ARCHIVE PIECE: Why WhatsApp is basically Irishness in tech form

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD JANUARY 30

 

The GAA has urged clubs to stop using WhatsApp, apparently over concerns about data protection, privacy and child safety. This is, I think, very bad news.

That’s not because club members now won’t have any way of letting each other know who can’t make training tonight or what time the Under-10s blitz is on this Saturday – there’s always texts, emails, phone-calls or, God forbid, face-to-face conversation.

No, it’s bad news because Irish people, including the half-million or so GAA members, absolutely love WhatsApp. It’s almost as if this messaging system was specifically invented for us, so neatly does it dovetail with the national character and modes of behaviour.

WhatsApp is essentially a pub conversation moved online: one of the greatest contributions this nation has ever made to the well-being of mankind. Graham Norton wrote a hilarious section in his 2015 memoir, Life and Loves of a He-Devil, about Irish pub conversations. The bit about a group sitting around the table, discussing farm gates under various sub-headings, will have you wiping away tears of laughter and then nodding in proud recognition.

WhatsApp is an online version of that, only better because this one never ends and there’s no danger of it degenerating into rancour, regret or slurred incomprehensibility, as is the way with many actual pub conversations.

That’s the problem with them, ironically: the drink. Initially it loosens tongues, removes inhibitions and makes everyone feel happy and friendly and, most of all, loquacious. Should it go on too long, though, it can get boring, spiteful, pointless or depressing, leaving you with a physical and metaphorical bad head the next morning.

But WhatsApp circumvents all that unpleasantness. It removes the negative effects of alcohol and leaves you with only the best, core elements of a great Irish pub conversation: people talking shite about everything and nothing.

To demonstrate the diversity and breadth of WhatsApp conversations, recent ones I’ve been involved in have included: Catherine Noone; the 17th century Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor; why slackers were so lazy back in the 1990s that even sitting around smoking dope seemed like just too much work; the Corona virus and/or germ-masks; when did words like “moron” and “idiot” move from being medical terms to more-or-less socially acceptable ways of describing, well, morons and idiots; Paw Patrol; fiftieth birthdays; the Tipperary man who co-founded Boca Juniors football club in Buenos Aires; the death of Elizabeth Wurtzel; an upcoming christening; the tractor rally in Dublin; Nicolas Cage’s first appearance on British television; and why Margaret Atwood would ironically be displeased by the cult-like groupthink which has sprung up around her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

It’s brilliant. In fact, it’s basically the only reason I finally upgraded from a Nokia “dumb” phone to the slightly-less-dumb new version, which has WhatsApp installed (if little else commonly found on a proper smartphone).

Of course, it’s not all perfect. Or rather, people aren’t perfect, and many of us have tics and habits and propensities on WhatsApp which seem fine to us but might be really bloody annoying to everyone else. There’s an unspoken and unwritten etiquette about how to behave, but of course the problem is that, when something is unspoken and unwritten, not everyone gets the message.

So one person’s oversharing, for example, is another person’s “I feel the need to be honest and tell my story”. What one user considers a reasonable number of messages to post every day – say, four or five thousand – may seem a mite excessive to friends and family.

And what about the awkwardness of leaving a WhatsApp group? Everyone else in the group can see that you’ve gone, and now they’ve started discussing why…ugh, ground swallow me up, please.

Or the mild embarrassment of deleting a message? It could just be that you made a typo or your hand slipped and pressed Send before you’d finished, but others don’t know that. They think that you’d posted a horrific tirade in support of barbed-wire, booby-trapped fences along the border or something, and are now reconsidering your suitability as a member of the “Jane Austen & Afternoon Tea Appreciation Society” WhatsApp group.

And let’s not even start of sending a message intended for your brother or friend – a foul-mouthed but funny Richard Prior clip on YouTube, say – to the local church committee or flower-arranging club that you’ve recently joined.

Possibly the single most irritating WhatsApp habit is when someone – for instance, the hurling coach – gives details of an upcoming event, and specifically requests that only those who can’t make it reply to his post. Cue the flood of messages with smiley-face emojis, thumbs up graphics, redundant “Thanks Joe” comments, and someone asking is this where the Jane Austen & Afternoon Tea Appreciation Society arranges their next meet-up. What?

For all that, though, WhatsApp is the best thing to hit Ireland – and the most Irish thing to hit Ireland – since sliced bread dipped in Guinness, served by Dermot Bannon, while a U2 song plays in the background. Send me a message only if you agree with this.


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