In the classroom, there is one question I absolutely dread. I hate it more than being cold-called in lecture or “does everyone feel ready for the exam next week?” (The answer is always never.)
It’s “can we make a GroupMe?”
GroupMe represents everything I hate about consumer technology: when developers abandon their products after milking dry, when software sticks around because of its ubiquitousness rather than its quality. GroupMe, much like Ed Sheeran, is an artifact of the early 2010s that simply refuses to recognize that its time is up. Yet its widespread use hinders us from imagining what a better-connected, more friendly Internet could be.
GroupMe was launched as a private startup in spring 2010. At the time of its conception, the Internet was managing an uneasy transition from the desktop to the smartphone, with established services like Windows Live Messenger and MySpace being supplanted by upstart softwares like WhatsApp and iMessage. At this point, the digital communications landscape was a free-for-all – the word “texting” hadn’t even been added to the dictionary yet. GroupMe, like many of its competitors, hoped to fill the void left by the inadequacy of built-in texting smartphone texting services.
A year later, GroupMe was bought by another juggernaut of technological innovation – Skype Technologies, the company that dominated video calling for nearly a decade before blowing an Atlanta Falcons-sized lead to Zoom. Skype, too, has fallen off, a demise that many have attributed to the company’s inability to discern what its users actually wanted as it played around with Snapchat-like filters instead of fixing core functions like notifications.
GroupMe has seen similar parental neglect from Microsoft. The app receives updates only intermittently, and added basic features like links and photo sharing as late as 2017. It still doesn’t support voice or video calling (outside of the aforementioned Skype), which means that GroupMe is designed to eventually force its users to leave the platform. I have a laundry list of other complaints about GroupMe: the app never syncs between your devices, so opening notifications on one device doesn’t open them on another, the app has no encryption and seems totally indifferent to its users’ privacy, it treats phone numbers and contacts separately despite numbers being linked to GroupMe accounts, and its search function is useless. Most importantly, GroupMe just feels more dated than its competitors. Perhaps no feature better encapsulates Microsoft’s abandonment of its product than the built-in “meme” function, featuring the “top text, bottom text” format that hasn’t been popular since 2015.
Why does any of this matter, exactly? Because our campus – and all campuses – should have ways of connecting with others that are actually pleasant to use. Despite its lack of functionality, the app still fulfills a unique niche on college campuses. It offers a form of impersonal intimacy that no other platform can recreate: it’s less private than exchanging numbers, less formal than email, and less professional than Slack – perfect for the casual club meeting or group project. Yet GroupMe’s general lack of quality makes us less inclined to interact with others through it, whether we notice it or not. This is a phenomenon not unlike the “green bubble bias,” which dissuades iPhone users from texting their Android-using friends. I’ve personally relegated GroupMe notifications to my infrequent “Notification Summaries”, and I know many others who have turned them off entirely. After all, why invest time into an app that seems entirely uninterested in investing in its users?
Some will say that the problem is not GroupMe, but that the types of communications it’s used for are naturally harder to maintain. To an extent, they are right: a group chat with hundreds of quasi-strangers would likely die out independent of the platform it is hosted upon. In this regard, GroupMe merely unveils how poorly our online infrastructure is designed for talking to people we don’t know well.
Multiple studies have shown the benefits of talking to more strangers. Doing so can uplift moods and strengthen one’s sense of community. Yet social media and the Internet have made it easier to interact only with those we already know – to look down at our phones in the elevator instead of looking around at other faces. Sociologists write about the importance of “weak ties” – our classroom-only friends, our occasional “let’s get a meal” contacts – to our overall well-being. I fear these “weak ties” are fading, and we are rapidly becoming a more isolated society. Our technology habits are not solely to blame, but GroupMe’s unfriendly interface and glitchiness only makes it easier to retreat into our shells.
This is especially true for the Class of 2024, who entered Duke in an environment where online presence was vital for forming any sense of community. While the infamous classwide GroupMe was a major hub for social activity before move-in, it faded in relevance throughout the year. By that spring, the class GroupMe became a hub for finger-pointing instead of community-building. Now, people sneer over its dying corpse, taking pride in their inactivity or indifference.
To some extent, this decline was inevitable as students joined their own clubs and classes. But GroupMe was never meant to replace the interpersonal bonds we form throughout college. It was meant to facilitate and supplement them. I can’t help but wonder how much better off our class, which largely blames the pandemic for its lack of identity, would be if we had a more seamless software, one that made us look forward to putting faces to names or one-on-one conversations. GroupMe cannot be held responsible for the vast emptiness of “online Duke”. But it certainly has not helped, either.
GroupMe shows us what happens when our online tools are not designed with its end users in mind. Its poor software design has the pernicious consequence of breaking our “weak ties” to each other. Yet the stalled momentum of alternatives like Patio and Discord on-campus suggests that the app is here to stay. It will survive past our class-wide group chats. It will outlast our club group conversations. It will outlive many of the friendships we forge as Duke students. Perhaps that is GroupMe’s worst crime of all.
James Gao is a Trinity sophomore. His columns runs alternate Fridays.
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