How to Banish Your Group Chat Ghost

Exorcism 101

Photo: Shutterstock // Icon: Jack Koloskus
miss type

Welcome to Miss Type, a column about etiquette in the digital age. This week: How do you politely remove an eavesdropper from a group text?

Since the dawn of humankind, we have felt the need to connect double digit times per day in a chat bubble on iMessage in order to say stuff like, “have you guys heard about this new restaurant?” or send photos of vanity license plates. A wedding outfit crowdsourcing session, a Tinder profile screenshot, some industry-specific gossip — all of this is classic group chat fare. The group chat is often an Eden of laughs, camaraderie, and fellowship. This is why we are born: to log on and talk to each other.

Like our fair but suffering planet, a group chat is not a perfect place, and issues arise, growing out of control before anyone is aware (the only downside to technology is its accelerative properties). There is one issue that occurs with great frequency, a dangerous presence that grows in darkness and defiance of all that the group chat holds holy, and that is the group chat ghost. A group chat ghost can rupture intimacy. A group chat ghost, like those beetles that ruined the trees in the Midwest, will swarm in and kill the vibes almost overnight. Part of what is so tricky about eradicating a group chat ghost is that we don’t know everything we need to know about them: they exist off-site, off-line, off-world, in the twilight zone of texting. Fortunately, new strides are taken every day in science and technology and etiquette and confrontation, and knowing what we know about how group chat ghosts operate (passively) and behave (weirdly), there’s a way to get them out.

1. Paranormal activity

Wherein we determine what makes a ghost

A group chat is a text-based conversation that consists of four or more people (three people is not a group chat; three people is just three people). Often the parameters of a group chat are that of a group of friends or niche interest within a certain social scene. You know this, probably.

A group chat ghost is a member of a text-based group chat who no longer participates in the social activity of the group chat. A group chat ghost is not someone who is busy with work and lets eighty-some messages pile up during the day, or the week, if it’s a really busy week, nor are they someone who doesn’t participate but merely reacts to messages. Every person has a different role in the group chat — in every environment there are followers and leaders — and not everyone is the captain of conversation. But a less participatory member is not a ghost. A ghost haunts, looms, drifts on the margins. The ghost is neither seen nor heard, present in the chat’s roster but otherwise absent. Their name appears in a little bubble at the top of the chat, but they do not otherwise appear on an emotional or intellectual level in the conversation. They provide no opinions, nor engagement.

2. Benign presence

Wherein we determine what makes a ghost spooky

I have a very distinct memory of my mom going to see The Sixth Sense upon release in 1999, and her telling me that, and I quote, “the ghosts are mostly nice.” Though the prominence of Halloween culture may convince you that ghosts are malevolent, there are often helpful ghosts who just want to shut a cabinet door that’s been left open or watch HBO with you on Sunday night.

In turn, your group chat ghost might be doing you a favor and revealing to you an issue present in the group chat without coming right out and saying, “there’s an issue present in the group chat.” For instance, be honest: has there been drama? Did you and another member of your group chat get into it, either in the confines of the group chat or in-person, over, I don’t know, preferred chip brand or whether vaccines work? Then you don’t have a ghost, you have a conflict. That is a greater issue, one that transcends the bounds of text-based communication, and should probably be hashed out, or ideally, internalized so the group can go back to posting memes.

The other thing that might be happening is that your group chat is simply out of control. The terrain no longer supports life. What is the average number of messages that should occur in a group chat? Obviously this is something that will vary day to day based on news, gossip, and availability. If your group chat’s text per hour (TPH) rate on any normal day exceeds the group’s capacity, this might mean you have a group chat mayor (a person who has more or less put themselves in charge but has no real control), and you may soon find yourself with more than one ghost.

If your group chat is otherwise fine and functional, then your ghost might be a bad one. Like in the movie 13 Ghosts (I never saw 13 Ghosts but I have to imagine with that number of ghosts, most of them are bad). A bad ghost can cause trouble, but more importantly, a bad ghost will sow distrust in other members of the group, breeding paranoia and discomfort. The brunt of the responsibility, unfortunately, is on the non-ghost chat members. A ghost is see-through and translucent; they can’t be called on to complete a task. And remember what brainyquotes.com’s Maya Angelou said: “If someone shows you themselves, believe them.” If your group chat ghost has fallen off with the conversation, assume they’ve done that because they don’t want to be a part of it. There’s often not a more complicated reason than that.

People don’t like the idea of a group chat ghost for a number of reasons. We tend to think that the act of ghosting is cruel and impersonal, no matter how often a rebrand is forced upon us that it is actually “self-care” or “optimization” (?) to not reply to someone. The presence of a spirit, malevolent or otherwise, in a group chat makes the space “less safe,” perhaps, to gossip or divulge information. The balance of the virtual universe may feel disrupted or unsettled, and the longer that goes unaddressed, the more people may either flock to other group chats or let this one die out.

3. Banishment

Wherein ghost gone

There are two paths ahead when it comes to exorcizing a group chat ghost, a route for brave souls and a route for cowards.

The brave choice: direct(ish) confrontation

Think of a group chat like a small universe, a smattering of stars across a wide open sky. Naturally, some of those stars will be closer to each other than others. This is just how (space?) geography works. All of which is to say: there’s at least one person in your group chat who is closest to the ghost, who is possibly tethered to their bad behavior. It is upon that person to — and don’t get mad at me here — take one for the team and ask the group chat ghost in a direct, private text what their deal is and if they can just leave. It’s possible there’s a small issue that needs addressing, one better left for two people rather than a whole group, and it’s been to do that respectfully, rather than in the arena of the chat where everyone else is trying to figure out if they have bad heartburn or Celiac.

The coward’s choice: just make a new group chat

Cut your losses and move on. If there’s someone in a chat you don’t want there, it’s actually not your job to confront them and make the situation right. It’s your job to have as much fun as possible in your short, beleaguered life, so it’s time to make a new group chat for the actually fun people and leave the ghost behind in the dust. Should they decide to come back to life and ask why the group chat died, well, now is your chance to give them a taste of their own medicine (and not reply). It’s a cowardly move, but we live in an age of cowards.