Few applications have affected mass consumer psychology as much as messaging apps. While social media helps us build communities, a following, and a digital presence, messaging enables us to stay in touch with people we care about. With the ongoing trend of more intimate and personal communication, a myriad of privacy scandals, and general social media fatigue, messaging is here to stay.
When looking at it from a distance however, it seems like messaging hasn’t really changed all that much over the last two and a half decades. It’s easy to overlook the small design and privacy changes that fundamentally rewrote the rules of communication and how we feel when we talk to one another.
To better understand how we ended up where we are today and to fully appreciate the psychological ramifications of a series of seemingly small changes, we need to take a step back and go back to 1996 — the year when messaging as we know it started.
In the early ’90s, five Israeli developers realized that most non-Unix users had no easy way to send instant messages to one another. The terminal was reserved for power users, and well-designed software applications with a user-friendly GUI were still rare. They got together and started working on a cross-platform messaging client for Windows and Mac and gave it the catchy name ICQ (“I seek you”).
It didn’t take long before early versions of ICQ had most of the features we take for granted in today’s instant messaging apps:
With ICQ 99a, the platform featured conversation history, user search, contact list grouping, and the iconic “uh-uh” sound that played whenever you received a message. Within a very short time, ICQ amassed millions of users during a time when global internet traffic was a fraction of what it is today.
One of the critical challenges during this period was that users weren’t online at all times. During the age of 56K…