Some of us love our group chats. Others of us hate them and would love nothing more than to leave them all. But why do we want to leave? Maybe you’ve had someone leave a group without giving you a reason as to why, and maybe it hurt a little bit. Vox.com’s Kaitlyn Tiffany and I are here to help you work through that pain with this episode of Why’d You Push That Button.
First, I chat with my friend Liz who tells us about her current and past group chat drama. She’s actually very undramatic and seems to tell it like it is. I like this about her. Then Kaitlyn interviews Maggie Lange, who has written for GQ about never leaving group chats, ever. She’s pro-mute. Kaitlyn and I then take all our concerns to Asha Sharma, director of product management for Messenger, who tells us all about why people actually leave group chats and what the teens are up to these days.
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Why’d You Push That Button? is a podcast about the hard, weird choices technology forces us to make. Listen here!
Ashley: We are back with Asha Sharma. She runs the consumer products at Messenger at Facebook. I’m really curious to know, when you’re working at Messenger, how important are group chats? Is it a big part of what they use the platform for, or are they mostly using it for one-on-one chats?
Asha Sharma: So we see a lot of one-on-one chats, but more recently, we’ve seen group conversations continue to grow. So I think last year, about 2.5 million groups were created every single day, and that number has grown tremendously since. The thing about groups is generally, they’re pretty transient, and so you can go from in real life to on Messenger pretty easily and seamlessly, and we’ve been investing in a lot of new features to make that more rich for people to use in their discussions. Groups are pretty critical for us, and I think it’s a really important way for people to spend time together.
Kaitlyn: So you mentioned that there’s been a ton of groups created in the last year. I know Facebook has been focusing a lot on Groups, and also there are group chats attached to all those Groups. Why would someone leave the group chat, and how often do you see people doing that?
I’m sure people leave for a variety of different reasons. But if you kind of think about it and take a step back, for groups in real life, generally, if people leave a group discussion it’s because they’re busy. It’s because it’s no longer relevant. It’s because they’re kind of done listening. They don’t feel like they can contribute, and in real life, people will just leave the room when that happens. I think that Messenger, like I said, group conversations on Messenger are a similar format to in real life, and so when people are leaving groups, it’s generally for the same reason: people stop listening, they feel like they can’t engage anymore or contribute value, it’s noisy — things like that.
Ashley: Is that something you think a lot about at Facebook? Do you want to prevent people from leaving the group chat or is that totally acceptable behavior to you?
I don’t think we think about it as, “we don’t want people to leave a group chat,” or “people have to join group chats.” I think that our role is to make it easier for people to spend time together in the way that they want and so we need to build tools that are transparent and easy and clear. And so we try to think about real-world behavior and then build tools to support that. In real life, if you want to leave a conversation, you leave a room; it’s pretty clear that that’s happening. That’s why we try to make it easy and transparent for somebody to leave a room, or leave a group, when they’re using Messenger.
Ashley: I always think about Slack because in Slack, people will sometimes leave a room and you don’t know why, and then you get that notification that says, “Kaitlyn has left the room.” And Messenger also gives you a notification of, “Kaitlyn has left the group.” Why do you have that statement?
Kaitlyn: People use it in Slack as a joke. If someone makes a really bold or obnoxious or controversial statement they’ll leave the Slack room dramatically just to make a point. So in Facebook, it’s kind of the same light smack in the face.
I think we’re still learning the cultural nuances, and so the more and more people start to use groups for their everyday conversation, the more we’ll just learn a ton for what people want to use groups for and what types of features that they want. In general, the spirit of it, and for most people is, when a group is no longer relevant. So for example, when I have ever changed teams in my career, if I’m using Slack or Workplace or Messenger, it’s very common to say, “hey guys, I’m out. I’m changing teams. I’m going to miss you.” And then you leave the group and you move on. I did the same with this group that I have on Messenger for this foundation that I’m part of. I changed committees. It was no longer relevant. I expressed that I’m leaving and why I’m leaving and then I left. And so I think that’s generally the common case, but I’m sure that there are cultural tendencies or new nuances that are coming up where people are using the features to mean other things. I think we’ll just learn over time what our users want and adjust the features to that.
One of the things that we offer is the ability to mute a conversation, so if it is too noisy, you don’t have to feel like you’re rude by leaving the conversation. You can just pause and disengage and let it not bother you. I think we’re still learning a bunch of those things.
Ashley: Have you ever experimented with product features, like giving people a prompt to answer why they’re leaving? Or anything to give the other participants in a chat a reason?
We have not focused on doing that. I think we definitely could test something like that. In general, we’ve focused on just talking to our customers and talking to our users to understand what they want. And we have to make sure we think about things holistically. We have 1.3 billion people using our products and so what might be good for a subset of people isn’t good for everyone. I do think it’s an interesting idea, and we could totally test something like that.
Ashley: Cool. I hope every time you do that, you can credit Why’d You Push That Button.
Asha: Yep, it’s going to be in the fine print. Maybe we’ll make that the button.
Ashley: Amazing. All we ever wanted was to exist in Facebook’s UI.
Kaitlyn: Do you personally have any group chats that you would like to leave and are staying in because of the fear of being snitched on by Messenger?
