The first thing RJ McLaughlin did when he was back on campus in late August for his junior year at Ramapo College of New Jersey was make a group chat for himself and the three guys with whom he shares a dormitory apartment.
They had to come up with the perfect name. “The main thing is finding something that makes everybody happy and everybody laugh,” he said. “It has to be something that expresses who we are.”
Mr. McLaughlin, 20, is part of so many group chats that each one has to have a name. There is a family chat (“Wally World”), multiple friend chats (“‘The’ group chat™” and “The 4.5 horseman of the apocalypse”) and class chats (Clash, short for Clash of Clans, a game played during Critical Reading and Writing). “I would never have a group chat with no name and just numbers,” he said. “How would you differentiate them?” He added, “Leaving it blank would be like not naming a baby.”
Over time, he has developed a playbook for coming up with one. “I lead a brainstorming session, where everyone puts ideas into the chat,” he said. “Then we all vote on it.” The exercise is repeated to determine what the group’s picture will be. He estimated that he has come up with two dozen or more group chat names.
Mr. McLaughlin knows that in other groups, people will change the name arbitrarily, but that doesn’t fly when he’s in charge. “When you redo a group chat name, it has to be a democratic decision between everybody,” he said. The name has value, he said. “We have to protect it.”
For the dorm room chat, they settled on “Car Jack,” an anagram of their names (Anthony, John, Curtis and RJ). “The picture is also a picture of a car jack,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “It’s random and weird and expresses who we are.”
Even as people are very much gathering in real life again, the group chat continues to be a virtual town square where essential — and nonessential — communications occur. And naming them has become something of an art, with different social groups striving for an accurate representation of who they are. While groups of friends may opt for an inside joke that makes them laugh every time they see it, more formal threads can require something straightforward.
Some group chats have systems in place for changing names and photos.
Torie Deible, 31, who works in sales for an engineering company, is in a group chat with 15 women who all became friends while living in New York City (Ms. Deible now lives in Denver). Every month they change the photo to whoever’s birthday is that month, and they let her choose the name as well. “It’s fun to get loved like this once a year,” she said.
Ashley Kozich, 30, who works for a community foundation and lives in Fort Lauderdale, has a group chat with her eight best friends she met as a student at the University of Mississippi. In the last year a lot of them have had babies, so they now highlight the most recently born as the group photo.
But the group name it here to stay: “The Sorry People.” “In college we were a really rowdy group of girls, and we would cause chaos and trouble wherever we went,” Ms. Kozich said. “In the mornings we would have to go on these apology tours and say sorry for whatever we did.”
The name, she said, has developed a life of its own. “It’s been our name for over 10 years, and people ask us, ‘How are the Sorry People?’” she said. “I don’t think we could be called anything else.”
Indeed, many names that started in group chats are now being used in other settings.
Tim Monaghan, 39, a publicist, started a group chat with his best friends during the pandemic named “Meet Me at Fanelli’s,” referring to a well-known bar in SoHo. “We named it during the pandemic,” said Mr. Monaghan who lives in Brooklyn. “Fanelli’s is where we would always go, and we were dreaming of when we could all reconvene there.”
When his friends Monica Khemsurov and Jill Singer (both on the thread) published a book called “How to Live With Objects” in November 2022, the authors included the group name in the dedication. “Thanks to our Fanelli’s chat, which provided a steady stream of memes, gossip and other distractions, plus what feels like an eternity of encouragement,” they wrote.
Choosing a meaningful group chat name can be an easy way to make participants happy. “I smile every time I see our name, which is a lot because this group chat goes off all day,” Ms. Kozich said.
But getting it wrong can be a source of anxiety.
Samantha Brinn Merel, 40, a trust and estates lawyer in White Plains, N.Y., has two children — a kindergartner and a third grader — in school in Westchester. Each class has a group chat full of all the parents from that grade that is set up by the P.T.A., and it’s named after the high school graduation year.
“I just sent my 5-year-old to kindergarten, and now, multiple times a day, I have to see what year she is graduating high school,” she said, laughing. “I don’t really need to be reminded that eventually my children will grow up.”
Unfortunately it’s not one of those group chats where anyone can change the name.