It all kind of started as a joke.
In March, as part of a larger Sisyphean attempt to stave off boredom and anxiety during the pandemic, I bounced around the idea of starting a private Slack to my friend group.
Officially launched in 2013, Slack, in plain English, is a chatroom software. It was introduced to me when I came over to Vox as an alternative to email. Instead of sending an email that’s bound to be neglected in an inbox, my coworkers could send me an instant message ranging from the facetious (an article everyone is talking about) to the more serious (edits on something I was working on).
With my work friends, Slack became a place to gab about television shows, memes, weekend plans, and lunches. And I figured while my friends and I were working from home and online all day anyway because of the pandemic, why not start a Slack with all of my friends, close and less so?
My proposed Slack group wasn’t, at the time, made up of people that I’d consider my best friends — the people, along with my family, who are already part of extensive, relentless group texts and daily FaceTiming. I didn’t think I needed any more of that, as those tend to veer into heavier and deeper conversations and I very easily hit my limit on those in the first month of quarantine.
No, the people who got Slack invites were the ones good at making each other laugh and showing each other esoteric YouTube videos, sometimes of patron saint Kylie Minogue or the occasional Survivor clip featuring our favorite contestant, Parvati Shallow. And we wanted more laughs and more esoteric YouTube videos, sometimes of Kylie Minogue and sometimes of Parvati Shallow and sometimes of something or someone else entirely.
I invited a couple of people. They invited a couple more, some whom I didn’t know. A couple of those people invited a few more. And some two months later, this silly Slack channel is bustling and full of new friends. It’s become one of the most valuable communities I have during the pandemic — a little pocket of relief that I look forward to every day.
At a time when we’re told to keep at least 6 feet of distance between another person and limit contact with anyone we aren’t living with, I was somehow making more new friendships than I had in the before times.
I wanted to figure out why it was so easy to make these new friends online right now, and why they made me so happy. Part of it, I know, is because I’m much more comfortable behind a screen than in real-life interactions. I’m a nervous sweater and a rambler. Making jokes online is infinitely easier. Given how much everyone texts now, making friends over text and memes certainly makes sense for me.
What I didn’t notice is how the pandemic, so quietly, eliminated many of the connections I have in my daily life. It cut connections from my day-to-day that I didn’t realize until now were valuable. That seems like a fallacy — if something’s valuable, you’d surely know if it had gone missing. But what I’ve learned through these new Slack friends (and a little bit of subsequent sociology research) is that the interactions we have with people on a daily basis, some of whom are just acquaintances or friendly faces, have an impact on our general happiness, whether we notice it or not. Those more ephemeral moments could be the ones we’re missing the most right now.
Why it’s so easy to communicate in a group chat
I am very bad at small talk. When small talk happens, I unleash my superpower to think of something blisteringly hilarious in my mind that ends up being a strange conversation killer when spoken out loud. It’s not a coincidence, then, that I really dislike meeting more than three new people at a time, and my chosen profession involves at least two editors to make sure what I’m writing makes sense.
Over the past 10 years alone, there’s been article after article after article written about how texting negatively affects our real-life interactions. Because we’re so reliant on text, our real-life conversation skills become dull. My preference for text over real-life conversations probably factors a lot into my dislike of and discomfort with small talk.
I can’t remember the last time I made a phone call that didn’t have to do with my job or FaceTiming someone aside from my parents, nephews, and select friends. Back in the before times, my in-person interactions consisted of little more than meeting friends for dinner or a movie, taking a group fitness class, and ordering a bacon, egg, and cheese at the bodega.
So I’ll be the first to admit that my real-life conversation skills have long since atrophied. (To my friends and acquaintances: I promise to be better about this after the pandemic.)
Until life goes back to a place where we can have close-contact conversations and go to restaurants with friends, most of our interactions are going to be online. The bright side, if maybe a dim one, to our dependency on virtual conversation is that our constant texting has made us better at texting itself. That is, we’ve adapted ways to convey emotions or a vibe — like frustration (“ok.”), or an informal tone (using all lowercase), or disbelief (asjkdfaskjaskl!) — and devices like pauses (...) or rhetorical questions (omitting a question mark) into text.
At the same time, social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok have also made the way we talk online more visual by enabling us to communicate just by using photos, videos, or a combination as packaged into memes. For example, countless Twitter accounts exist just to repost immensely viral videos (think: Keke Palmer’s “Sorry to this man”) that are then just copied and tweeted by other users to “react” and interact with other tweets. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a screengrab of a meme or video to get the message across.
Making references to “girl smiling at house on fire” doesn’t work as well in real life, but in a group chat, when you’re able to drop the entire video or meme or whatnot, it doesn’t feel like your reference fell flat. I feel more understood. And I guess if it does feel flat, I don’t have to see someone’s reaction to it.
This visual- or audio-based language is used in all kinds of online communication — group texts, DMs, group chats, message boards, and the like. But private chatrooms like Slack have their own rhythm and pace that set them apart from all of those other options.
A Slack or chatroom doesn’t come with the same obligation to respond as a text with friends, which is usually tethered to one’s phone, which is usually tethered to one’s body. There’s no immediate response or reaction required in a chatroom. If someone wants to hear from you in Slack, it’s usually just to show you a joke you might like or have you weigh in on something minor. And if someone really needs you, they’re texting you directly instead of Slacking you.
