Lately I’ve been feeling disconnected from my friends, which is strange, as I speak to them all the time. When I say “speak”, I mean we send messages to each other on WhatsApp. I hear their voices when they send voice notes. But mostly we type.
WhatsApp is indisputably convenient. Free to use, intuitive, immediate and, when it comes to group chats with friends, collective fun. A brief scan of my recent chats reveals a copious amount of memes, a photo of my friend’s new six-pack, a rant about someone on telly, an exchange of photos of cold sores, a pet video, a podcast recommendation and yet another attempt to arrange a get-together. I am in two WhatsApp groups that function solely to try to organise an IRL meet-up, which never happens. At least we have WhatsApp.
WhatsApp has managed to commandeer every connection I have in my life, from my 80-year-old mother to the woman who shapes and tints my brows. Thanks to the app I can find out in seconds that it’s non-uniform day at my kids’ school, that I’m supposed to be on a Zoom call or that Beyoncé has a new single out. I can send a voice note to my management team explaining something on the fly while I’m dragging my children home from school. I can get the lowdown on a night out with a group of friends, via voices notes and text, covering eight different perspectives of one room.
But if I wanted more perspectives, that’s available too. This year, the app increased the limit of people allowed in a WhatsApp group chat from 256 to 512 people, and then to 1,024. Just in case you needed to organise a rally or a rave.
Unsurprisingly, there are downsides to WhatsApp. According to a 2017 study, having lots of chats on the go and a “high sensitivity” to read receipts can be linked with “negative psychological consequences”.
How does a messaging app ensure that its users always come back? By making sure the chats never end. Now, I have all my notifications turned off, I use my mute button regularly, I control the app – it doesn’t control me! So why do I feel as if WhatsApp is at the heart of this feeling of disconnection from my friends?
In this past year, I have allowed WhatsApp chats to replace real-time conversations. Instead of thinking of a friend and picking up the phone to call them, I open a WhatsApp chat and send a quick “Hi babe, how was your weekend?”. I tell myself it doesn’t take up their time. It’s there as and when they’re ready to reply. And so begins a two- or three-day-long saga of suspended initiations and anticipated replies. Over the course of the interaction, depending on how many other things we are doing at the time, our replies become rushed and scrappy and eventually nonexistent, until one of us starts another one.
I have lost count of the chats that I have started or joined in enthusiastically, only to then be distracted by work or family, and forget to reply. I hate the thought that I have left my friends hanging in the digital ether, waiting for me to get back to them. And I hate being the one left hanging. Slowly, because of this neverending nature of WhatsApp messaging, this conversation I started with someone I love becomes a chore. It’s like only being allowed to eat nibbles for two days straight. No hungry person is satiated with nibbles.
In that creeping, insidious way that tech has of influencing our behaviour, WhatsApp has become all-consuming. When it first arrived, I didn’t have a burning desire to replace my real-time phone conversations with texted chats. I didn’t feel as though I was spending too much time on the phone speaking to my friends. I miss those conversations now.
So for next year, I want to bring back something that I used to do as a regular part of my day. Every time I go to initiate a chat with a friend on WhatsApp, I will phone them instead. Even if it’s a rushed and short conversation, I’ll take it. I’m hoping for a beginning, a middle and an end. To say goodbye and have it reciprocated. Some revelations. Some belly laughs. And when I get the opportunity to have a long, meandering conversation, where we talk about life and figure things out together, I’m hoping to feel filled up, nourished and energised – just like after a good meal.
The WhatsApp chats will still happen, but they won’t forsake real-life conversations with the people I love. No more nibbles. I want a big feed and an empty plate.