Whatsapp Groups: Taking the Hate out of this Love-Hate Relationship

Zwi Ramutumbu | 28 Feb , 2015  

When Whatsapp was first released, it felt like a second (and better) revolution. Yes, mobile instant messaging (IM) was already alive and well, with the likes of Mxit mixing things up for the layman (does anyone actually still use Mxit?), and those who could buy a Blackberry were going nuts on BBM, although I feel like RIM brought the BBM party to us just as the club was shutting down everywhere else in the world. What Whatsapp did was bring everyone together. Android, iPhone and other users – yes, we see you Nokia and your failed Symbian system – could now seamlessly IM without having to give in to the BBM big bash.

So, I’ve been on Whatsapp for a few years now and I’ve really enjoyed the convenience it offers on my not-so-smart Symbian-run Nokia phone. I also found the group feature very useful. However, Whatsapp groups have gone from really helpful to being the reason I’m awake at night, quite literally. People use Whatsapp groups for different reasons. You get those that work as de facto chatrooms where members type away with reckless abandon. Then there are groups that are meant to be forums where people share ideas and other useful information.

There’s a third category that doesn’t seem to know where it should fall. It has the convenience of a forum where the members are already in some sort of group (say for a school assignment). But it sometimes requires minimal interaction between members e.g., a group that has been initiated by someone temporarily to enable people who are, for instance, arranging or attending an event to communicate and give updates easier leading up to said event. I’ve found that this middle category can very quickly get out of hand.

I’ve come up with a list of 7 rules, nay guidelines, for Whatsapp group etiquette. If we all followed them, the world would be a better place. It frees up time and energy to focus on other important causes like rhino poaching, climate change, and Charlie Hebdo (hmm, depends). I may give examples of my own experiences to illustrate some of the points.

1. Let’s be clear on the group’s purpose
Every person who creates a Whatsapp group should make it clear to its members what the group was created for. Given that there is this corridor of uncertainty with some of the groups that come up, where some people inappropriately treat them as chatrooms, we should all be clear on how the group will work, preferably with instructions on how to interact. Here’s an example:

“Hi guys. I want to do something special for my brother Thabo’s birthday since he’s far away from all his friends. I’d like to put together a collection of messages from all of you and send to him. Please directly forward me your message by next week so I can put it all together. I think he’ll really appreciate that. If you have any questions or concerns, please text me directly, I’ll use the group to answer/update everyone. Thanks guys.”

Just lovely!

2. If it’s not a chatroom, don’t chat
Look, if the group is not comprised of all your girls or the boys or anything like that, it’s probably not meant to be a place to chat. It can be annoying to find that the 50 messages on your group are just two people chatting between themselves. If point 1 above is followed, the culprits become easier to spot.

3. If it’s only meant for one person, text that person directly
This is probably related to point 2 above, but applies to all groups essentially. If you are in a Whatsapp group, it means you and everyone on that group have the app on your phones. It then follows that if you have something to say to one person, you should really be texting them directly.

“The words of the tongue should have 3 gatekeepers: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” This is according to an Arabian proverb, or the “Indian spiritual master” Shirdi Sai Baba, depending on which Google source warms your heart more.  So, for the post-Y2K mouthpiece, the keypad, let your text go through 3 gates: “Is it true (that’s debatable)? Is it important? Is it necessary for EVERYONE on the group to know?” The latter is the most crucial. Let’s keep 1-to-1 conversations away from groups, asseblief.

4. If it can wait ‘til the morning, let it wait ‘til the morning
One of my favourites! There’s nothing like being woken up by a Whatsapp group text that happens to be completely irrelevant to anything concerning your life. I’ve literally seen someone exit a group that (a) became a chatroom when it wasn’t meant to be, and (b) this was happening at 23h30! She asked kindly that people stop chatting unless it’s relevant to the group or urgent as it’s late; she’s just put the kids to sleep; she’s sleeping; and has an early morning the following day. She asked a second time, and still she was ignored. Next thing: Jen* has left the group (I don’t think the mute function had been developed yet).

