That little pop-up service on your computer which allowed you to speak to anyone else on their computer, in real time, back in the days when conversation at a distance was a novelty.
I joined ICQ in 1997, and Yahoo! Messenger in 1998, and MSN Messenger in 1999, even AIM in 2000 to make sure I had all the conversational bases covered. I made lots of friends via Instant Messenger, or rather I kept in touch with lots of friends, and sometimes passing acquaintances became people I spoke to on a regular basis.
Back then the amazing thing was the "instant" part of instant messaging, whereby a sentence typed at my end could be off to the other side of the planet and a response back in a matter of seconds. Sometimes I could even see they were typing something, so I knew to hang around to see what it was, and so the chat continued. It had suddenly become very easy to have a decent conversation without actually speaking, which was brilliant because I'm not one for picking the phone up and actually ringing someone.
What I liked best was that you could see whether or not the other person was actually there. If they were around their little light flicked on, and when they went away their little light flicked off, so I could always tell whether it was worth giving conversation a try. This worked particularly efficiently during the days of dial-up, when the divide between "at computer" and "not at computer" was very clear. Then broadband came along and computers started to be connected all the time, at which point a third state intruded (variously called busy, be right back or do not disturb) and I might end up trying to start a conversation with someone who wasn't there.
What also helped was that computers were large static boxes plugged into the wall, so people went to the room where the computer was and concentrated on the screen for a set length of time. Even if the person at the other end was multi-tasking they often had time for a chat, and I could get through quite a few pleasantries, anecdotes and queries before they wandered off. Laptops helped keep people online for longer, but also made it much easier not to be paying proper attention to the screen, hence conversations sometimes dried up mid-flow with no explanation.
The advance of mobile technology has helped to make instant messaging obsolete. Apps have come along which do much the same thing, like Whatsapp, Telegram or even Snapchat, creating new walled gardens of conversation. Photos and video have become more important now they're much easier to send, so fewer people are faffing around on portals which require text, especially because tapping on a tiny screen is much slower than using a full-size keyboard. What's more mobiles and tablets weren't originally designed for multi-tasking, so attempting to watch a video or play a game or read a map AND manage an online conversation was doomed to fail... and by the time "notifications" came along IM had already fallen.
Email's not the same. You can write more, indeed writing more's encouraged, but then the whole chain of communication becomes slow and is anything but instant. Twitter's not the same. The whole conversation's public, and I don't know about you but I'm not happy to broadcast my private thoughts like that. Texting's not the same. Even though it's free and easy there's still a relatively lengthy delay between each message, and using a titchy keypad restricts meaningfully rapid conversation. Browser-based messaging services aren't the same. Once you press send it can be at least a couple of minutes before the page refreshes and any response returns, and you can waste hours of your life hanging around that way.
I'm not bereft. Several other messaging services have become available, and they have hugely greater functionality than those 20th century originals. Wifi and 4G also mean they work from almost anywhere, like halfway down the high street or at a mate's house or the middle of a field. But as each successive IM system has disappeared it's taken with it a slew of people I used to talk to, and they're no longer a regular part of my life, and that makes me sad.
Windows Live Messenger fell in 2013. It's OK, they said, we've bought Skype and we'll transfer you all over there. But by that time most of the users had fallen away, and Skype is a bloated service plagued by ads, and I haven't had a decent conversation on there in ages. Yahoo Messenger faded out in 2015. This didn't really matter, because most of the userbase had long deserted, so there were hardly any current interactions to snuff out. But today they're pulling the plug on AIM, as AOL's new owners shut its Instant Messenger service down, and this extinction has annoyed me more.
I've been chatting to BestMate on AIM almost daily since 2007, when we switched over from Yahoo where we'd been for years. I know what he's up to, he knows what I'm up to, we organise meeting up and we help each other out with problems as they arise. Significantly BestMate also uses it to talk to his work colleagues in the States, indeed the chat function has become an integral part of a corporate working day. But whereas it worked fine for business communication yesterday, today it's being switched off, and now the company is having to adapt to survive.
BestMate and I have switched to Slack, which is working pretty well so far, and on-demand conversation has been maintained. It's better because we can now chat anywhere, thanks to the app, but it's also worse because I can no longer easily tell whether he's at home on his computer or not. I send messages that get no response, and he sends messages that get no response, but at least we can still talk in real time as instantly as before.
It turns out the main reason I miss Instant Messaging isn't the technology, it's the people. There used to be dozens of people I knew on there, and now there aren't. Indeed there were several years when I only had to log into the system and some friend would pop up for a conversation, maybe several. Then there were several years when there were fewer people, and then several years when I could log in and nobody would say hello at all, and nobody would be there if I wanted to say hello back. So it doesn't really matter that I can no longer even log in, because there's no longer anybody there to talk to, they all left ages ago.
I blame the multiplicity of new chat services. When MSN and Yahoo were the only big players, most people were on one or the other, and both were easy to monitor. Then other opportunities cropped up, other walled gardens, and people started to drift off elsewhere overnight. One week you'd be chatting happily to someone, and then they never came back and you realised you didn't have any other means of contacting them. If you hadn't thought ahead to get an email address or mobile number, and didn't know them via any other route, suddenly they were gone. Most of my online acquaintances blinked out like this, like candles extinguished in the wind, never to be relit.
I never joined Facebook, and I suspect that's where I went wrong. Most people wound over up over there, chatting and liking and tagging and generally distracting each other, publishing photos of their children and/or pets and/or lunches ad nauseam. If I'd joined Facebook I might still be talking to several of my former IM buddies, might even know what they were up to these days, or perhaps I'd just be incensed by their frantic over-sharing. But it's a bit late to relocate there now, especially as dozens of these people were only ever nicknames to me and I'd never know where to start looking.
I miss Instant Messaging, and the people who used to use it. I wonder if anyone's missing me.