Shanghai Street View: Grouped Out

Groups explode on WeChat
Groups explode on WeChat

This week’s Street View takes us to Shanghai’s cyber realm, where I feel compelled to write about a recent trend that has seen an explosion in chat groups on the hugely popular WeChat mobile messaging platform. I write occasionally about cyberspace in this column, usually focusing on apps that make life easier for Shanghai residents for things like hailing taxis and locating nearby public toilets.

But the chat group phenomenon is slightly different, as it doesn’t have any real-world applications and is solely designed to facilitate better communication among groups of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, family members, or simply people with a common interest. Such groups really are quite useful in some cases, for example by helping people to plan an outing or for students to pass on messages about their latest class assignments.

But lately the trend seems to be spiraling out of control, with people setting up new groups at a lightning pace and then trying to drag as many people as they can into these circles. I’m sure psychologists would have a field day trying to analyze this trend, which seems to be quickly becoming a way for people to show off their guanxi by creating exclusive forums for discussion of topics they consider important.

To this day I still remember my first WeChat group, which I proudly suggested to a class of masters students at the university where I teach back in 2012, not long after opening my own WeChat account. I even remember how my class assistant was initially reluctant to organize such a group, due to her uncertainty about its use. Of course the group quickly became quite active, with the students using it to update each other on things like meetings, homework and other school- and social-related matters.

That group later disbanded with the students’ graduation, and was replaced by two smaller groups – one of the entire class and another with just the students who stayed in Shanghai to work.

This kind of group-multiplying has become a common feature, and a quick check of my WeChat directory shows I currently have 22 such groups on file, ranging from student groups, to teacher groups and groups for interests such as some of the freelance editing I do and a group of stock buying enthusiasts. And those are just the ones I chose to save to my directory. If you count the many groups I get dragged into but don’t save to my directory, the number probably doubles.

Out of Control

Two situations from the past week made me finally realize just how out of control the situation has become. In the first instance, an acquaintance pulled me into a group of nearly 100 people, all strangers and some who were quite chatty, even though I had little or no interest in what they were saying. I quietly withdrew from the group, but the founder kept sending me new invitations, which I ignored, until he contacted me again directly and asked why I wouldn’t accept.

I finally relented and accepted again, as he assured me that the group was filled with influential people who could be useful contacts. But after receiving several hundred messages from this chatty lot in a single day, most of them idle chatter, I ditched the group again.

No sooner did I leave that group, then I got an invitation to join yet another somewhat random group, this time from a former guard at my apartment who was trying to organize a group of our building’s residents. Needless to say, I rejected that invitation, and can only imagine the kind of pointless drivel that is probably now taking place there now.

One of my other recent rejections came for a group of jade enthusiasts organized by a friend working in the business. When I asked him why he bothered to invite me, since I have no interest in jade, he said he simply wanted to get as many people into the group as possible. He also thought my status as a foreigner would add a certain level of prestige to the group, and I suspect similar thinking may have prompted invitations to some of the other groups I’ve been asked to join. Despite his pleas, I ultimately rejected the request simply because I had no interest in the subject and even less interest in getting hundreds of meaningless notifications.

At the end of the day, I have mostly praise for this kind of communication tool that really does make life much more convenient for diverse groups of people with a common interest spread out across a vast city like Shanghai. But at the same time, the Chinese love of networking is quickly causing the group-making trend to overheat, somewhat similar to the Asian practice of handing out business cards to every random person you meet, and could result in group burnout of this valuable tool if people aren’t careful.

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