philipp's blog

I wanted to tell you about my favourite Instant Messenger

I wanted to tell you about my favourite instant messenger. Yes, I know, just the other day I was telling you all about it.

But I noticed that while I was going on and on about it, you didn’t seem to “get” it. And I realised, I’ve been telling you the whole thing backwards. You see, there is not a huge age difference between the two of us, but there are some things where we do not share the same experiences and I figured that you might need to understand a few things before you can appreciate my favourite instant messenger.

Going Online

For example, the whole concept of being “online” or “offline” in my favourite messenger is totally different than what you’re used to nowadays, say in Facebook’s Messenger. As a matter of fact, at the time when I used that messenger, the entire online/offline thing was completely upside down: Nowadays, being “online” in a messenger means that you’re currently using the messenger - you might not notice my chat, your attention might be elsewhere, but as long as you are active in the messenger app or browser, you are online, and if you’re not, you’re not. The only difference between talking to you while you’re online vs. when you’re offline is the time it takes you to read or reply (By the way: The ability to know that you’ve read my message is fairly new. My favourite instant messenger didn’t have that.) Back then, being online meant a completely different thing. By default, your device (which was almost always a computer) was offline all the time. All these videos you watch on YouTube these days were saved on your device in folders named “Stuff”, “Stuff (2)” or “Important”, and they were mostly distributed via burned CD-ROMs. Going Online was a conscious decision.

That decision was not easily taken, as Going Online meant blocking your household’s single phone for the whole duration of you being online, and it was expensive. For some time, we were paying a fixed price for a package that allowed us to be online (or “surf”, as we called it) starting from 6pm until morning. And if you went online (or “dialled in”, as we called it) at 5:59 pm - well, then you were paying by the minute, which usually meant double-digit costs per session.

For me, Going Online was some kind of ritual, because, and you might not be aware of this - it took time. The internet was very slow back then, and going online with 56k meant that I could get home from school, start the dial-in process, stow away my school stuff, go to the bathroom, fix some quick lunch and return to my desk with my latest mails having just finished downloading.

The point is - today, you’re online by default and offline either by choice or by accident. Back then, it was the polar opposite. (How can you be online by accident, you ask? Well, there was an even more expensive variant of Internet for cell phones, called WAP, and some cell phone vendors chose to make Going Online as convenient as just pushing one button. Which happened accidentally all. the. time.)

Old Chat Applications and Instant Messengers (not my favourite one, though)

After Going Online, well, you weren’t online in any Instant Messenger yet. You needed to manually start the application (no one called it an "app" at that time), and after the startlingly loud sound of a boat horn (don’t ask), the Messenger booted up. The one with the horn was not my favourite, though I’m getting there.

Today, online chats resemble a perpetual conversation that once started, never ends - it’s just that the breaks in between messages are getting longer. At least for mainstream chat applications, this was not possible back then. Because when you joined a chat room, you were greeted with a blank screen, which quickly started filling up with a conversation for which you’re lacking any context. Just as if you walked into a room full of chatter you first had to get your bearings on what was going on before you could join the conversation. There was no history about anything that was discussed in your absence, so the most sensible thing to do was to greet everyone politely and ask what’s up. This is why even today some people (re)start a conversation via chat with a greeting after a longer time period has passed, while others just continue as if no time at all has passed between messages.

Conversations in Instant Messengers, so usually between two people, did show you a history - you were able to see the last messages you received while you and your friend were online at the same time - but if one side went offline, it was unable to receive any messages. This lead to weird side effects: If I said good-bye to you and went offline, I wouldn’t receive your own good bye message. And when I Go Online the next day, I would still not see your message unless you will come online, too - only then your final message would be delivered to me.

The two modes of communicating that I just mentioned in passing were the most common ones: Instant Messengers, built around the idea of direct, one-to-one communication, and chat rooms, designed for multiple people communicating at the same time. My favourite Instant Messenger, though, was neither - or both, depending on how you looked at it.

Fragmented Knowledge

But before I can finally tell you about it, you need to understand first that in that day and age, information retrieval on the internet worked upside-down, too. These days, even though you claim that you are the follower, the information, be it news or memes, seeks you out, not the other way round. You open an app start scrolling through information until you’re sated. And in case you forget, you’ll get a notification. (There was a brief time period where iPhones existed, but Notifications weren’t invented yet, but I digress.)

Back then, you had to take action to retrieve the information. You had to actively visit a web page to consume the information offered there. Not visiting a certain website meant not being exposed to the information it carried, there was no sharing other than copy-pasting the URL into a messenger. Web sites which curated and aggregated information from other pages (so that you would only visit them as a single source of information) were rare. Of course we had search engines back then, it wasn’t the Dark Ages, but before Google dominated everything, it was common to have multiple starting points for any web research, and trying to guess a domain was as good as a starting point as any.

Maybe it dawns on you just how fragmented the knowledge was back then when I tell you that Wikipedia was simply not a thing then. And RSS was very new. Anything that conveniently pops up on top of your search results page these days was something you had to dig up yourself.

My favourite Instant Messenger

Now the stage is set to tell you all about my favourite Instant Messenger. You might have thought by now that my favourite messenger didn’t, in fact, exist, and that the true messenger is the one we have in our hearts or some other aesop at the end of this text. But it’s just my favourite messenger. I hope you like it.

I am talking about the Bravenet Messenger. I didn’t realise it until later, but the Bravenet Messenger was just a reskinned version of something called the Odigo Messenger, so while I am talking about the former, you might have heard about the latter. Here is how it worked:

The main interface, besides the chat windows, was a huge circular radar. As soon as you navigated to any website (with your normal browser), the messenger played a cool radar sound and showed a snazzy radar animation - and there they were: People who were visiting the exact same website as you, at the exact same time, represented as tiny human shapes. Clicking on them revealed a sparse profile and gave you the ability to start a one-to-one chat.

What connected you to these tiny human shapes was not only that you were vaguely sharing the same interests - you were both interested in the exact same thing right now. This was an immediate conversation starter and way better than the overused a/s/l? (again, don’t ask). It was wild to be able to start a topic with someone about a topic, because of course they’d be interested - that’s what they came here for! I remember endless discussions about Star Trek on, or preparing for a school presentation on (perhaps unsurprisingly, about the Yellowstone National Park).

There, that’s it. That’s the whole thing. It wouldn’t work today anymore (it barely worked back then, many of the pages I visited regularly turned up an empty radar), not only does the internet no longer work that way, but chats, be it in groups or between two individuals, are also different. And I have changed, too: A stranger striking up a conversation with me online no longer fills me with curiosity, but with wariness - if it even passes the respective app’s built-in protection mechanisms. And that’s fine. And a bit sad.