of eight parliamentary WhatsApp groups, such as a Women’s PLP group including heavyweights Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry. Therefore, the group chat may well provide the networking tools to support legitimate bodies through strengthening ties of communication between relevant groups and thus leading to a more efficient organisation. Just as the WhatsApp groups have restructured parliamentary factions, they may well reconstruct the machinery of NATO.

On the other hand, while the group chat can be used to strengthen and weaken existing hierarchies, Ferguson suggests that Silicon Valley’s control of these networks is the most toxic societal impact in our cyber-world. The small area of California contains the most important WhatsApp collectives in the world. Due to these company’s ability to design our networks they are creating the most profound cultural, social and political changes without any social, cultural or political legitimacy. In other words, Silicon Valley is paving the stones of cyberspace without a building permit.

The group chat is one of humanities most efficient tools in organising the collective. WhatsApp allows us to be present and active in 5 different conversations at the same time. In turn, these tools are transforming the way people communicate lending heavily on the use of photography and video, be they memes or vines. At the same time, the cultures of different nations are leading to different cultural applications of group chats. In Trinidad family members who migrate remain in touch through WhatsApp, whereas in England, teenagers form strong bonds with their peers through continually conversing in collectives on Facebook and WhatsApp. Either way, the roads between networks are being paved by the group chat. Ferguson demonstrates how these powerful networks have no hierarchy and thus lack legitimacy – something he argues has historically led to societal instability, nevertheless, politicians like Lucy Powell demonstrate how group chats can be used to support those in positions of hierarchy. Through flagging the societal changes caused by the group chat we are concurrently inspecting Silicon Valleys extraordinary power in building Cyberspace. If Ferguson’s forecast of revolution and instability are accurate it is time attempts were made to survey and check the powers of Silicon Valley.

22 Nov 17