Group Chat Theory as an operating model for change.

If the American Revolution took place today, it would probably be organized by group chat.

Among the most ambitious and connected people I know, group chats today play a similar role to coffee houses in 19th century Vienna, salons in Enlightenment Paris, and secret societies throughout history. They are the gathering places where like-minded individuals socialize, scheme, and change history.

Being a bit of a nerd, I am developing an idea called Group Chat Theory. Group Chat Theory posits that group chats are powerful nodes of change in the world today. I call Group Chat Theory an operating theory of change, as opposed to an abstract theory of change, because it is tied to specific technologies and forms of communication. Group Chat Theory predicts that the revolutions, movements, counter-insurgencies, social projects, and companies that shape the near future will probably be organized on group chats. 

Thus, there are practical implications of Group Chat Theory for ambitious people. Want to set up a space colony? Reform the maritime sector? Advance a new religion or philosophy? Find others who share the interest, and set up a group chat.

I define group chat as a digital venue where a defined group of people communicate in real-time through a messaging-like function. This could be a group text on your phone, a group chat in Messenger or X, or a group chat on a mobile messaging platform like Signal, Wiki, or Telegram. It also could include the chat on a collaboration platform like Slack. Group chats can range in size from two or three people to thousands of participants.

If social media is equivalent to the agora, the public open meeting spaces in Ancient Greece, then group chats are the caves and taverns where secret groups would meet with less visibility.

The implications of Group Chat Theory are not necessarily positive. Group chats can be tools of terrorism and disinformation as easily as they can be used for technology startups and social causes. The messaging platform Telegram was used by the terrorists who recently attacked a concert hall in Russia, killing 137 people. Obviously, this was a horrific use of group chat. Telegram also was used as an organizing node for Hong Kong student protests in 2019, and many of us would view this as a positive use of the platform. The same qualities that make group chats useful to resisting authoritarianism also make it useful for nefarious purposes. Group Chat Theory does not take this lightly.

While under Covid lockdowns, I took a fiction workshop by Zoom as part of a broader effort to stay sane during that crazy period. At the end of the program, my instructor challenged me to turn my flimsy workshop submission into a full draft novel, writing 80,000 words in one-hundred days. It was just the challenge I needed at the time, and a hundred days later I had written a complete but TERRIBLE draft novel called “Sons of Liberty.” It was about an apprentice at the Boston Gazette who got swept up in the Sons of Liberty propaganda battles that preceded the Boston Massacre. There also was gay romance subplot (how gay is Sons of Liberty?!).

In the process of writing the book, I studied the day-by-day happenings in Boston between 1765-1770. I imagined the sensory experience of walking the cobblestone streets of Colonial Boston, feeling the social and political tensions of the time, and working the Gazette’s printing press at the behest of Benjamin Edes. I wrote a number of scenes set in the fetid basement of the Green Dragon Tavern, where Sons of Liberty members would socialize and scheme over tankards of ale. This is where the Boston Tea Party was later hatched. Today, people refer to the Green Dragon Tavern as the headquarters of the American Revolution.

At one point, I thought about adding time-travel to present day Boston, comparing the grievances and atmosphere of then to today. But then January 6th happened, which I opposed, and that felt like a very bad idea. But the thought experiment made me realize something: Contemporary equivalents would use groups chats the way Sons of Liberty used public houses like the Green Dragon Tavern — as the nucleus of socializing, organizing, and sharing ideas. 


One of the implications of Group Chat Theory is that historical changes like those brought by the American Revolution will happen faster and on a more global basis. On group chat, communication happens in real-time, asynchronously, and on a 24/7 basis. People don’t need to be in the same location to socialize and organize. All content is mediated digitally, which means there’s some digital memory even if messages are set to disappear. These attributes make group chats different from in-person meetings like those at the Green Dragon Tavern.

From a “theory” view, Group Chat Theory can be seen as an application of Network Theory, since it centers on social networks, and Elite Theory, which is the idea that small groups of talented and connected individuals can have a disproportionate impact on the course of history. A Group Chat Theory view of history would focus less on any “great man” than on the group, mission, or conspiracy as mediated by digital communication.

A number of my friends believe small groups of men change the world, but it is worth noting that Group Chat Theory is not gendered. In fact, women historically have played key roles in salons and movements and are just as likely to participate in group chats. Consider Gertrude Stein’s Paris Salon, Pamela Harriman’s hostessing, or Virginia Woolf’s role in the Bloomsbury Group. If the Seneca Falls Movement was organized today — this was the first woman's rights convention in America — it would probably have a Slack channel or Signal group for its main organizers.

To be clear, Group Chat Theory is not saying that in-person meetings and physical spaces no longer matter. In fact, the recipe to drive change today is through a combination of group chat and in-person interactions. The combination of 24/7 digital communication and periodic in-person meetings is powerful. The group chat keeps the group rolling during the off-time between in-person interactions. The group chat is the nucleus.

Among powerful groups started in the 20th century, such as the World Economic Forum and the Bilderberg Group, in-person gatherings were the nucleus and still are. Digital interaction is ancillary at best. Based on Group Chat Theory, I would predict that equivalent groups started in the 21st century will combine group chats with in-person events. 

In my early 20s, I spent a year working for the billionaire Koch brothers (boo hiss cringe!). One of my assignments was to study theories of social change to inform their philanthropic giving. This was decades ago, but the model they adopted was based on Freidrich Hayek’s theory of social change based on his essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” Hayek’s theory is like trickle-down economics but for intellectual work. He posited that scholars and intellectuals are at the top of the pyramid of change, while politicians and others are all downstream. Thus, the Koch Foundation and its affiliates focused its charitable efforts on scholars and universities. That’s where they saw the most leverage. By contrast, the foundation invested very little in cultural efforts, which might have been different if they had been influenced by, say, Antonio Gramsci instead of Hayek.

Today, if I were advising foundations, I might point them to Group Chat Theory. Consider investing in groups of talented and connected individuals who share a mission to positively influence the world, who are connected both digitally and in-person.

Circling back to the American Revolution, a friend pointed out that a contemporary Paul Revere would send a message by group chat rather than riding his horse in haste to warn his compatriots. YO, THE BRITISH ARE COMING!

To the British and Loyalists, the Sons of Liberty and other supporters of the American revolution were insurrectionists and maybe even terrorists. In the eyes of most Americans today, they were patriots and, in some cases, founding fathers. History is complex like that. I’m not encouraging anyone to start a revolution, but I do conjecture that future ones will involve group chat.


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