In October, two of my good friends broke up. Everyone who knew the couple – who I'll call Blair and Nelle – was baffled. Publicly at least, they were the perfect couple.
I tried not to take sides: Even though I let Blair crash on my couch for a while, I vowed to stay friends with Nelle, too. Most of our friends did. But the Saturday after the breakup, as a few of us sat around over drinks, my pal Tom quietly did the unthinkable.
He kicked Nelle out of our 20-member Facebook Messenger chat.
The room went silent. One friend lifted his phone up and pointed the screen at Tom, agasp. "I'm just trying to be a friend to Blair," Tom said. For him, this meant cutting Nelle off from the place where we've made plans for three years – where it was always possible to find someone willing to meet up for beers, brunch or both.
The breakup was already a shock. This was excommunication.
My friends and I, all approaching 30 or cowering just on the other side of it, organize most of our social lives with group chats. They're deeply convenient gathering places – to make plans, to confess news, to distract from work – and just a smartphone check away.
But with ever-present, real-time conversations increasingly dictating our social lives, awkward questions arise: Who gets to be a part? And what happens when you're left out?
Over the past almost-decade, group chats on Facebook, WhatsApp and Google Hangouts have become woven into our social fabric. A recent Facebook survey of 12,500 people found that 59 per cent of people use its message service, an increase from two years ago, with 65 per cent of participants saying that "messaging has made group communication easier."
Neither Facebook nor Google were willing to reveal the quantity of group chats they currently host, but in 2014, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp, a spokesperson said the messaging program had already hosted a billion group chats. Research firm eMarketer doesn't have group-chat-specific data either, but projects that 173 million Americans will use mobile messaging apps by 2020 – more than double the amount that did in 2014.
"One thing that platforms like group chats facilitate is a more public, more apparent and more interactive ability to leave out folks," says Rebecca Hayes, an assistant professor of communication at Illinois State University who studies social-media interactions.
Yes, it has always hurt to realize you're no longer a member of a certain friend group, or that people you introduced now prefer each other's company to yours. But omnipresent digital conversations, Hayes says, "take processes that have existed since the beginning of time and amplify them in a way that might have a more enduring psychological impact."
There aren't a lot of data specifically on group chats, but there is some research delving into the implications of unrequited online messages. This includes a 2015 study out of Germany's University of Mannheim that looked at unanswered Facebook messages with a read receipt – that is, messages that were marked as having been read, but not responded to. For participants with a strong social need to belong, these loose ends were correlated with more intense negative emotions.
And that's just one-on-one communication: Research has only skimmed the surface of the power for group rejection that stem from chats. "Its impacts haven't even begun to be explored," Hayes says. She recently conducted focus groups intended to study ostracism on public social media. Subjects kept shifting the focus to more private exclusion: specifically, being left out of group chats.
"Participants were basically telling me I was asking the wrong questions," says Hayes, who is now building on her exploratory research to learn more about how group chats affect interpersonal processes.
The aforementioned chat is among a few I check every day. Some days my phone buzzes with messages from four or more groups, including one that was ostensibly set up to plan an annual guys' trip, but is mostly used for bad jokes – even though there's another group with the exact same members dedicated purely to goofing off.
I wasn't invited into that last one until a few months ago, but I knew about it from my friends' in-person allusions and in-jokes, and I harboured a simmering resentment at being left out. Hayes says I'm not alone.
"Especially among younger women, if they perceive they're being excluded from an online or mobile conversation, their interpersonal, in-person interactions are impacted because they're questioning their own social standing within the group," she says. Being digitally ostracized, then, can very well lead to real-life avoidance.
Kipling Williams, author of Ostracism: The Power of Silence and a psychology professor at Indiana's Purdue University, says even fleeting episodes of rejection by strangers – not having a glance returned, for example – can throw us off. Unsurprisingly, the negative spinoffs can get progressively worse the closer you are with the excluding parties.
Williams hasn't investigated group chats specifically, but in 2004, he co-published a study on text-message exclusion that has some similarities. Participants were brought into a group text conversation that suddenly stopped, and "your imagination was allowing you to [believe] other people were continuing to include each other, but not you," he says.
"Even though they didn't have concrete evidence that the other people were continuing to engage with each other, they thought that was occurring," Williams continues. Participants felt basic social needs were threatened. "The need to belong, the need to have a reasonably high self-esteem, the need to feel like you have control over the situation and the need to feel that you're worthy of attention – those four were substantially threatened by this text-message method."
In outlining my group chats here, I'm certain I've angered people I consider good friends – because they now know that, in a small but deliberate way, I've personally exempted them from a version of my social circle. A relative of mine once told me he had two primary chats: one with supposedly all of his friends and another with the same friends minus one, who they secretly wanted to avoid.
In less-than-academic terms, this new social dynamic has made all of us inadvertent jerks.
It gets worse when you realize that ostracism comes with trickle-down effects beyond the psychological. Other research has found the region of the brain that detects pain can be activated upon social rejection. "It's a very real thing that our brain interprets the same way as if it touches fire," Williams says.
Even if someone doesn't want to banish a friend from a situation such as a group chat, Williams says, "people are afraid that if they include [the excluded] person, they'll get ostracized too." Which explains why no one has invited Nelle back into our main group chat.
Hearing all of this, I reached out to her about what Tom did.
"If he at least had the decency to send me a message to say 'Hey, I think it's in the best interest to remove you from the group chat,' I'd probably understand," Nelle told me. "He just did it in a shady way."
This new form of social exclusion, it turns out, looks a lot like the old. Ostracism now just takes a click, but it still burns.