While chatting up a friend I know from no place except instant messanger, I casually dropped my dime theory about ICQ vs. AIM. Since I discovered ICQ and AIM virtually at the same time, and never bothered to investigate the history of either, I always thought that the sudden decline in ICQ and simultaneous rise of AIM was due to AOL taking over the market by making a superior product. For the short time I was using both interfaces, I noticed that AIM was much better for shooting through the many babble conversations most AIM users are now familiar with, for a simple reason; In my version of ICQ, and this was in 2001, I had to take the mouse and click “Send” to send a message on, whereas in AIM, all I had to do was hit the carraige return. I decided immedietely that this was the reason AIM dominated the market, and sank ICQ.
Four years later, this friend calls me on this. After some quick research, I am quickly and sadly proven wrong. Not only did AOL actually buy Mirabilis, the company founded on the ICQ technology, but AIM didn’t even come out until two years after the purchase. Even worse, ICQ is still the popular interface for IM chatting in Europe; the reason AIM took over here was because AOL required it, and AOL, despite being hideously passe in today’s geek culture, still owns nearly everything.
Still. To salvage my own ego, I lit a cigarette, cracked a beer, and thought about some of my past explanations for why I thought AIM was a better program, and why, in an ideal world, it would have come out a few weeks after ICQ and laid the ICQ interface in the ground through old world corporate annihilation, instead of this I’m Okay, You’re Okay style of assimilating the new product.
The basics of the theory were simple. It’s easier to hit return that it is to move your hand over to the mouse and click a button. But this simple fact changed the face of the program from a kind of rapid update email client into a a much quicker, more free form style of communication. This alone was not new; when I was fifteen, one year before the IM release date, the chat room had already been invented, with all kinds of carraige return based interfaces, including one in which you can actually see the other person typing letter for letter, which I’ll return to in a moment. These chatrooms, and other kinds of interaction, were all based on server technology, however, and you had to log in to a specific chatroom and interact with that chatroom’s local community. ICQ required no local community, and could find anyone based on only two things; their ownership of the program, and whether they were running it at the moment. No need to have a telnet client with which to log into a remote server; the actual ICQ program was its own community chat location, and the location was part of the software package. Mirabilis developed a technology that turned the entire internet into a community chatboard with a single designation; ICQ.
Nonetheless, they had a button that you had to move your mouse over to click. Why? The simplest messaging boards had already used a carraige return system to get your sentence going, and it’s obvious that the ability to send messages faster, in a manner integrated with the natural motions of typing, changes the nature of communication from passing notes to a natural conversational mode.
The answer is in the name. ICQ, for those of you as unaware of subtlety as I am, is just “I seek you”. The technological breakthrough was in being able to locate other running ICQ interfaces, and thus other people, without having to seek out a specific address or server. This was what they were aiming to achieve, and this was the paradigm through which they saw their project; the ability to find anyone else on the ICQ network if they were online. The fact of knowing they are recieving your message when you sent it set ICQ apart from email, and the universal ICQ community set it apart from localized message boards and chatrooms. Mirabilis set out to create a method of accelerating worldwide communication beyond the speed of email. They were not trying to create the enormous chat board we have today.
There is a small inconsistancy in comparing ICQ and AIM to chatrooms. A chatroom was by nature a place where a fair number of people would pass brief messages to one another, each message written for all to see. The features available for private chats, or secret, single recipient messages were extras; not inherent to the chatroom, but additions to make them more attractive; the equivalent of the unused bedroom at a party. Taking this into account, ICQ is more a descendent of email and early forums than the chatroom communities.
So it was for the next generation of interface to push the ICQ system into the conversational chat realm. By making the Enter key the carrier for sending a message, messages became shorter, faster, and “chattier”. The universal community was enstablished; now the mode had only to change its tune. AIM, and all other instant messanging systems since, made the interface freeform, and closer to thought, since the pause between finishing a sentence and going for the mouse is enough to ponder the nature of what you have just written. In this rhythm, the sender retroactively puts the smallest amount of extra care into whatever they write in anticipation of that moment.
Email trumped the letter as a source of passing information at a distance, and shifted the responsibility of reply time from the postal service to the recipient. At the same time, the acceleration of passing information reduced the amount of information people felt obliged to send. Intant messanger went a step further, and though it evolved up from email, it is also a devolution of the phone conversation. I once heard the comment, “If instant messaging had come first, the phone would have made everyone say, ‘Thank God I don’t have to type out all these damn conversations anymore.’” In relation to the phone, this is absolutely correct, but instant messanging, as conversational as it become, is still an extension of the visual and textual email mode, and not a descendent of the audible conversation.
So it is no surprise that even as instant messaging became a chat community through its ease of use, seeing others’ messages letter for letter as they are typed has not made its way into chat software. This intimacy is too deep. Despite the conversational tone achieved by AIM and chat clients like it, it still represents the isolation of identity through presentation on which the internet thrives. A thought remains unsent until it is approved by the sender. Anything communicated through instant messanger can always be made presentable prior to its journey, and thus it retains the internet quality of being an expression of what the sender wants to say, and not an actual expression of their reactions and their personality.
I hold hope that the internet can someday offer a communal form of actual expression, but as of now, it stands as the world’s largest advert for what the human race would like to be. The road to using the internet as a communal consciousness, and as a flowing expression of human nature, is still a long one, even though we have the means at our disposal.