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 prevents 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 will likely die out naturally, independent of the platform it is hosted upon. Yet in this regard,
But that means that our group chats are quieter, our clubs and social groups that rely on GroupMe are less tight-knit, and our “weak ties” of acquaintances that connect us to the broader campus community are less welcoming.
This is especially true for members of the Class of 2024, who entered Duke in an environment where online connection was vital for forming any sense of community. While the infamous classwide GroupMe was a major hub for social activity before move-in, it steadily faded in popularity throughout the year. By that spring, the 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 siphoned off into their own clubs and friend groups. But GroupMe was never meant to replace the communities we have formed 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 spirit and unity, would be if we had a software as seamless as iMessage or as modern as WhatsApp bringing us all together. GroupMe is not solely to blame for the vast emptiness of “online Duke”. But it certainly hasn’t helped, either.
All in all, a society that facilitates us talking to more strangers is a friendlier, more empathetic one. But to do so, we need systems and structures that make these types of interactions pleasant to begin with. In this respect, GroupMe has failed to live up to its expectations.
GroupMe shows us what happens when our online tools are not designed with its end users in mind. More importantly, . Students deserve an app that actually wants us to use it. Yet the inertia of the network effect means that GroupMe will not go gently into that good night; it will stick around, kicking and screaming, bringing otherwise vibrant communities with it to its eventual grave.
James Gao is a Trinity sophomore. His columns run alternate Fridays.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Sign up for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.