Why You Need to Abandon Virtual
Rooms and Reinvent Your Group Chats

Bledsoe on Digital Culture
Shifts in a Post-Texting Era

Cathie Bledsoe is a digital safety educator from Fort Wayne, Indiana. She teaches kids, parents, and educators how to stay safe online, and she’s vividly passionate about her work. During our conversation with Cathie, she explained how her renewed texting life not only kept her friends’ lives more private, but also initiated a digital culture shift that none of them were expecting.

In the wake of toilet paper droughts and Animal Crossing fixations, Cathie knew she and her friends needed a better way to stay connected. Everyone was feeling lonely, and in her words, putting it on Facebook just didn’t feel right. So, despite the virtual landscape of public chat rooms and video calls with strangers, Cathie and her friends went back to texting.

“Most of us have been friends for 17 or 18 years, but in 2020, our relationships got so deep. We laughed together, cried together, and shared our feelings. We used technology to vent in a safe space,” Cathie said.

Since the original group of friends had met through their daughters being in Girl Scouts, and because entering the group meant you were unlikely to ever leave, the group chat was aptly named, “Girl Scouts Mafia,” or “GS Mafia.” There’s something intimate about the space they talk in, without that feeling of any number of strangers and chatbots hovering over your shoulder to listen. This was a familiar space with a new kind of culture, where they could grow and grieve and check in on each other.

Activity in the group chat fell into a rhythm of sharing moments of their lives and laughing over bad jokes, but the group never sticks to a pattern. This way of communicating has kept them on their toes.

Cathie shared, “The other day, my friend got a good deal on eggs, and I said, ‘If you get a great deal, get me some.’ She runs to my house, rings the bell, and she’s standing there with a dozen eggs. My son opens the door, and she says, ‘You took too long to open the door so now you have to hear a bad joke.’ She tells a bad joke and right after she leaves, he’s still standing there in the front hallway with the eggs. My husband walks in and says, ‘What’s wrong?’ and my son says, ‘This crazy lady came up and gave me eggs and a joke. I don’t know why she gave me eggs!’”

Now, the group sends spontaneous invitations to the farmer’s market or lets the group know they’re hiding in a corner at Panera if they need a break from the outside world. As impulsive as the GS Mafia culture has become, the group chat grounds them.

“During COVID, we all shared feelings, and we all learned from each other,” Cathie reflected, “I don’t think we could be any closer now.”

The group of friends has always been an anchor for her. When she moved to Fort Wayne with her husband 22 years ago, Cathie didn’t know anyone in the area. She met these like-minded women, and when the kids grew out of Girl Scouts, technology helped keep the moms connected.

“We started because we had Girl Scouts in common, but with technology, we found out everything we had in common,” she said. Cathie also added that her friend group ranges from those in their 30s to those in their 60s, but that has only added flavor to their dynamic.

Despite scaring her son with a carton of eggs, Cathie’s friends have become known and loved by her whole family. The GS Mafia chat has become a place to brag on their kids’ achievements, talk about parenting, and share the load of difficult life events.

“My family has even accepted that these are my sisters. Technology helped us through good times and bad times,” she said.

According to Cathie, some days end with 500-600 text messages having been shared that day. On other days, it’s quiet. If she’s too busy to read entire conversations that she’s missed, Cathie will ask for the bullet points of the day so she can stay up to date. She enjoys the way they’ve curated their digital space because there’s no pressure to read every text or reply in a certain amount of time.

This is one cultural shift that Cathie and her friends are happy to keep around after quarantine ends and they can spend time together in person. However, most of her friends’ profile photos are of her friends wearing masks, all sent on the same day when they missed each other’s faces in 2020.

The main opposition of the ironclad Girl Scouts Mafia friend group is phone storage. They often text so much between the eight of them that their devices will run out of space for the conversation.

Even if they have to delete their history, it doesn’t bother the group. They’re always moving forward, allowing room for hard conversations and disagreements, deeply held secrets, and true listening, as it can’t be achieved in public chat rooms online.

“Technology can be used in the way it’s intended. It not only connected us, but it also connected our families and gave us all our safe space to grow and learn from each other,” she explained.

As an experienced digital safety educator, Cathie believes that this is how technology should be used: to strengthen relationships and grow a community of support with the people you know and trust.

“We need to have real relationships even if we’re using technology to build them,” Cathie said, “It shouldn’t be with strangers who have no buy-in. My little group knows each other. We’ve had our ups and downs, we’ve argued about stuff, we’ve cried together, we’ve laughed together, and we’ve done this with technology and in the real world. We have a commitment to each other.”

What do you think? Is there more value in meaningful and private conversations than public transparency, where everyone can watch? Is technology designed to broadcast our lives or nurture community? Let us know and request other blog topics: @KosciuskoConnect.