WU group chats and the online bystander effect

| Senior Forum Editor

Group chats have always been a tool for students to engage with each other’s ideas, memes and general woes. In a semester where more students than ever are taking classes away from campus, and where it’s harder than ever to feel a part of the campus community, group chats are particularly connective. That being said, for all the fun that can arise from hundreds of lonely, burned-out students occupying the same public forum, the unfettered access to others’ opinions can also create opportunities for insensitivity and harm. In my experience, that harm is treated much differently in chats than when it is spoken in person, and despite the audience of hundreds, ignorance in GroupMes can often be met with silence, deflection and bystander behavior. 

Group chats at Wash. U. have always been a space for contention, and in some cases, blatant bigotry. In 2017, sexist messages in a “WashU Guys 2021” GroupMe, as well as homophobic messagesin a “WashU PoLITics” GroupMe, led to outrage against the SU Senate candidate who made the comments; they later withdrew from the race. A year later, racist messages in the Umrath Hall first floor GroupMe elicited a response from then-Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White and a demonstration by Asians and Pacific Islanders Demanding Justice (APIDJ) in the Umrath lobby. And while not every insensitive comment in a Wash. U. GroupMe becomes such a campus-wide conversation, many of us can probably think of moments in the chats we are a part of where insensitive comments were made and people, particularly marginalized communities, walked away hurt. 

If it’s true that large group chats can be a place to uplift one another and create community, it must follow that these spaces are capable of doing damage and normalizing insensitivity, and they do so often. In those cases, it’s often the burden of those on the receiving end of the insensitivity to correct it. When these issues arise, they must be treated as problems that need to be addressed, not unfortunate products of an otherwise fun group chat. 

These dynamics aren’t unique to group chats. Truthfully, being a member of a marginalized group often entails being the only person in the classroom, the “friendly debate” or the Zoom call to defend yourself or your identity. That act of speaking out is exhausting enough as is, but even more so in a space where you know that hundreds of eyes have seen the insensitive message or comment and chosen not to respond. I’ve been in multiple group chats where the energy and engagement immediately slows once it’s time to stop discussing memes and address problematic speech or opinions. When someone in the Class of 2023 GroupMe changes their username to a Chinese name and likens Black people to orangutans and gorillas—troll or otherwise—it should not fall on Black people to explain the harm that causes, nor should it be brushed aside as a quirky byproduct of an “edgy” chat. Ignorance is not without harm, even in the digital landscape.

The impersonal nature of online interactions can both exaggerate and understate the perceived impact of the things we text or chat. But if you really mean the things that you post—if you care about the issues in the infographics that you repost, or about the people and circumstances described in the pleas that you retweet, if you care about allyship—then consider speaking up  and saving your peers the constant trouble of having to do so.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.