Of the dozens of groups that most of WhatsApp's more than 200 million users in India are a part of, none is more ubiquitous than the family group.
Family WhatsApp groups are great for seeing pictures of your cousin’s new dog or coordinating help during medical emergencies. But often, being in one is like having a permanent, boisterous family get-together in your pocket, where distant relatives lob “Good Morning” images at each other every single morning, swap sexist and racist jokes, peddle fake news, and share your embarrassing baby pictures. Inevitably, people argue, usually over someone’s lifestyle or career choices, and everyone piles on. And once in a while, you duke it out over Donald Trump or Narendra Modi with an aunt or uncle you haven’t seen in years.
You can’t choose your family group, just like you can’t choose your family — and some Indians say it’s driving them crazy.
Guardian columnist Nikesh Shukla wrote that he copes with it by forming a fringe group with only family members he gets along with, to complain about the ones they don’t. Kushal Shah, a software engineer in Seattle with family in India, said his coping mechanism is “putting the group on mute permanently and staying silent all the time.” Namaah K, a communications professional who lives in Mumbai, took a more drastic step: She left the family group entirely.
In October 2017, Namaah’s tweet about leaving her family WhatsApp group became national news in India after it went viral. Some publications called it “savage.” Namaah called it a “personal victory.”
She did it, she told BuzzFeed News, to take a stand. “If your convictions fall apart when it comes to taking on the people closest to you, they aren’t really convictions,” she said.
On Twitter, many Indians cheered Namaah.
Some chimed in with screenshots of their own parting messages. But her family was bewildered. An aunt sent a voice note defending the messages shared in the group. And another called the group a “safe family space” and said that she didn’t understand Namaah’s “overreaction.”
In India, family WhatsApp groups have become an extension of families themselves. For the first time in their lives, different generations of Indians are finding themselves mashed together in an online chat room, and younger Indians say they’re struggling to figure out what the dynamic for interaction should be.
“I’m really close to my parents, but I only have a tenuous connection with my relatives,” said a writer from Mumbai in her twenties who didn’t want to be named. “A family WhatsApp group, in my opinion, is just a conduit to get into each other’s lives and decision-making, and I don’t like that.”
“There is certainly some charm in knowing that every single family member and extended relative is, well, alive,” Tejas Kinger, a marketing professional from Chennai, told BuzzFeed News. “But it quickly fades away in the barrage of sexist jokes, casual xenophobia, and unverified facts.”
“A family WhatsApp group is basically real-life Indian family values playing out in a virtual space. The group is about maintaining a generational dominance.”
Experts say that the tension some Indians experience in their family WhatsApp groups exists because of how most Indian families are structured. “The traditional Indian family system is patriarchal and ageist,” A.F. Mathew, sociologist and associate professor of humanities and liberal arts at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, told BuzzFeed News. “And that’s a dynamic that’s reflected in most family groups on WhatsApp as well.”
Urban, internet-connected Indians say that WhatsApp groups are digital reincarnations of these joint families that they just aren’t used to living in any longer. “I’m absolutely not used to having to stay connected with and explaining myself to any other family members besides my parents,” said the writer from Mumbai. “That dynamic is so alien to me.”
Mathew thinks that the friction that some young people experience in their family WhatsApp groups is because some older family members try to reinforce conservative ideas and values in the groups through sexist humor and propagandistic forwards. “A family WhatsApp group is basically real-life Indian family values playing out in a virtual space. The group is about maintaining a generational dominance.”
Saumya Baijal, a 31-year-old advertising executive from Delhi, told BuzzFeed News about how she “pushed back respectfully” against an argument that her grandmother, a staunch right-wing supporter, was making in the family group. “It was hard,” said Baijal. “At my end, I was trying to negotiate our power dynamic because of her age. At her end, she was trying to reinstate it because of her age.”
Baijal said that meeting her grandmother in real life after this incident was awkward, but it ultimately had a positive resolution. “Somehow, my grandmother started regarding me not just as her grandchild, but as an adult — as an equal,” she said. “Thanks to our WhatsApp argument, the tone and tenor of our real-life conversations with each other changed and became a little, well, grown-up, which was incredible and not something that I thought would ever happen.”
Namaah, on the other hand, said she was “thrown out of a bunch of ancillary family WhatsApp groups” after she publicly exited the main one. She fretted about facing her family members in real life after becoming Twitter-famous for her exit, but said her family must have been equally anxious. “They were going out of their way to be nice to me, as if to prove that they weren’t really the xenophobic, misogynist, fake-news-spreading people I had accused them of being in the WhatsApp group,” she said.
“There’s an incredible amount of pressure to simply be in these groups whether you want to or not.”
While the generation gap does play a role in heightening tensions, it’s not the primary reason — disagreeing over liberal or less traditional values is the real point of contention for many family WhatsApp groups.
“I’m the kind of person who is going to step in and say, ‘Hey, it’s nice you had a chuckle, but here’s why what you shared in the group is problematic,’” said Namaah.
“My tolerance levels for sexist humor shared in these groups is dangerously low,” said Baijal.
Some Indians like Shah, the software engineer from Seattle, deal with uncomfortable content or conversations in their family groups with radio silence because they don’t want to rock the boat much. For weeks, said Shah, he’s completely quiet in all of the handful of family WhatsApp groups he’s in. “People don’t like it,” he said, but added that he doesn’t really have a choice. “Sometimes, I’ll wish a family member on their birthday in the group, and someone else will get pissed off because I didn’t wish them,” he said. Shah now messages people privately or calls them. “I don’t want to get into trouble with my family,” he said.
Ultimately, according to Baijal, it’s hard to be an outlier. “Culturally, there’s a lot of posturing to maintain the traditional image of the big, happy Indian family,” she said. “Nobody likes the feminists, the social justice warriors, the party poopers who constantly call people out in any WhatsApp group,” said Baijal.
And “if you leave your family group, it’s looked at as a terrible thing to do,” Mathew, the sociologist, said. “It’s like choosing to leave your family.”
This is the same reason why Namaah thinks her tweet went so viral on the Indian internet — because family WhatsApp groups are now inseparable from the notion of the modern Indian family itself. “There’s an incredible amount of pressure to simply be in these groups whether you want to or not,” she said.
When Kinger quit his family group in November out of sheer frustration with forwards and fake news, “they perceived this as a sign of ‘not wanting to be a part of the family,’” he said. “So they added me back. I guess some battles are not worth fighting.”
“Being in an Indian family group on WhatsApp is pretty much like being at an Indian wedding,” said Baijal. “It’s probably OK if you don’t say much and just stand in a corner. The important thing is that you are there.”