GroupMe launched a new version this week and its updated interface has led me to wonder if group messaging will achieve that rare thing, the gold standard for an online service: everyday app status.
Joshua Porter wrote about this gold standard in 2009, noting the differences between a service useful a few times a week and an everyday application. I use the home screen of my phone to audition apps, and pushed GroupMe to an inner screen on my phone a few weeks ago, but this latest version might bring it forward again.
Two months ago my sister was married, and at my suggestion the entire family used GroupMe as a way to coordinate what amounted to defensive strikes on local businesses and vendors as more than half a year of planning came together for the special, stressful day. My sister is a good use case as she falls into the category of brides who expend significant social and emotional resources on the event and on ways to catalogue all its attending data. Using GroupMe as a family we felt a little like lifestyle journalists, embedded in particularly problematic areas and reporting back from the field through our devices throughout the nuptial week.
Having watched the team at Ushahidi refine their crisis-mapping software (instances of which are deployed rapidly in natural disasters and during revolutions) over the past three years, group messaging’s current vogue feels like the mainstream counterpart, appropriate for matters of gravity in very small groups. Grouptext can collate emotional crises.
Ushahidi, originally built for mobile reports of Kenyan violence around elections, must take a lightweight approach so users can contribute small pieces of information in real time to form an aggregate view of a developing situation, trend, or movement. As with all software, each added feature bloats a service; however, the new location feature of GroupMe that places group members on a map is reminiscent of the Glympse app that shows a contact exactly where your phone (and presumably, you) are for a specified amount of time instead of broadcasting it to a geolocative friend network. Sharing sensitive information feels better with more granular control. When GroupMe breaks, or seems to break, it’s a group adjusting to communication preferences; that guy tweaked his update volume too loud, and there’s a bit of shouting and getting off people’s digital lawns as the group finds its rhythm.
Weddings are the ultimate test of the couple’s support circle. While onlookers try to crash into it, often members of the inner circle want out, struggling to understand each other as they are ushered into close quarters. As my family discovered, part of the power of grouptext is in the network. Someone’s phone is always lost or out of battery, so others relay the message and the Maid of Honor or Best Man step up to become a hub for nodes (bridesmaids, groomsmen) clustered around them. And to prank the couple, of course. We picked operative names and titled group missions: the bride’s dress developed a diva personality and the silly morning roll call of Colonel Mustered/Mustard, Mr. T, Captain Spork, DP, Rain Dancer, and Ambone made us into a group moving together to rendezvous two targets in a specific place at a specific time that corresponded with the date found on guests’ engraved invitations.
In the midst of other missions like hydration and safe transportation during an extremely warm week of scheduled activities, we were linked through the devices hiding in bouquets and the inner pockets of rented tuxes. With gifts and nerves in a fragile state, timing was increasingly important. “Where is the Bride?!?!” one message read, and a minutes later, we located her. “WHERE IS THE DRESS” flashed across a table full of screens and we grabbed our phones and took off in hot pursuit.
At the rehearsal dinner, I looked around at the wedding party, distributed throughout the room and realized we were sleeper agents. Probably, all would go smashingly well, but if it didn’t one text to the group and we would all know without eye contact, verbal cues, or strange gestural indications to stall the toasts or distract critical guests of honor.
With all the bittersweet irony of the occasion itself and deep apologies to Emily Post, I can say with certainty that group messaging caused a different sort of rarity–a standard in gold rings, perhaps. If only for those few days, grouptext during emotional crises improved etiquette.
Kristen Taylor strengthens communities with online storytelling for major media companies and teaches at NYU’s graduate ITP. She writes about communities and software for Fast Company and can be reached @kthread.