I used to feel a sense of comfort when a little red dot on my iPhone’s home screen showed 42 unread text messages. This was earlier in the pandemic, when we were still Zooming for pleasure, and everything, especially when I’d see my friends again, felt uncertain. A group text with six idiots I met in college was suddenly a lifeline; scrolling through hundreds of their messages a day gave me oxygen. I wanted to know how they felt about every viral news story. Had they seen the photos of Channing Tatum giving Zoë Kravitz a piggyback on his bike (yes)? Were they ditching oat milk for whole milk like all the other hot girls (no)? Thoughts on Hilaria Baldwin’s secret surrogacy (please stop)? We did selfie roll calls and sent videos of ourselves singing songs from Les Misérables. Then, this spring, the messages started to sharply peter out. Questions like “What’s everyone doing?” would go unanswered. Days passed on the chat with virtual crickets until earlier this summer, when one friend boldly declared, “This thread is D.E.A.d.” No one disagreed.
For many, the group chat has shifted from a necessity to a nuisance since we’ve resumed boarding planes and meeting at bars. People told me they’ve been tapping that mute button, ghosting threads like they are bad dates, and, in the most brazen of cases, breaking up with their group chats altogether. This winter, the New York Times announced that “text message chains are undergoing a great unraveling” (though it also recently published an op-ed calling these chats “a much-needed refuge from social media”). While some threads, like mine, simply withered, others became hotbeds of tension before flaming out. These chats amplify off-screen dynamics, and the pandemic turned them into friendship litmus tests. When I asked one friend in her mid-30s why hers died, she wrote, “Maybe my short answer is … We secretly can’t stand each other anymore?? Hahaha.” Tech companies have read the tea leaves. WhatsApp will soon allow you to silently leave group chats without every member being notified. While this seems handy, many people told me they’d rather stay in a thread that annoys them than face the offline consequences of an exit.
My biggest aversion to the group chat these days is sheer mental exhaustion. How much info can I burn through until I internally combust? And while I love to spitball a joke over text or get random updates about how a friend recently burned her boob while cooking fake chicken nuggets (true story!), I’m now focused on making up for a deficit of closed-loop, intimate conversations. I want to hold intense eye contact with a friend and nod sympathetically as they tell me about their divorce, or grab their arm so forcefully while laughing at a juicy bit of gossip that my fork falls off the table. Those interactions leave me energized, while scrolling through messages turns my brain to scrambled eggs. While most of my thread seems to be on a similar hiatus, not everyone finds digital burnout to be a legitimate excuse for going silent.
When Jordyn Mastrodomenico tried to pull away from a chat with some of her closest friends toward the end of last year, they launched a virtual guilt trip. They chided Mastrodomenico, who is in her late 20s and works as the clinical director of an addiction-treatment center, for working too hard. They sent sleeping memes and emojis to make fun of her early bedtime. At first, it worked. Mastrodomenico kept sending “pictures of my outfits or the type of coffee I had that day,” out of fear that she’d be ousted from the group. But last December, when her phone buzzed nonstop in a work meeting, she finally mustered up the courage to mute. “After a couple of days, I realized how peaceful my life is,” she says. Still, she’d never consider leaving entirely: “Exiting the group felt like I would lose them.”
Though Mastrodomenico and her friends now laugh about their peer-pressure tactics, some petty behavior is bound to surface in any group that spends so much time on text. A friend who was in a group chat with people she met at a Burning Man camp told me it fell apart after one couple booked their wedding mere weeks before another couple’s, stealing their nuptial thunder. I heard about someone who abruptly exited their chat after feeling jealous of a friend’s job promotion. Lena Derhally, a 42-year-old psychotherapist who recently wrote a book about social-media narcissism, tells me being in group texts made her start to dislike some of her own friends. “You come to see a different side of them when they are typing away unfiltered behind the shield of a screen,” she says.
Lana*, 31, says her thread cooled down after divisive views poisoned the vibe. Last year, it became clear one of her six high-school friends wasn’t getting vaccinated. They’d had “polite, respectful,” debates on the merits of lockdowns and school closures, but this felt more personal; one chat member is immunocompromised, and another has a job giving the vaccine to kids. Because they all live in the U.K., where emotional repression is the norm, Lana says that instead of airing out their issues, the convo grew stilted. The problem worsened when another friend revealed herself to be a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) who doesn’t think anybody with a penis belongs in a women’s bathroom. “It’s hard to see somebody go down a route you consider to actually cross lines that are really against your values,” Lana says. The chat has since “petered out, not with a bang but a whimper,” but Lana’s reluctant to ditch it altogether. She wants to keep up those relationships one-on-one, and besides, if she chose to leave, “I would immediately want to know if they were saying anything about me.”
