The Group Chat
On Tuesday, the New York Times published a focus group analysis of eight guys, titled, “These 8 Conservative Men Are Making No Apologies.” This set off anger among influencers who don’t believe such people require or really deserve further study. There’s even a Raw Story essay titled, “NYT slammed over piece on 8 conservative men who don’t feel ‘free to be themselves in the culture’,” which operates off the batshit premise that the Times once normalized a young Adolf Hitler, so its study of these eight normies is of that disgraceful tradition.
The NYT focus group article itself opens with a note of concern, almost like what’s really worrying is how you couldn’t dismiss these people as prima facie insane:
There was no talk of a stolen election, no conspiracy theories about voter fraud or rants about President Biden’s legitimacy. Yet listening to our 90-minute focus group with eight conservative men, you couldn’t help but worry for our democracy a bit.
I could get more into the dismissive, sneering reaction from media members. I could get into how the NYT, as Nancy Rommelman put it, analyzed its own countrymen as though they’re Martians. But that’s not what really caught my eye about the article. Instead it was something else in the piece, said almost offhandedly by a respondent. And it’s this:
Kristen Soltis Anderson: Are there any places where you do feel comfortable — at home, being yourself?
Joe: During the pandemic, we decided to make a WhatsApp group. And the group grew to what it is today, of like 35 guys that mostly share the same views. And we just talk to each other all day, and everybody says what’s on their mind. We don’t hold back.
I’m familiar with the Group Chat serving this cathartic function, but I was surprised to learn that Joe is in one with 34 others. That’s a lot of people to converse with about sensitive topics. Maybe you’d say it’s only a classroom-sized population, but if Joe’s Group Chat is happening in enough places, talking about similar concerns, it’s the building of an alternative political consciousness at scale.
Later on in the NYT article, Joe says of the nation’s issues:
I feel that social media destroyed a lot of the culture that we had. Things used to be private, or people just said things, and then they regret it after.
Whether he knows it or not and whether you like him or not, Joe appears to be part of a restoration effort. The tech he’s using has been around for a decade, give or take, but in recent years, in some social circles, it’s taken on a different shape. Obviously, the vast majority of group chats have zero political valence, such as the one where I coordinate with family members over when we meet up for food. But then there are those other ones, like the NYT interviewee’s all-male, 35-man strong WhatsApp group. It’s the scene of some dudes saying what can’t be said out there, above the parapet.
I say “dudes” because there’s an element of sex segregation to group chats that isn’t as typical in public social media. The women in my life of a certain age are in a lot of GCs with other women. The men in my life of a certain age are in a lot of GCs with other men. Why is this happening? Probably for a lot of reasons, but I’m reminded of this Kurt Vonnegut passage on rising divorce rates from God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian:
OK, now let’s have some fun. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about women. Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.
What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.
Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.
A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.
But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.
When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this:
“You are not enough people!”
Joe from the NYT survey has 34 people in that group chat who won’t get too mad at him, apparently. The digital experience doesn’t approximate the long-lost village setting, but it’s better than public social media, where anybody can get mad at you if it helps them win some sociopathic game of social climbing. Speaking in generalities, male opinions skew less empathetic, and, in a digitally enveloped world, this tendency can present some problems. If you fail to read the room, the room can exact social and professional consequences. Some men are good at reading the room, but many are not, and so they prefer to cultivate a room that reads them.
I’m thankful for the rooms that read me. This Substack is a modest success, rising to No. 2 in Sports Newsletters, behind Craig Calcaterra’s comprehensive daily baseball briefing. An analysis back in February clocked HoS at 15th among all Substack newsletters in traffic, and I’ll gladly take that mark. I don’t generate revenue on the level of famous political writers like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, but we’re bringing in over 200K annualized and hopefully growing as time goes on. And, as this site found its audience, I kept receiving a particular sort of feedback from friends and readers:
“I shared it in the group chat.”
Some who noted this additionally noted that they couldn’t share on social media. Maybe they were in sports or entertainment and couldn’t trust younger employees or clients of a certain mindset. But they did have some people they trusted, and those people were my next potential customers. Twitter helps get the content out into a particular port, but it’s the Group Chat that often makes the sale. Thank you to the GC.
The friends who tell me about the articles they share in the Group Chat aren’t MAGA, by the way. I live in the Bay, and don’t know a single person here who openly voted for Trump. I’m not saying it as a badge of pride; it’s just a scouting report. And that scouting report isn’t totally the case with my sports media social circle but it is quite nearly. Such people, these Blue Worlders, want places to express opinions that fall outside an increasingly narrow media consensus.
They also want places to do lower-rent things, like talk about a famous woman’s ass or dismiss a fad as “retarded.” The eternal Charles Barkley quote about a different setting applies to the Chat: "The locker room is racist, homophobic and sexist and I miss it.” The Group Chat is the locker room you don’t have to retire from. Some might cheekily call such an environment a Safe Space, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to do so. Ultimately, the privacy allows a certain freedom. In the sinner’s sanctum, you can finally, openly communicate.
In the Group Chat, you’re allowed to observe that Gen Z athletes are incentivized by media to be publicly fragile. In the Group Chat, you’re allowed to discuss how Nike’s ads are weirdly anti-male and, additionally, you might note that nobody in polite society is allowed to notice such a thing. In the Group Chat, you might say something truly feral, like how biologically male athletes shouldn’t be competing in women’s sports. Sure, Americans agree with you on this by a 2-to-1 majority, but good luck finding mainstream sports media members who’ll say so. Those sports media types might, however, agree with you wholeheartedly, without reservation. But it’ll happen in the Group Chat.
