The Group Chat Renaissance

Dec 21, 2021

Dec 21, 2021

What’s old is new again. How we connect has changed a lot in the past two years — from pre-pandemic to mid-pandemic, irl to fully remote to now hybrid, and now with web3. Still, the most important way to connect today predates every ‘social network’ and effectively predates the web itself — it’s the group chat.

Group chat can complement a social network, or it can be the network itself.

Tl;dr — Groups chats are the deeper communication layer that complement social platforms focused on discovery and organization.

Some group chats arise directly from real world interactions and become the social network itself. The best examples of these are group chats with family, friends from school, or colleagues at work. You’re often comfortable sharing your phone number with these people, and group chats help maintain these relationships. Sometimes a large group chat can serve a whole community.

Other group chats arise indirectly, from interactions that start or happen on different social networks. A conversation that begins with public tweets and replies might move to a private group chat, either on-platform (e.g. DMs) or off-platform (e.g. Whatsapp).

Group chats — as a standalone product or feature — are a critical part of the social network ecosystem, where platforms generally differentiate on one of the following:

  • Discovery is about being exposed to new people, content, and ideas in high concentration. Broadcast-style platforms like Twitter, Twitch, TikTok are strong in discovery, with a density of public content and focus on audience-building.

  • Communication is more of a utility for maintaining relationships, usually downstream of discovery and connection IRL or in another medium. Apps like iMessage, Whatsapp, and even Snapchat lean on communication as the core.

  • Organization tools help structure and facilitate communication, public and private, among a defined group, team, or community. Platforms such as Slack and Discord help groups communicate via channels, threads, and permissions.

While companies tend to dominate one of these domains, when they reach a given scale, they usually go beyond their core to build complementary features in-house.

We’ve seen discovery platforms add more direct communication features, usually starting with an inbox or 1:1 DM feature and eventually group DMs (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, TikTok). Discovery and communication apps are now experimenting with building native organization features to help create and manage growing native communities.

Group chats reimagine gated communities and clubs for the digital world.

Tl;dr — The retreat from broadcast social to intimate, authentic connection is happening in private group chats.

“Gated community” often describes an IRL, restricted-access, residential community with controlled entrances, amenities, and usually associated with status and wealth. Private social clubs have members-only houses nestled discreetly on city streets or inside aspirational neighborhoods. And there was a time when being at the right place at the right time meant being in a given IRL party, club, or community like these.

Today, the most important places to be are online. For newer generations, community, opportunity, status, etc. is largely dissociated from the “IRL” world. That said, the major social networks of the past two decades either began as public, open-access platforms or have tended towards them, becoming broadcast & performative.

Group chats deliver on many attributes native to gated communities and clubs:

  • Connection. Group chats can form from existing social relationships or bring together loosely-affiliated people with shared interests. They’re the deeper connection layer of the web, putting interaction over broadcast consumption.

  • Community. Group chats are gated. You don’t broadcast a link to your chat. People can’t search, discovery, and join without being invited. Having “gates” creates a sense of belonging for those in it (and the opposite for those not).

  • Status. A group chat is defined just as much by who’s not in it as who is. Get invited into the right group chat and you’ve passed a test of social, professional, or other “in-group” validation.

  • Opportunity. Group chats can help access people and opportunities otherwise out of reach. And getting invited into a group chat or engaging with others in one can be the equivalent of a strong, warm email intro.

  • Privacy. There’s an implicit code of confidential in group chats (up to a certain size). They feel off the record which lends to more authenticity. Group chats hence become the real social and creative test grounds of the web.

Digital gated communities and clubs are seeded with a group chat, and they may stay there as informal groups, or they can graduate to formal organizations — migrating onto higher fidelity organization platforms in the social network ecosystem.

Group chats are the decentralized apps we always had but didn’t know we wanted.

Tl;dr — The largely decentralized and democratic nature of group chats is conceptually powerful as we explore new models of community ownership, engagement, and governance.

The very attributes that make decentralization via the blockchain appealing to so many right now have effectively existed in email and group SMS since the start. Looking at it in reverse — where do people feel comfortable engaging in the same way you’d expect them to on a decentralized platform? The most likely answers are IRL and in small, private group chats.

Group chats are democratic, decentralized, and egalitarian — structurally and in practice. Every member has equal access, information, and rights. Users have control and autonomy — they decide how to operate the group, how participants can engage, and what’s acceptable or not to say. This stands in contrast to most major social networks built over the past 15 years — largely centralized, algorithmic, feed-based, and setting the rules of engagement and ownership from the top-down.

There are of course real questions about whether messaging apps like Whatsapp and others actually obey the privacy claims they tout. There’s also concern about the potentially negative outgrowths of unfettered, private group conversation. That said, there’s momentum even from incumbent centralized social networks to, for instance, see a decentralized social network protocol created — most notably Twitter’s Bluesky.

In the emergent web3 era, the “group chat” is a critical building block for every DAO (decentralized autonomous organization). DAOs are meant to operate like collectives, bringing people together around a shared purpose and resource — supporting group decision-making, action, and value creation. DAOs are elegantly described as the “native corporate structure of crypto economies” and group chats are a core feature.

Take ConstitutionDAO — strangers discover a shared idea via public tweets, move to a 10-person private group chat, then a Discord server that gathers thousands of people — creating a movement that played out with a story arc fit for the movies. Still, the “founding fathers” and core team of Constitution DAO remained relatively small (10s of people). At this scale, group chat is usually still the most nimble way to communicate and reach consensus before engaging with a broader community.

We’ve already seen many popular DAOs built from the group chat up. Friends with Benefits (FWB) is one of the early example showcasing the value of group chats as the seed of a social network, a gated community, and a decentralized app. Group chats are ultimately lightweight, flexible containers that, born out of the simplicity of early group SMS itself, can be actively shaped by the individuals in them. A simple concept, but one that seems to make them timeless.

If this working theory resonates, please consider sharing it with a friend or on socials. 🙏 If you’re thinking about, building, or investing in consumer social, media, or gaming, I’d love to hear your thoughts!