Slack and chatrooms like it are also different from the vertical feed-centric Twitter or Facebook — both of which are only superficially social in comparison to something like Slack. As Max Read pointed out in 2019, there’s an intent and engagement baked into a text chat that social media platforms lack. He wrote:
Whatever conditioning has led us to seek validation from the glass-and-metal rectangles in our pockets is obviously at play in the group chat as it is on other social platforms. But it occurs at human scale, with distinct reactions from a handful of friends for a minorly funny joke, rather than at the alien scale of behemoth platforms, with likes endlessly mounting for a Facebook post in which you dunk on the president
Making online friends isn’t novel or new. Platforms like Tumblr, Reddit, message boards, and their cohort have been conduits for people all over to connect for the past three decades. I never got into those, possibly because they seemed more difficult to crack — they require a lot of specific etiquette to follow and tailored searches to make sense of. And I never really felt the need to find new communities online outside of my daily in-person interactions. I never felt the urge to be online back in the pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram days, in the way that I am now.
A friends-only Slack channel hit a sweet spot of nostalgia and interaction that speaks to me, perhaps because it resembles the absolutely silly AOL chatrooms of my youth. It’s made me realize how much more comfortable I feel online rather than in offline social situations, in which I sometimes have trouble expressing myself. And it’s helped me find some new friends, the first new ones I’ve made in quite a while.
Why “weak ties” matter a lot right now
As the shelter-in-place orders began around the country, I found myself a little lonelier than I expected to feel. I mean, I knew being locked in my apartment and not being able to see friends and family or enjoy the city was going to be sad. I compensated for this sudden emptiness by texting and FaceTiming people more often, Zooming my workouts, and cooking at home more. But I still felt this dull absence of something that I couldn’t quite place.
Checking in with my friends on Slack made me happier — it dissipated that sense of absence, in ways that FaceTiming my friends and family couldn’t. And I couldn’t figure out why that was until my roommate pointed out to me the concept of “weak ties.”
Weak ties are what’s known in sociology as low-stakes, casual relationships. They’re the friendly bonds you form with people you may share a coffee or subway commute with, or see regularly at an exercise class.
These people aren’t your best friends, or even friends you ever spend time with outside of these small instances. But their presence in your life is important.
The theory revolves around the general idea that your network of strong bonds — your best friends and family members — can be limiting when it comes to getting important or valuable information. Because people in your close circle of friends likely have a lot of similar beliefs and relationships as you, the conversations they start, while valuable, tend to follow similar patterns. People that you know well enough to be casual friends but not much more could give you a slightly different, equally valuable perspective that’s lying just beyond the outskirts of your network.
The weak ties theory has been used by sociologists primarily in the context of explaining professional networks — the idea being that your mom or best friend probably won’t know about a job opening you’re perfect for, but your acquaintance that shares your love of Game of Thrones but works in accounting instead of, say, journalism might know someone who knows someone.
Weak ties have also been shown to make people happier. A 2014 study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, in which they studied interactions between students, found that having and interacting with more “weak ties” boosted people’s moods more than exclusively keeping a circle of friends close-knit. They studied interactions between students and found that their subjects were happier and had a better sense of belonging when they interacted with more classmates than usual.
“The current results highlight the power of weak ties, suggesting that even social interactions with the more peripheral members of our social networks contribute to our well-being,” the study’s authors, Gillian M. Sandstrom and Elizabeth W. Dunn, wrote.
I didn’t realize how much the pandemic effectively severed my weak ties, like those with my acquaintances at the office, my favorite barista, and the people I work out with. As soon as I began to quarantine, I made a conscious effort to keep in touch with my best friends and family, but I didn’t really do the same with the people I know much more casually.
I guess didn’t know the first place start to connect with them — social distancing and shelter-in-place measures have all but eliminated spaces that I would regularly interact with them, from the coffee shop to the gym.
There are no real guidelines for how to behave during a pandemic other than to make sure the people you’re closest to are doing okay. And there’s no directive to reach out on Instagram and, say, chat up that one person you smile at at the gym because it’ll improve your mental health.
For now, the Slack chat I’m in is the closest I can get to reconnecting those crucial weak ties. While I’m not interacting with the same people that were in my life before, when I chat with my new friends, I’m happy. There isn’t any pressure to answer every message or to go deep about the existential dread of the situation we’re in or the precautions we’re taking. All we need to chat about are the lighter, more enjoyable things that exist around the edges of our lives.
For me, in this moment, my private friends-only Slack is a place to find laughs while talking about which Survivor contestants we dislike, who our favorite recurring Good Wife characters are, what we think of the lesbian cyclops cop in Onward, Bravo shows, movies we should watch, new songs we want to dance to, or any bizarre thing that we’ve bought during quarantine — like, in my case, a 5-pound bag of Haribo gummy bears.
The Slack chatroom is a respite from the continuous and inevitable onslaught of bad news. Having these conversations is part of a rudimentary fantasy, in which normal life still exists somewhere. A normal life where we can be bothered or entertained by silly things again. And if that ever materializes, I hope my new online friends will still be part of it.