The Group Chat is the evolutionary Back Channel, the social-pressure release valve Freddie identified back in 2017. The Back Channel, as deBoer defined it, was, “that second line of communication, the private counterpart to the public face of the internet that is social media.” In 2017, Freddie was writing about the Back Channel in the context of the media business, but similar rules now apply to so many industry settings where a public misstep can lead to swift ostracism and ruin.
The Back Channel was good for engaging in some random undercover honesty, but it wasn’t a sustained place. It wasn’t a community. It didn’t build consciousness, at least initially. At the end of the essay, a Back Channeler goes from confiding in Freddie to, spoiler alert, disavowing deBoer in public for cheap clout points.
The Back Channel goes like that sometimes. You don’t see this situation play out as much with the Group Chat, though. First, because there’s social pressure within the GC against it, and second, because the Group Chat, if you’re doing it right, promises mutually assured destruction. So trust is built, over time, but it’s more than trust that builds. There’s also this mutual sensation of sanity validation. The media exhorts you to join a new hysteria seemingly every month, and that hysteria is rarely proximal to the interests of you or your family. Still, your employer is liable to fall in line and pressure you to join in on the current thing.
This process, repeated, can make a normal person feel insane. But suddenly, there’s a higher trust community that sees the mad world similarly. This is profound ballast for those who’d otherwise just have to question whether they, themselves, had truly gone crazy. By the way, at most mainstream sports publications now, HR functionaries dictate that you must stop saying “crazy,” which means the same demand is happening in other major institutions. Which is crazy. Another topic for the Group Chat and only the Group Chat.
Of course, the Group Chat isn’t just about the inability to say certain words, though someone will inevitably describe this post as such. The substrate of the whole phenomenon is decline. Life isn’t improving and yet you’re being exhorted to project concern towards idealistic-sounding abstract causes. Everyone knows that nobody’s going to finally cure racism, sexism or homophobia, however these are defined. Also, while there are well-intentioned people in these crusades, there are also a lot of sociopaths using the causes as pretexts for power and evasion of scrutiny. They hide behind idealism and taboo to get what they want, and implicitly demand that you forget about what you want. Meanwhile, the rulers who pay extensive lip service to these crusades preside over an empire of shit.
If life were getting better in America over the last decade, people could more easily absorb having their manners dictated to them so often. But life’s not improving. One year ago, according to the Civiqs tracking poll, 25% of Americans said their family finances had gotten worse over the last year. Today, that number is all the way up to 46%. All told, only 14% of Americans report an improvement in their finances over last year.
Overall, Americans are conveying unhappiness with the state of this nation. Twenty years ago, Gallup clocked satisfaction with the way things were going at 71%. Right before the pandemic, that figure was down to 45%. In 2022, post-pandemic and mid-inflation, it’s at 24%.
The economy and the “culture war” aren’t as divided from each other as they are often made out to be. Economic success gives cachet to the culture that rules over it. In ancient times, a defeated army might conclude that the other army’s gods are stronger. This isn’t so different. Failure to win on an economic level inspires defections from a regime’s entire ideology. And failure to deliver the basics inspires a lack of confidence in that regime’s more exotic asks.
Everything is connected. For a good long while, cities were in a safety boom and thriving relative to red areas, while the culture shifted towards liberalism. Blue World’s gods were stronger. As cities in my state now struggle and look increasingly blighted, people exit to places like Texas and Florida. Their gods are stronger.
What do you think is happening right now, under the surface, as these migrations take place? Well, in the Group Chat, people are confiding in one another about how the top-down Covid mandates they lived through don’t appear to have mattered. They’re talking to friends, as loud as clandestine can be, about how so much of this was bullshit: the continued restrictions absent supporting evidence, the decay that came with them, and the stigma against pushback. People, the type of people who enthusiastically supported a lot of restrictions in the chaotic early going, are waking up to feeling worked over. Their version of saying it sotto voce is actually to now say it loudly, but to one another, in the Group Chat.
But why will any of this matter if the opinions remain constrained in digital boxes? If these people are scared to say what they feel in public, then how will the public conversation shift according to their wants? Perhaps it won’t, but I believe I’m watching an incubation period. Ideas are forming and sharpening in environs where they can’t get crushed, at least not yet. At a certain point, it takes very little to set off a preference cascade where the privately held notion gets aired publicly, en masse.
For instance, if Elon Musk indeed takes over Twitter, and shifts it away from the current fashionable coercion model, there’s cascade potential there. What would that mean? I’m not sure, but I believe we’re already sliding towards that cascade, in the face of media resistance, nudged along by the Group Chat.
You can see it in the shockingly decisive San Francisco School Board recall election, where WeChat organized the troops, according to reports. Something big is growing, imperceptibly, but gaining, like the unseen leak behind your wall that one day announces its presence as a flood. Superficially, it looked like nothing, which is precisely what allowed it to grow into something.
Public-facing social media shifted a lot of norms, because everyone felt watched by everyone else. If there’s a corrective to the ways in which that model went haywire, it’ll come, in part, from private-facing social media. The latter is at least more conducive to establishing trust, reciprocity and honesty. Real just might have a shot at beating fake, provided its adherents eventually understand that they are, indeed, enough people.