My rules to control the tyranny of WhatsApp groups

The lack of etiquette is out of control – I cultivate a deliberately sloppy approach so as to reduce expectations

Invariably, it starts with a message. “Hey, we’re thinking of going to the park/pub/aquarium tomorrow. Anyone interested?”

Yes, we’re keen, come the replies. What time? Do we need to book? Are you going to have lunch there? They have a good café. Yes, we’ve booked. Do you want us to book for you? Little Johnny will be napping so we might be late. Do you want to meet at the station? We’ll see you there. We’ve got a table, we’re inside. Arriving now.

And so it goes on, and on, and on, turning a semi-spontaneous activity into a marathon planning session.

Don’t get me wrong, I love WhatsApp groups. Some of my best friends are in WhatsApp groups. But the sheer range of groups taking up residence in this once niche app is mind-boggling. From birthday parties to hen nights, parent groups to work colleagues, family chats to school groups and holiday weekends away. Not an activity goes by that does not have a corresponding WhatsApp group. A jaunty or functional name, a picture of participants in the bio and a lifetime membership. Because once you’re in, you’re stuck. Leave? I’m not an animal. I’ve been known to mute groups, but never leave.

Admittedly, I’m particularly vulnerable to WhatsApp overload. I’m not a planner and I hate having to book things in advance. I’m on maternity leave and have young children, so activities are invariably organised at short notice, then delayed or cancelled due to rashes, vomit, someone refusing to put their shoes on. I’ll spare you the details. I regularly receive 16 new notifications from my child’s class WhatsApp group before 8am asking what book needs to be returned, if after school club is on today, do they have to wear spots and stripes, if anyone has the teacher’s email, what so and so was demanding for breakfast. It’s all just too much.

This is not a humblebrag about how busy and important I am. The whole point is that none of these messages are actually important. Instead, they’re adding a layer of digital admin to our lives that are already too dominated by phones. It’s not just parenting guff that will get you either – it’s family obligations, political debates, television shows… the list is endless.

I’ve considered limiting time on the app, the way I do with others in a move that has worked wonders for me. But the problem with WhatsApp is that it also brings me total joy. The long-running voice note conversation with three of my oldest and dearest friends in different time zones. The video calls to family members overseas, the perfectly timed joke or podcast recommendation. Used judiciously, it’s essential for the logistics of modern life and great at creating moments of connection.

But the lack of etiquette is out of control. The jumbled and incessant torrent of messages, both important and completely superfluous, is stealing my time and scattering my brain. I’m talking about the endless stream of consciousness in preparation for an event. The friendly queries as to whether people want to chip in for a lavish joint present in a cost of living crisis. The parroting of ideas from a think-piece about what’s really going on in Gaza.

It’s what leads to the elaborate dance of screening messages and then sleuthing to see if someone has been using the app or not. The pressure to reply is both extremely irritating and difficult to resist. Do I need to go to this? Do I need to book? Oh god, I’m already late.

Personally, I cultivate a deliberately sloppy approach so as to reduce expectations of a speedy reply. Maybe it’s time for a Code of Conduct for wielding such a powerful tool. No questions that three seconds thought would solve. No messages before 9am. No sending something you wouldn’t shout to a room of 30 people. Your wish is not my command.

The best example of WhatsApp use I’ve seen recently is from a friend overseas with a birthday invitation. There was a “no reply-all” group, sharing the invitation for the sake of inclusion but with no obligation to attend. There were a total of three messages – the invitation, directions and a thank you – with actual socialising left to the event itself. This is the kind of WhatsApp I signed up for.

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