One day a while back, Margaret H. Willison, a 33-year-old librarian and culture writer from Jamaica Plain, emerged from a local movie theater to find more than 500 new text messages awaiting her.
Such a significant wave of messages might have sent a jolt of anxiety through the hearts of many. A family emergency? National calamity? Presidential tweet war turned imminent nuclear attack?
For Willison, though, it sparked no such concern.
“It was a group text,” she explains, “of bisexual women talking about their formative, adolescent crushes.”
If you’ve picked up a smartphone any time in the past 12 months, you’re no doubt aware that group texts — text-message conversations that can have dozens of participants — have emerged as a go-to form of communication for those of a certain generation.
Years after online chat rooms went the way of the belt-beeper, group chatting seems to be making a triumphant rise, infiltrating nearly every aspect of electronic communication, taking over smartphones with the ping, ping, ping of a seemingly endless stream of texts.
Most of today’s popular apps — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram — have implemented some form of group-messaging option, while some, like Slack, are designed almost exclusively for that purpose. Just this week, Apple announced that its newest update would allow up to 32 users of its Facetime app to participate in a single group video call.
None, however, seems quite as prevalent — or polarizing — as the group text.
Proponents laud its convenience, describing it as a quicker and easier alternative to group e-mail, a way to instantly pass on information — the date and location of a party, for instance — to a large group of people, or keep in daily touch with out-of-town friends and family.
To others it is nothing short of a daily assault.
Indeed, anyone who’s been inundated with text messages from acquaintances planning a distant bachelorette party while trying to get through the workday can attest to the distraction it can present. It’s not just the group member who replies incessantly — and there’s always one — but the sheer banality of a weeks-long discussion devoted to, say, the birthday party planning for an acquaintance’s 7-year-old.
Dropping out of unwanted conversations might seem like the obvious solution, but it’s not always as easy as that. In some conversations — involving certain models of phones — there is simply no way to do it. And even when a “leave conversation” option is available, many consider it a social no-no.
It’s no wonder that some compare receiving group texts to being held hostage.
“I hate them,” grumbles Gary Bolles Jr., 37, of Braintree. “It could be about a contest for a million [expletive] dollars. I see a group text, I’ll literally drop my phone on the ground and walk away.”
An informal survey of local residents turned up group texts about everything from bachelorette parties to “Brooklyn 99.” There were group texts for work friends and college friends and friends with a shared affinity for pick-up basketball, ’90s movies, or — in one local instance — ferns.
And in a sign that the practice has truly jumped the shark, there are sub-group texts, created solely for the purposes of discussing what’s going on in the main group text.
“There does become a point where you’re, like, ‘Wait, do I have a group text already with those three people?’ ” says Christina Tucker, 29, who works in student affairs at Harvard’s graduate school of arts and sciences.
And while there are ways to limit the distraction —
After racking up months’ worth of texts she never managed to get to — as of this week, she had an unread message from Dec. 8, 2017 — Willison recently spent more than an hour working her way through them all.
“Can it be overwhelming sometimes? Absolutely,” she says. “I’ve just come to accept it as a way of life.”
Sometimes the messages aren’t even from friends; much to his chagrin, Bolles once found himself mistakenly added to the group text of a recreational basketball team he wasn’t a part of.
“I just wrote back, ‘Scott needs to work on his jumper,’ ” he says.
Many have done their best to adjust to this brave new world.
After finding herself overwhelmed early in her group-texting career — “I would go to the bathroom, or a meeting at work, and I would come back and it would be 100 messages” — Kamille Washington, a 28-year-old from Cambridge who works on international strategy for Harvard University, has grown increasingly adept at managing the influx.
Currently part of 10 or so active group texts, she has come to view them not as a burden but as a pleasant distraction throughout the course of her day.
Even so, on those occasions when torrents of meaningless personal information come pouring over the transom, she has no problem shutting it down.
“I think it’s fine to say, ‘You know what? I love you so much, but if you tell me one more thing about your breakfast cereal, I’m going to punch you in the trachea.’ ”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.