Not quite. Like I mentioned, for me personally, it’s pretty common because a lot of my life is on Messenger, to just be upfront and open if I want to leave a group, and there’s certainly reactions that come with it. Some people are sad; some people call me out on it, but once it’s done, it’s done. So I would say I’m sufficiently in all the groups I should be in or that I want to be in. But again, I do mute my team’s messaging threads, just don’t tell them that.
Kaitlyn: We did a whole episode about read receipts and the politics of leaving someone on read. If I sent a message to a group chat on Messenger, it’ll tell me who saw it. Right?
Correct. It shows seen heads.
Kaitlyn: Have you ever thought about tinkering with that?
I think it’s a very valuable thing in that when you say something and you can’t see people to know that they’re listening and that they can hear it and they’re more likely to respond because of that, I think is awesome and what you want in communication. The thing we don’t want is for people to feel uncomfortable about it. And so all of these things across the board, we’re just thinking about how do we give people more control on how to have the types of conversations that they want. And so you’ll continue to see us testing new things that allow people to be in control of their conversations.
Again, it’s there because generally, people are more responsive — have found value in knowing that people can hear them and listen even though they’re not in real life together.
Ashley: When you’re looking at the messaging app landscape, are there any product features that you see other companies incorporating that you wish Facebook had?
I think that there’s a lot of products doing exciting things, but what I try to push our teams to do instead of looking at what the competition is doing, is to look at what our customers want most and our users want most that we aren’t able to deliver. Because everything’s a tradeoff. We have to prioritize. I wouldn’t say there’s any specific competitive feature that we’re yearning for, but there’s so many things we want to keep building for our community that I think will just take time and patience for us to execute on. But I’m excited for this next year.
Ashley: Have there been any behaviors you’ve seen in group chats that have surprised you?
I think it’s just interesting to always see the emotional responses, so I think in group conversations people are laughing more and joking more and using the “haha” emoji and reaction versus in one-on-one conversation, I think people are more intimately expressive of like, “I love this,” and things like that. Dynamics are always interesting to see.
We see different generations do different things. So adults, for example, definitely use groups to coordinate and plan. It takes probably six or seven apps to plan an event as it is today. So just seeing people turn to Messenger and groups to be able to do that inspires us to make the 10X easier for them to actually plan their wedding or plan an outing with the people that they care about.
So there’s some interesting things like that — that I think we’re learning a lot about as we go.
Ashley: So are the teens just using group chats to talk instead of plan?
They’re not as plan-ful. I think that they’re using it more to hang out, and it’s an extension of what they’re doing when they see each other. They’re just carrying conversations. It’s really impressive how conversations can go from in real life to in Messenger to in real life pretty transiently in that generation.
Kaitlyn: To backtrack a little bit, I know you said people had added 2.5 million groups in 2017 on Messenger every single day. Do you have numbers on how many people use group chat on Messenger overall?
I’m sure we do; I don’t have those off the top of my head, but the numbers we share are generally around how many are being created.
Ashley: Do you happen to know how large groups typically are?
Honestly, it really ranges. We see 10 as kind of a common number.
Kaitlyn: I don’t have 10 people who would come to my funeral.
I’m sure that’s not true, but it definitely ranges. So you can think about things where some groups have higher frequency than others where you’re communicating a ton. And one of the things we see in messaging is most of your conversations happen with your top five people. Seventy-five percent of conversations. That said, generally when you’re forming a group, you’re doing it for different reasons. So sometimes it’s to stay in touch with those five people, and in that case, it’s a smaller group. But in other times, it’s to plan and organize, which generally requires more than that number of people.
Ashley: How big can a group get before you shut it down?
I don’t know that I’ve seen us shut a group down. The biggest group that I’ve ever seen, which I haven’t been around the block too much yet, is about 50 people or so.
Ashley: That horrifies me. I’m just thinking about all the notifications.
But think about it. There’s reasons to do it. For example, I think about our group conversation with the Messenger product manager team, or I think about the group that we have for all the people that I graduated with in my business class, which was 400 people, and the conversations that we have and the subgroups that spawn from that. And so more and more, I think conversation is becoming the way that people want to spend time and interact. And so you can imagine there’s things we need to do to make large group conversations better, but they do exist. You can imagine the opportunity to talk about the Super Bowl or your favorite TV show or whatever it is with people who have similar interests and those types of conversations and groups could be relatively interesting and meaningful to create new relationships.
Ashley: I’m thinking of how Slack groups have hundreds of people sometimes. And if you miss things, you’ll sometimes get a digest of what you missed.
Kaitlyn: It comes back to the read receipts episode in a lot of ways, in that the features designed for transparency only become something unpleasant because human beings are not very nice to each other. So that “Ashley has left the group chat notification” on Facebook is only a slap in the face because Ashley did not have the nerve to tell me why she was leaving the group chat.
Ashley: We need a cultural norm of a group chat goodbye message.
Kaitlyn: I agree, like a sign-off and forwarding email address when you leave a job. “I have loved my two years in the group chat. Unfortunately, I need to try something new and pursue a group chat-less life. You guys can reach me with discretion and at appropriate intervals at this email address.”
Ashley: Well Asha, thank you so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me, and if you guys have other questions, just start a group chat with me.
Why’d You Push That Button? /
A podcast about the hard, weird choices technology forces us to make.