Entertainment What'sapp links families in amazing, free, frustrating ways

The messages came at odd times. They landed in someone’s morning, but never in mine. At first, they set off a rush of anxiety. I had been primed to expect nothing good when the phone jangles, rings or pings.

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LONDON — I remember exactly when the messages began in earnest.

In January 2017, on a visit back to Guyana, the former British colony where I was born, I casually revealed to my distant cousins that I was on WhatsApp.

I had spent years away, going to college and navigating adulthood in New York. We promised to stay in touch. We were family, bonded. No separations could break that.

Soon after I returned home to New York, the first message landed with a “PING!” at full volume, a few hours after I had drifted off, exhausted from a hectic night in the newsroom.

It read: “Gm.”

At first I was startled. I was in a different time zone and worked weird hours. No one had contacted me from the 592 country code that late before via text. I snatched the glowing phone off a chair beside the bed and tapped out a reply.

“Hiya. Everything good?”



I stared at my phone almost cockeyed for a good long while, waiting for the true purpose of the message to reveal itself. But that was it: “Gm.”

The messages came at odd times. They landed in someone’s morning, but never in mine. At first, they set off a rush of anxiety. I had been primed to expect nothing good when the phone jangles, rings or pings.

After I moved away from my mother’s home in Brooklyn, picking up the phone meant being rocked by news of death, accidents, floods and other calamities. In Guyana, the sun is so hot it bites at your skin, the food is so good it puts you in a carb coma — and people can leave this earth in dramatic fashion.

Sometimes while riding without a helmet on a moped or on the back of a donkey cart. Sometimes as a passenger in an SUV facing an oncoming minibus crammed with people and careening madly down the wrong side of the road (the right lane) and trying to switch to the right side (the left) at the last minute.

It makes for memorable funerals where men drink XM or El Dorado rum, slamming dominoes and sharing stories about what a bastard the deceased was. Where women wail and toss their bodies into the hole at the cemetery, or faint — with flair — on the coffin.

But such losses are devastatingly final.

I learned of my mother’s death from a call to Miami that struck me dumb for five hours — trauma that was strangely similar to the time a sleeping dog bit me over the eye and I went blind for a day. I learned my maternal grandmother would never wake up again when my sister sobbed hysterically at me over the phone — she was alone with the body in Brooklyn.

New technology doesn’t dull the shocking thud of bad news; it just speeds it through a slick new medium. But now, I got:



“Good day”

Full stop.

The only obvious solution to the tyranny of “Gm” was to change the alert sound to a gentler “swoosh.”

When I moved to London, I flagged the five-hour time difference to my cousins. Didn’t matter. The messages popped up on Facebook.


Sometimes — rarely — our schedules aligned and we communed via a phone call. Tell me something good, I’d say. If not, tell me something almost worthy of the encryption: Whose house burned to the ground. Who failed O level exams. What skulduggery is leaking from City Hall.

We’ve always had powerful stories to tell. My grandmother entranced the children with tales of Brer Anansi, the clever spider from African folklore. My grandfather read aloud newspaper stories rife with intrigue and horror. An opposition politician’s head was found in a car trunk. A woman tried to pour hot oil down the ear of her cheating husband while he slept. The Rev. Jim Jones sent more than 900 souls to the Promised Land with poisoned Flavor Aid.

But now, the family vine says:

“Beautiful woman of God!!”

“Enjoy your day!!”

By calling, I had raised the stakes. A flood of missed calls began appearing on my muted phone at work.

“You called me?”


“What’s happening?”


“Oh. I’m at work.”


“Everything ok?”


Late last year, I returned for a visit and reconnected with a cousin who had jousted on WhatsApp. I tried to talk cricket, Messi, Bae. But the smart aleck who had a riposte for every comment online plopped down on a sofa and disappeared into her phone.

I peered at her sideways, and it dawned on me: We are different species.

I’m a former letter writer whose handwriting admittedly now looks as if someone had dipped a beetle into ink and let it loose on the page. She prefers texting someone in the same room. I left discombobulated.

But soon after I returned home, the patter resumed and — lo — something approaching a conversation unfolded:



“Adopt me”


“People adopt grown children”

“But aren’t you … in university??”


“You’re fighting with your mum, right”


At some point, my number made its way to relatives so distant I would not recognize them if they passed me on the street.

“Gm’s” piled up. So did Christmas and New Year’s greetings. Epic GIFs and memes: shiny angels, naked, leering cherubs, dancing Goofys.

Destructive thoughts surfaced: I wish someone would just ask me for money.

I have to rethink this, I thought. This is family. My WhatsApp threads were a lifeline across the ocean. Selfishness can have no place here.People are searching the World Wide Web to find the perfect e-card. For me. Besides, no one has broken the news of a death here. Not yet.

Most important, after years of receiving shattering news by phone, should I not revel in the banal glory of a “Gm”?

Then, the chain messages landed.

Most had a blessing and a curse: Send it to 20 others — or else.

Blessings I’m thankful for. But chain messages are the leeches of social media: They feed off loyalty, friendship and guilt.

I lost it.

Whole sentences were typed. Exclamation points were hurled. Threats were made. You can’t choose your relatives, but surely you can block ‘em.

I saw a tweet from a woman in India who said she was breaking up with her family’s WhatsApp group, citing an “incredible amount of unverified news.” Some described it as “savage.”

I call it deliverance.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

YONETTE JOSEPH © 2018 The New York Times

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