As families disperse geographically, the family WhatsApp group can keep you together. As long as you remember that Mum is "Chief"by Harry Harris / September 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
My Mum still isn’t properly certain of the difference between data and wifi. Since getting a smartphone a couple of years ago—after labouring away with an old-school handset since I was a teenager—she’s become fairly adept at using the new tech: her emoji game is solid, she’s great on Instagram, and she can take a selfie.
But the only way I can describe data usage in a way that lands is thus: on wifi, you won’t get charged sending photos to the family Whatsapp.
Our family are far from alone in relying on Whatsapp for the bulk of our communication. A cursory crowdsourcing reveals groups that include kids and spouses, with some people having multiple Whatsapp groups for different configurations of family members. My survey of group names, meanwhile, throws up gems from “Lord Mumpface and disciples” to “Mostly dog photos, tbf”, as well as four called “Famalam.” Ours, more prosaically, just goes by “The Kids”.
Up until last year our family was pretty neatly connected—three kids in London, two of whom had stuck around after going to University, and two parents in Wales, in the house where we grew up. Now we’re a bit more disparate. Mum’s still home, but Dad’s in New Zealand and I’m now in Edinburgh. Our semi-regular visits to and fro between Wales and the English capital now operate less as a catch-all for family interaction.
“The Kids”—featuring current members my Mum, brother Jack, myself and my sister Ellen (founder and group admin)—is a nice digital substitute for our geographic disconnect. This is, to be clear, its second incarnation: Mum accidentally left the first group when she got a new phone, although she now vehemently denies this.
Over the course of its history, the group has been used to co-ordinate Christmas dinner, discuss what Netflix shows to watch, share holiday pictures, and counsel as to whether Ellen’s boyfriend Adam should be allowed to join the WhatsApp Group—to which the eventual conclusion was: absolutely not.
This is not to cast shade on Adam, by the way, who we all like very much and I’m sure would add good value to the group. But it would undermine an underlying tenet of “The Kids”, and, I would argue, all family WhatsApp groups: once the team is picked, there will be no rotation. (Admittedly, my brother Jack was a relatively late introduction to ours, as none of us realised he had WhatsApp; but being a blood relative made his case fairly cut and dry.)
Our group developed its own internal logic pretty quickly, and as well as the organisational messages about dinners, or attempts at coordination, often “The Kids” relies on the kind of in-jokes and shared language that you get from being an actual family. Most of the time this is driven by Mum, self-appointed “Chief of the bloody group”: she’ll update us on the house, tell us about any goings-on in our home town, send pictures of any bric-a-brac she’s found lying about that might trigger a wave of familial nostalgia.
This content would, I fear, sail over Adam’s head—but it’s exactly this type of conversation allows our group chat to foster a sense of familial intimacy in the absence of geographical proximity.
Speaking to Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, she describes group communication as being broken down into the message and the “metamessage.”
With regards to “The Kids”, the former corresponds to the efficiency of everyone talking together in one place at the same time, but the latter taps into something deeper:
“Hearing everyone’s voice, sensing everyone present, creates a sense of family identity and solidarity. Of course, differences of opinion or stance can also come up, and if arguments break out, it can threaten the solidarity part. If they are resolved, it reinforces it. ”
When my parents separated—which, even at 28, is a lot more difficult that you anticipate it’s going to be—“The Kids” not only helped me and my siblings deal with the aftermath, but also helped us create a kind of new-normal with our Mum: one that occasionally involves her sending us selfies of her having finished putting together some flat-pack furniture whilst drinking a Rio.
Situations when everyone in a family is in the same place at the same time invariably get rarer as you get older, but for a time, you still think of your family unit as being the same as the one you had growing up, both the people and the space. Even if you only go home a couple of times a year, it’s still easy to treat your family home with a kind of reverence.
However, things shift over time, and you know that invariably you will build your own family, create your own in-jokes and references, and call a new place home. That’s without taking into account any disruptions that might come to your existing family unit: parents separating, new people coming into the fold (if not the WhatsApp group—sorry, Adam), moving house or even country.
At any rate, a transition from old family to new family is inevitable, but “The Kids” helps make that transition smooth on both sides. As our unit has dispersed, we remain close enough together to check in, to ask advice, to reminisce, to joke—like having a little family front room in your back pocket.