The group-chat exit is as fraught as it is tempting. No matter a person’s intentions, a message reading “X left the conversation” implies on- and offline rejection. Many opt instead to mute, which signals mild disinterest rather than outright disdain. “Muting feels like the virtual equivalent of just mentally checking out,” says Alice*, a freelancer in her late 20s, “whilst exiting is like walking out of a room.”
Even though Ashley* is disappointed in her group-chat friends, leaving feels too aggressive. Her thread had been a major source of support throughout the pandemic’s first few seasons, but as people started to tire of the show, they may have also tired of deep conversations over text. In May, after a mass shooter in Buffalo, New York, killed ten Black people, Ashley wanted to process her feelings with two other Black friends. The 30-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn, felt like the victims could have been her aunt or her grandmother. She was surprised to get no response from the chat. When the memes and “mindless blather” kept flowing, Ashley took a four-day break from the thread, hoping someone would notice her absence and check in. No one did, so she started to reevaluate those friendships. “It kind of felt like a breakup in a sense,” she says. “It felt on the level of, you’re going through something and your boyfriend doesn’t hit you up.”
Since June, when Ashley had a fight with one of her friends over the phone, the group chat has been silent. She’s kept it muted because an official exit “would feel finite. I do like to leave the possibility of maybe it being rekindled again.” Anyone on a thread knows it can breed paranoia, and leaving for good is perhaps the most nerve-racking move of all. Will you still be invited to group vacations? Or will they type, “She’s dead to me” behind your back?
Some managed to bail without much collateral damage. Derhally, the psychotherapist, has exited four chats over the past year and a half using a polite script so no one got offended. She would type some version of, “It’s not you, it’s me,” to her moms’ playdate group and her close circle of friends, explaining that she needed a break to preserve her sanity. “I really wanted to craft it in a way that wasn’t a rejection of anybody,” she says. These digital departures didn’t cause any fallout that Derhally knows of, but if they did, “that’s on them, and not on me.”
Alice says she also managed to slip out of her group chat a few months ago while keeping her social circle intact. That might be because she only left for a few weeks, while recovering from COVID, before rejoining and putting the thread back on mute. Her takeaway is that “leaving and muting has actually strengthened my friendships — it’s been a way for me to maintain boundaries and take care of myself instead of letting resentment build up.”
While that sounds extremely healthy, most exodus stories don’t have such a happy ending. That’s in part because those who dump their group chat often want a clean break. Shannon Arner, 44, says her thread went from feeling like a necessary comfort to a forum for her friends to brag about their rich boyfriends or their kids. “No one was asking for support,” she says, “which is why it all started.” Without the need for virtual wine Wednesdays, Arner realized how different she’d become from these people she’d known for more than ten years. She left without a word in May and hasn’t had any contact with two of the women since. A few months ago, when she ran into a friend who brought up her exit from the thread, Arner blamed it on getting a new phone. “I didn’t even own up to it,” she says. She knows this was a passive-aggressive move, something her therapist “would have a lot to say about.” But the chat, and to a large degree these friendships, “no longer served me.”
Jean Waves was also keen to move on. Throughout the pandemic, the 27-year-old relied on a text thread to figure out whose backyard she would get drunk in. The group of 12 called themselves the “quaranteam,” and the hundreds of messages they sent each week gave her a sense of community. But when she and her husband decided to stop drinking in the spring, the chat started to feel more like a straitjacket. Waves began hanging out with other friends who weren’t into binge-drinking and put the thread on mute. Her breaking point came when the majority of the “quaranteam” bailed on a camping trip she had planned, and paid for, in June. “It was really hurtful,” she says. “I was just kind of like, ‘Why do I keep trying to make plans with these people?’”
Waves decided to ditch their chat, knowing that her exit would be like dropping a bomb that could “kill friendships” forever. Though she still talks to one of them, Waves considers the rest to be “bar friends” she’s outgrown. “When I see some of the others from the group chat, I always say ‘Hi,’ but we rarely have anything to actually talk about,” she says. “So I don’t linger for very long, nor do I want to.”
After more than 15 years of friendship, I can confidently say my thread’s bond is thicker than booze. We’ve shit-talked mutual friends, argued about whether it’s anti-feminist to support Bernie Sanders, and dug each other out from the bottom of mental-health spirals. I consider them family I’ll never be able to get rid of, not even over text. For the group chats that flourished in the pandemic only to later break apart, perhaps forced intimacy just sped up the inevitable. For me, it’s only reinforced our thread’s cockroach-like resilience. Sometimes I take it for granted. I feel safe enough to focus on individual relationships, foster subthreads, or — gasp! — meet new people, even if our group chat sometimes acts like a jealous lover. Knowing it will rise from hibernation to help us through the next personal or global disaster is extremely comforting. And if it doesn’t, I’ll know it’s time to see myself out.