Just Saying

Breaking up with WhatsApp chat groups is hard to do

I get added to big groups without my consent but I'm too much of a coward to quit

One day, I found myself a member of seven WhatsApp groups. I don't know how it happened. All I know is I picked up my phone and was drowning in prank videos and cartoons about bad wives, lousy husbands and pictures of vegetables that look like sex organs.

This is because consent is not required for a user to be added to a group. It's like how consent is not needed for hospitals to harvest organs - the makers of WhatsApp think one's privacy is like a kidney. It can always be sacrificed for the greater good.

As a rule, the smaller the chat group, the more useful. Immediate family groups are good. Any group no larger than three or four is okay. The rule that applies to dinner parties applies to chat groups - past a certain size, it's just a bunch of people shouting.

I've been added to a group about 50-strong. We are all middle-aged men. From the content, it's apparent that members see it as a safety valve.

They see it as a safe space for stuff they can't say at the office, or at home in front of the wife and kids.

It is every bit as horrifying as you think it is.

I'm too much of a coward to quit. Everyone sees that "so-and-so left the group" message. It sounds harsh, like a door slamming. I don't want the rest to judge me, even if their judgments would most likely be correct. I do want some of them to come to my funeral, some day.

Consent is not required for a user to be added to a WhatsApp group, like how consent is not needed for hospitals to harvest organs. The makers of WhatsApp think one's privacy is like a kidney, says the writer - it can always be sacrificed for the greater good. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

The dynamics in the group are cult-like (not that I have a lot of experience in those). You have the priests who see the world as a place of danger and corruption ("Thai seafood is poison!" "Someone is snatching kids in Jurong! Parents watch out"); the true believers ("Just do this simple trick three times a day to find joy"); the fundies who see the end times ("The mayor of this city in Canada is on the verge of declaring Sharia law. RIP Canada"); and the ones who just want to belong ("Haha, thumbs-up emoji").

I've also begun to use Google Mail a lot more now. I like it a lot more than WhatsApp. WhatsApp is the crazy uncle with the conspiracy theories, and Google Mail is the butler who coughs gently into a white-gloved hand when he wants your attention.

Mostly, I like how the app knows I am an important person with no time to spare for people, so it takes care of being nice to others for me.

On my phone, it has ready-made answers to commonly asked questions. These appear in little multiple-choice boxes. I tap it and presto - real human interaction avoided.

The canned answers are: "Yes", "No", "Sounds good!", "That works for me", "I don't understand" and "I don't know".

There might be more than six replies, but these haven't shown themselves yet. But the app has tapped into a deep truth: A person can glide through life without too much problem by using only six replies.

At a job interview, for example, it is best to stick up "Yes" and "Sounds good", especially if the questions have to do with one's qualifications. You can use "I don't understand" once you are comfortably settled in and drawing a salary.

The same six answers can be used in parenting. When I was growing up, "no" and "I don't know" were used most frequently, and they seem to have done me no harm. None at all.

Maybe deep inside the underground Google e-mail reply lab, an artificial intelligence bot is grinding away, searching for the ultimate reply, the grand unified theory of responding to other people.

Tap one box for an answer which is crisp but just vague enough, warm but not over-friendly, a resounding yes but with wiggle room for a no.

For a start, I'm wishing that this Google AI can find a word template that will let me break up with a WhatsApp group without drama. Something in the "we've drifted apart, we need to start seeing other people" category.

I mean, I'm not a stuck-up prig. What worries me is this: If I were to be hit by an e-scooter rider, someone in my family might take possession of my phone. I really don't want them to judge me based on a picture of a melon shaped like a man's trouser parts.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'Breaking up with WhatsApp chat groups is hard to do'. Print Edition | Subscribe