The peculiar dynamics of WhatsApp groups

WhatsApp group photo. (Courtesy/iStock)

The lie: “Social media is not a real place”.  The truth: “Social media is a reflection of the tangible social life.”

I am in not less than 20 WhatsApp groups, and that number does not include the temporary ones that get disbanded after completion of what they were set up for or the defunct ones. If my WhatsApp settings were not restrictive, I would be in hundreds, because every single day, I get requests to join some group or another, especially by people I have no connection with.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I dealt with one such, a very stubborn ‘adder’. Every three days, he would send a request to join a wedding group. I would ignore, because I had no idea who he was and I also think it is kind of rude to add people to groups without asking. Eventually he called and we had an awkward conversation of him, without introducing himself, half-demanding to know why I was ignoring him. Because I really did not know, I asked who he was, and he duly informed me that we were in the same group. I blocked him immediately, mainly because he sounded very entitled.

There is something about WhatsApp groups that often feels uncomfortably like harambees, and forced friendships. The obligatory groups like family, chama and school ones leave us with little choice. These ones are the groups that demonstrate the phrase ‘no man is an island’. You need them for social survival.

But there are groups you desperately want to be in, for peace of mind, like our local Kenya Power and security groups. I treasure these ones, because they give me access to local Kenya Power Kenya Police telephone numbers. Before these groups, I would walk into our local police stations and ask to see the Officer Commanding, not to report anything, but to get to know him.

There are interest groups, like hiking/mountaineering, play-list sharing and book-sharing ones. The things I love about this category of group is there is no obligation to participate in any conversation, and more often than not, you can get away with not having to strictly follow on the chats – just pick what interests you.

It’s like a supermarket where you pick what you want, ignoring thousands of other products. Or, like being a church backbencher where you can take a nap, yet people will have registered your presence in the heaven-bound train.

The dynamics in real life are the same on social media. We have the natural crowd-pullers, a bit like your charming local politician. They will pull friends and foes with their comments, often turning the group into a vicious political arena with strong points and often insults flying across.

Sometimes, wobbly coalitions are formed when people start feeling obliged to respond to certain people’s comments, just because they responded to theirs. Those are similar to house of cards coalitions where loyalty could change overnight.

There are people that I am in constant awe of – those whose submissions are ignored but they never cease posting. They remind me of human rights defenders – noble lot, mostly.

Just like in real life, you make friends and enemies, you gain or lose respect for people, you witness the tomfoolery and wisdom of members. In these groups, if you are a good observer, you get to know how life works.

I have an absolute favourite one though, the hood one. The name suggests that we are neighbours, but what we are is belong to the same generation, few years apart, and we grew up in neighbouring villages. These are people who identify with what was, and what is. People who share memories of shenanigans of youth, who still hold love for the hood, even for those who no longer live in it. In this group, I go to laugh and reminisce.

I got to witness unadulterated support of one another. This group is the only one I have never witnessed aggression, but because human need to be aggressive once in a while, I suspect people vent in other groups. Love lives there. This group is like watching a beautiful savannah sunset with friends you would not mind being stuck in a desert with.

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