From BBM to iMessage: The importance of the messaging platform

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of iMessage in my day-to-day life.

I am an unabashed fan of Apple. I enjoy its products, I get suckered into the excitement of a new keynote presentation, and I’m someone who considered spending $300 on a book of glossy iPhone and Macbook pictures because Apple’s design is a damn near sensual experience. I love Apple. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the company is safe from faults — its new line of MacBook Pros can attest to where I think the company is making a couple of bad decisions — but for the most part, I’m a big fan of the company.

I’ve had an iPhone for as long as I can remember, going back to the 4 when the device started to catch on with more consumers. The iPhone 3G was of course popular when it was first released in 2008, but didn’t compare to the success of the iPhone 4 when it launched in 2010. Ironically, both phones — and the later iPhone 5 model — were considered failures, even though they outsold Android competitors at the time and had become one of the most popular phone models.

Prior to my phone, I had what remains to be my favorite phone of all time: the BlackBerry Bold 9000. The leather backing and physical keyboard felt good in your hand, and the screen was perfectly sized in conjunction with the rest of the device. The trackball in the middle was both novel and useful (unless it got stuck and you had to dig out a toothbrush to get it rolling again), and it was sleek. It looked good. Even by today’s design standards, the BlackBerry Bold 9000 holds its own. There’s a reason it was also the go-to device for Kim Kardashian for years.

But the reason I wanted a BlackBerry in the first place when I got my first one — a terrible Pearl — had nothing to do with design or technical specs. I didn’t care that its security was, at the time, the very best and that was why governments and businesses gave their employees BlackBerries. I didn’t care that it was ahead of the other phones on the market in terms of speed and comfort. As a tween-soon-to-be-teen, I didn’t care about the actual specs as much as I do now. The only reason I wanted a BlackBerry was because it had BBM — and owning a BlackBerry meant being a part of an exclusive group.

When BlackBerry Messenger was first created, it was a messaging service that could be used for people with other BlackBerry devices. It rolled out in 2005, and over the years, would grow to include Android and iPhones. At the time, though, everyone I knew had a BlackBerry, meaning that everyone was on BlackBerry Messenger. You couldn’t walk into a classroom without hearing the beep or seeing the green light that sat at the top of the BlackBerry turn red to signify a message. People asked for “pins,” the identification number that acted as a username for searching, or proudly displayed their QR code to add more people to their BBM contact list.

Most importantly, BBM gave users the ability to create easy, personalized and editable group chats. Remember, this was 2005. This was before iMessage and just after the big boom of desktop messaging clients like MSN Messenger, AOL Instant, and others. This was the beginning of read receipts; an aspect of messaging that would forever change how friendships and relationships were handled. The read receipt anxiety that haunts so many of us felt like it was born out of the BBM era. BBM was so intrinsically important to the social development of an entire generation of teenagers who had to learn how to communicate and exist via technology, that it’s hard not to think about it whenever I think about iMessage.

Which, as I’ve said, I’ve been doing a lot lately.

It all started last week. I was sitting at my father’s 67th birthday dinner, our family of about 20 gathered around the table. Like any family affair, people were making small talk or arguing about other extended family, gossiping about this person’s love life or judging how another person had chosen to live their life, while anyone who didn’t want to get in the crosshairs — or who were just bored by the inaneness of it all — turned to their phones. I glanced over at my 18-year-old cousin who was deeply engaged in what seemed to be an intense group conversation and, having no shame, asked what they were talking about.

“Nothing really,” she replied, never taking her eyes off her phone. “One of our friends wants us to use Facebook to talk and we don’t want to.”

“Facebook, like, Messenger?,” I asked

“Yeah.”

“But you don’t want to do that?”

“Nope.”

Like any conversation with a teenager, getting more than a one word answer was proving to be difficult. But as I’ve said in this blog before, teenagers fascinate me, and I wasn’t about to let her obvious displeasure and boredom in this conversation stop me from asking more questions.

“Why don’t you like using Messenger?”

“I don’t not like it, I just don’t need it,” she explained.

“Why?”

“Because we use iMessage,” she huffed, as if it was the most obvious answer.

“Right…so then why are you guys talking about Messenger?”

“Because one of our friends doesn’t have an iPhone and we don’t want to use WhatsApp.”

I couldn’t blame her for that.

“So then I guess you’ll have to use Messenger.”

“Or she can get an iPhone.”

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t know why she doesn’t have one,” she muttered, actually tearing her eyes away from her phone for a second. “Everyone has an iPhone.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since and looking at the people I talk to in my own daily life. Unlike my cousin, I had a bunch of friends who were on Android devices, but I realized that I too had my own personal bias. I sighed a little bit when I exchanged numbers with someone for the first time and saw a green bubble pop up in our new chat window instead of a blue one. I was more likely to carry on a conversation with someone over iMessage on my MacBook than an Android user. Hell, when it came to group chats, I used iMessenger for most things too.

For the first time since I’ve had an iPhone I asked myself if I was a fan of Apple’s products or the feeling it gave me to be a part of its culture. Did I actually like the iPhone over the Galaxy or did I like having a blue bubble appear on someone else’s screen when I texted them?

Now, in 2016, I know it’s the former. I’ve become someone that genuinely enjoys technology. Playing with new phones, laptops and computers, spending hours reading different technical guides and obsessing over specs. Even when I play with Android phones — or Windows phones from time to time — I always end up coming back to my current iPhone. Whether that’s the 5, 5S, 6, or 6S, my iPhone has been my go-to for years.

Looking back on it though, to when I got my first one, as much as I’d like to pretend it was for the tech, I knew that the reason I picked it up in the first place was the same reason I wanted a BlackBerry. I didn’t want to feel like I was being left out of anything, and whether we like it or not, the devices we choose associate us with a culture.

“I’m a Mac. And I’m a PC.”

There’s a reason that commercial worked as well as it did. If you’re spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on something, you don’t just become a fan of it, but you turn into an avid supporter and defender. Technology is no longer something that just exists within our life, but it’s become an extension of ourselves. It’s why emoji selections partially define our character in 2016 and why the ability to customize our personal tech is more important than ever before.

iMessage has become more than a messaging platform. That blue bubble has defined its users more than we ever thought, and has subconsciously to define others by the color of their text message bubble. We’re lying to ourselves if we think otherwise.

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