So, my fellow Whatsapp users, I know some of you are nocturnal but, and this may be a shock to you, you and those other owls like you are probably only 1.72% of the world population. Be kind to the other 98.28% won’t you? Oh, and morning is not 5:30am either, dear early birds. Be kind to the nocturnal creatures as well, because they’ve probably just fallen asleep at that time. Group texting hours should be 8am-10pm, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

5. If you can say it in one text, please say it in one text
Ideally, you want to put your many thoughts into sizeable chunks of text if you have a lot to say. If it’s just one piece of info, it’s the perfect candidate to be included all in one text, like in point 1 above. I’ve seen how this habit has now crept into SMS as well. People are now SMSing the same way they text on Whatsapp/BBM. If you are going to send multiple texts, at least type the sentences in full before you tap “Send.” I’ve heard my phone beep 7 times in 3 seconds, only to find that it was one person saying to the group:

16:31 Hey

16:31 guys

16:31 just to let you know

16:31 this weekend

16:31 is cancelled.

16:31 No need

16:31 to attend anymore.

17:45 Thanks J (at least we were thanked for our troubles)

No Mzansi. Just, no.

6. Polls/Voting – an easier way to do it
So, some groups require people to either vote ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ for something or the other. What often happens is that the one person will ask a question, for instance, “Is 3pm okay for everyone?” Then one person answers, or everyone does respond but that ends up being 13 new conversations deliberating on the moral acceptability of 3pm, down to what our purpose on earth actually is.

Rabbit trail: I like how people have used the ‘retweet’ and ‘favourite’ option on Twitter as a way to vote. I wonder if the creators of Twitter meant it to be used in that way, or it was something thought up by users. Anyway, back to Whatsapp groups, I think an easy way to do voting/polls is to either have everyone respond directly to the person asking the question (that person can then update the group on what the final verdict is), or the person can tell everyone to respond only if they have objections. The responsibility is then placed on every group member. Those who don’t respond are presumed to agree. It can be tiresome for someone to send a message that requires a response, only to have to follow up with another one again asking people to respond.

7. Sending multimedia
It’s a question of data. One of the cool things about Whatsapp is that it is a relatively cost-effective method of communication, but this still depends on how it’s used. If you want to watch a video sent to the group, it will cost you data/airtime to download and watch. Often, people send a photo or two, which is usually okay. Sometimes it’s a 20MB video. For some, it’s probably not a problem, but in a country that has one of the highest costs of telecommunication and where free Wifi is as hard to find as a clean politician, data ain’t cheap. Maybe a tip for users is to adjust your settings to not automatically download multimedia sent to you. In that case, you can see what’s been sent but you control whether you want to- or have the data to download it.

I can hear some saying, “you can avoid a lot of this by just muting the group.” Certainly! It’s been one of the best features of Whatsapp groups, but you don’t want to miss an important or urgent message because you muted the group either. If we all learnt some good Whatsapp group etiquette, there’d be less need to mute. However, until then, I think most of the Whatsapp groups on my phone will remain on mute whenever it’s necessary – which is almost always.

I also hear some saying, “you know, you could just use broadcast lists.” And that is the 8th point I will address – it’s rather more a partial solution than it is a guideline to Whatsapp group etiquette. Broadcast lists are used to text multiple people at the same time, the same concept as SMS groups (don’t you just miss the days of buying massive SMS bundles?). Primarily, this eliminates any risk of “chatroom effect” as you are the only person who can send texts to everyone. Additionally, people on the list don’t know who else is on it, so it’s great if that’s what you prefer. If you do still want to maintain some level of interaction between members, then continue to use groups, but perhaps set some guidelines at the start depending on what the group is for. Otherwise, use the more dictator-friendly, annoyance-preventing option of broadcast lists. It might just save someone’s life.

*Not her real name, but it’s close enough.

Cover photo by Garry Knight used under Creative Commons licence. Original photo can be found here.

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