How Group Chats Rule the World

How Group Chats Rule the World

I’m not especially powerful; it doesn’t matter which in-jokes include me and which dinners I’m invited to. But it’s instructive to think of the digital rooms being constructed by those who are. We often get glimpses of such group chats in court filings, the familiar blue-and-white bubbles of iMessage screenshotted and laid out as evidence. A chain of messages among Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, for instance, was one of many chats at issue in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit against Fox News. The tone is amusingly familiar; they complain, gossip, co-process the news. Carlson admits something he’d never say on air: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.” (He sounds like an MSNBC-addled liberal in 2019!) They bitch about Fox colleagues. “My anger at the news channel,” Ingraham writes, “is pronounced. Lol.” (Softening the sentiment with an awkward digital laugh — she’s just like me!) But she also acknowledges the possible influence of the group. “I think the three of us have enormous power,” she writes, and then, later: “We should all think about how together we can force a change.”

That “thinking together,” pinging back and forth in real time, moving toward something nonspecific but nonetheless quite tangible — that’s the stuff of a group chat. There have always been backroom meetings among powerful media figures, but such things no longer happen in the proverbial smoke-filled room; they happen constantly and more diffusely. I know of a group chat in which, among other things, a group of successful men trade investment tips and even function sometimes as a de facto investment group. (I am not in that chat — would I have more money if I were?) There are others in which people’s co-processing eventually has them psyching one another up into breaking the law — as in the Jan. 6 insurrection, which also dumped troves of group chats into court records. Sam Bankman-Fried had, according to The Australian Financial Review, a group chat called “Wirefraud.” He has denied this, but it’s funny how easy it is to imagine it being true: Where else would a group of tech people coordinate fraud but in the chat?

Such chats need not be explicitly nefarious. Often their power is an indirect result of tenuous social bonds, people rubbing up against one another digitally all day long. The Silicon Valley Bank run in March of last year might be at least partly traced back to a group chat involving, as described by one member on Twitter, “200+ tech founders.” The man tweeting this described the familiar experience of seeing stressful messages pop up during a bathroom break at work; seeing alarming chatter about the bank, he canceled a meeting and immediately urged his wife to pull their money out. Others followed suit. You have to wonder what was being said in this “200+ tech founders” group chat before the bank run. If I had to guess, the basic content would not be unlike my own chats: a jumble of links, a hodgepodge of different conversations that start and stop. I imagine people complaining about Bay Area housing policies or trading recommendations for the latest mushroom-based coffee replacement. Without realizing it, they might have built something together, however undefined — a community based in shared values and interests and hobbies, reaffirmed daily by the little stuff, down to what restaurants they like in Hayes Valley. Then someone questions a bank’s solvency, others latch onto it and all hell breaks loose.

People act irrationally all the time, based on limited information, but there is something specific and maybe even unprecedented about this number of influential people working at this speed, their reactions all caroming off one another’s in one digital place, then bouncing back into the real world to send millions of dollars one way or another. The dynamics of group chats — who is in them, who is not — might seem like the adult version of kids’ jockeying for a lunch table. But those dynamics may determine not just who eats where, but also financial events, political events, news of real import. None of these things are entirely extricable, and all of it is now happening at hyperspeed.

One of my favorite group chats, now defunct, was among me and two friends I was suddenly becoming closer to. It was called “Recently Single Club,” a name chosen as a kind of joke, despite circumstances that to us didn’t feel much like a joke at all — for me, the painful ending of a nearly-five-year relationship that had defined my adult life. We were not, in the group chat, discussing the realities of our newfound conditions, though we did plenty of this in person, sometimes as a trio over drinks. Looking back at our texts — sent at a high clip during a strange, slightly manic spring and summer — I see us doing other things: providing one another with a kind of idle and sometimes distracting presence that in some ways amounted to very little, a form of constant low-grade company that was both intermittent and dependable. It was what I could tolerate: giving one another “Top Gun” nicknames, trading gossip and bad-music recommendations, arranging a mutual listening session on Spotify while getting ready for a party — the virtual version of someone’s simply sitting next to you in the midst of illness or grief, doing nothing much more than being there. Eventually the chat was renamed to reflect that we were no longer recently single, exactly — some of us were no longer single at all — and then it mostly petered out, replaced by other, larger chats, different combinations of friends.