Gaze upon the home screen of your smartphone, and it likely resembles a virtual graveyard of long untapped icons for long unused chat apps.
Perhaps you downloaded them on optimistic whims or through the nudging of your kids or the urging of ephemeral hype cycles that commonly attend the launch of such Next Big Chat Things. (Guilty.) You likely have at least three or more dormant apps that fall into this category — apps like iMessage, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or Snapchat, and maybe even an unopened copy of Signal you keep behind glass, should a certain projectile ever hit a certain fan.
But if you're a teenager, you’re likely using each of these apps on the regular, plus a handful of fresh-faced newcomers.
And you’re not just thumbing out your day into old-fashioned text messages. You’re livechilling.
Or livechillin’ — I’m honestly not sure. None of my friends will agree to livechill with me.
“Why would I want to do that?” one asked.
“I actually have no idea,” I confessed.
Even for the most tech-hungry, Jetsons-weaned, Gen-Xers among us — like me, who proudly stands astride the digital and analog divide of the late ‘70s, and knows full well the slow crawl of promise toward reality — the notion of committing to a group video chat, for no other reason than to hang out, seems a little extra.
After all, the labor and stress of the average conference call seems, as the kids might say, totes inapropes when applied to an adult hangout. If there's no agenda, what are we meeting about? Can I go back to my desk/bed?
Teenagers have no such aversion to the shared experience and expression of idle time, so livechilling was really just an idea waiting for its moment to arrive. And that moment would be now. In 2015, Pew reported that of the 73 percent of teens having smartphones, 59 percent of them were video chatting with their friends — though only 7 percent were doing it daily.
But in the two years since, phones have gotten faster, data plans more generous, Wi-Fi signals more robust and available, and we’ve seen a fresh boom of group video chat apps like Tribe, Houseparty, ooVoo, Airtime, or (the Boston-bred) Fam
And as an assurance that this is a thing, bigger names are getting in on the conversation as well. While Apple hasn’t sorted out a group function for FaceTime and Google’s Hangouts hold court as the desktop preference for group chatters, Facebook has integrated group video chat into its mobile Messenger app, and Fam’s claim to instant fame is that it can host group chats directly within iMessage.
Group video chats split the screen of now-traditional chat apps like Skype into a chatty grid of authorized participants. (Imagine FaceTime undergoing mitosis.) The most popular of these apps can host anywhere from eight (Tribe, Houseparty) to 10 (Airtime) to 12 (ooVoo) to 50 (Facebook... of course) of your closest homies. Smart audio features regulate the racket between participants, mimicking the subtle ways groups use acoustics to determine rhythms in conversation.
Apps like Fam also find ways to take advantage of this virtual hangspace by allowing users to play rounds of trivia quizzes or games involving shared doodles. And Fam and apps like Tumblr offshoot Cabana enhance the livechilling experience by integrating YouTube videos that can be watched within a chat. That twinge you feel is the whole thing starting to sound kind of reasonable after all.
Still, my friends will resist. The regular noise of online life seems like quite enough without rendering our friends into a grid of talking heads, competing for the microphone or glitching out when the signal wanes. Won’t leaps and bounds in virtual reality make group video chat seem hopelessly 1.0?
Maybe, but for now, the space being created by apps like Tribe and Fam feels entirely new — a gap left by a tectonic shift, or even what is known as a “third place.”
Group text messages, for instance, can be a bit bothersome (especially if you leave your notifications on), but as writer Donnie Kwak put in a blog post praising group chats as “the last safe space,” they can also allow the nuances of intimate group dynamics to operate freely: “As those concentric circles get smaller, the level of trust and candor will only grow bigger. Your closest tribe comprises people who can most relate to you.”
Factor in the sense of presence that video can offer (provided you have a decent connection), and suddenly, that fragile intimacy seems a little stronger, the hangout feels a little more real. Group video chat is a forum still finding its footing, but even this early on, it’s already harnessed the energy of a limitless resource: the boredom of teenagers.Michael Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org