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three is the optimal number of people in a group chat
Yes, only 3. Let me explain.
This might be one of those “obvious” things that people figure out quickly from experience but I’m going to be one of the first to formalize it through writing.
There are also those of you who may not have been in many chats so this will serve as a quick heuristic for you to understand how groups operate and where your efforts will be best rewarded.
Here’s a simple categorization:
0-2 Members → Not a group chat
3 Members → Peak group chat
4+ Members → Leaky chat
As we see, three is the minimum number of people required for a group chat. It also happens so that this is the ideal number. Why does it matter?
Why Good Group Chats Matter
I believe there’s a lot of information that we each have stored inside our heads that are largely inaccessible to other people. We contain so much knowledge and wisdom that we could use to help unblock each other. The hard problem is determining how to help these people with overlaps meet, perchance, for something to emerge from their collaboration.
Information can be communicated in few ways. A YouTube video is one. A written post like this is another. However, these are public mediums and in the public square, savvy players of long games will be scrupulous in their utterances in a way that’s incomprehensible to an outsider. A public square is an attack vector, and anyone sufficiently motivated can launch outcries against you (Emotionomics*). It’s the court of public opinion. Anything done without consideration for the optics is prime to get shredded.
So how do we leverage the internet’s power to connect us with other long game players? It still happens via the public square. Through good little interactions that add up over time which help people form positive impressions of each other. Positive impressions lead to warmth which further begets warmth. It’s a cascading effect that has massive implications.
Once sufficient interactions have been made and the time is appropriate, it can be valuable to make a group chat on shared interest, purpose or commonality of some sort. In these spaces, we have now moved to a more private venue. No longer are we at the crowded club, overflowing out into the sidewalk, but a low-key jazz bar, with a nice view of the evening skyline and ambient lighting. That is the fundamental difference between a platform and group chat. You're not straining to hear anymore. You’re not shouting in each other’s ears over the thumping music.
In such private settings with good company it’s easy to unwittingly perform knowledge transfers. This can be work-related, leisure related, or just serendipity-related. The topics of discussion amongst a group of photographer friends, for example, can range from the common–trying new things, sharing specific pictures/videos, critiquing each others’ work–to the esoteric–unique experiences that are not fit for the public space, obscure knowledge that most wouldn’t know (offline knowledge**), and more.
Therefore, a group of diverse experiences with common aim will be able to unblock each other creatively and push each other to be more ambitious, thoughtful or considerate. A balance emerges on every issue between the 3 on topics of light contention that can be clarifying to think through with the psychological safety of that more private setting.
What made Reddit a useful place to search for information that we collectively tacked “Reddit” on to the end of our searches? Anonymity. Anonymous and pseudo-anonymous domain experts are free to casually browse posts and chime in, while the similarly skilled/experienced will affirm them. This isn’t perfect because common misconceptions have a tendency of overruling the outnumbered domain experts but that’s because it’s a public forum. It's an inevitable feature of the medium but it’s easy to find good info if you can be discerning.
A small chat offers a similar level of psychological safety as anonymity, if not more. A group with two other people you like feels like a cohesive unit. You get 2 other viewpoints of a situation. You can bounce ideas off them. It’s not too much of a hassle to spin off a new topic or to catch up with the contents of a discussion.
Group chats are fun! Large ones can be chaotic brilliance, but they can also quickly become overwhelming. This brings me to our next point.
Each additional member beyond the third degrades the quality of the group and the internal obligation to keep up and respond declines. To put it more flatly, people will not care. The chat loses relevance.
The presence of many members makes it less likely for any single person to meaningfully contribute. The stakes are higher. There are more people to please, more people to engage with, more people to be wary of.
The degrees of separation between you and someone you wouldn’t want your message to reach increases as you add members to the group. One guy knows another guy, who knows another guy, who knows another guy who happens to be the person you wouldn’t want to have that information. Unfortunate. It comes with the territory of a larger chat though, hence leaky chat.
I made a visual (Figure A) that provides perspective on what happens to the number of lines of communication as more people are added. In software development, Brooks’ Law refers to the idea that adding more people to a project makes the project take longer. This is because everyone needs to be caught up and the team chemistry/synergy needs to be recalibrated. Additionally, you need to communicate more and that increases chances for miscommunications.
We can represent Brooke’s Law visually, which makes it clear how quickly overhead sneaks up on us. In Figure A, each person is a node. The lines connecting these nodes represent communication avenues. Just adding two more people more than triples the lines of communications (3 → 10). By the time you get to a 10 person chat, there are 45 possible lines of communication. That’s immense overhead. The dynamics of relationships with all these people is bound to fraught with sub-clashes and drama you’re not aware of because it didn’t happen in the leaky chat.
In a large-group-low-accountability-for-engagement context, social loafing occurs. “Someone else will get it,” becomes a prevailing thought pattern. The most fledgling of conversation starters can be entirely rejected by bad timing. That’s not conducive to vulnerability. It’s always got to be all hits, all the time. No misses. It makes for a decaying chat.
Group Chats That Don’t Exist
Given everything, this is not to say that large group chats are completely useless. There are situations where they’re called for and the default behavior of our messaging standards should be modified to reflect the changes I propose.
There is value in having temporary group chats that gracefully fold away after a predetermined expiration period. It’s an especially convenient middle ground when you need to scale things up but the group isn’t meant to be around for a long time.
To go even further on this point, perhaps synthesis tools will come up that automatically derive insights from the conversation and stores them as notes for each individual person for your reference. This is helpful metadata. One thing I never liked about archived group chats is that sometimes they would have pertinent information but the media or certain points would be hard to refer to again.
The space of “group chat” innovation is always in flux. New apps pop up on the scene every now and then so I like imagining the possibilities. Who knows maybe someone reading this will bring these ideas into something tangible and real.
*I coined this term just now.
**Offline knowledge is anything that hasn’t been digitized or indexed on the internet.
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