Why is this interesting? - The ICQ Edition

On messaging, nostalgia, and new uses

Colin here. For many of us, our first heavy use of social media was of the messaging variety. I can remember logging onto Prodigy first before AOL’s Instant Messenger became a fixture throughout adolescence and college. It’s funny how quaint it all seems now. The functionality was limited to, well, sending notes to a small social circle, and people used away messages as a subtle flex of creative expression.

I can remember downloading ICQ around that time to write to a friend who lived in Norway. It seemed like a strange new world and didn’t exactly have the rounded edges (and friendly icon) of America Online. It seemed like a completely different visual language, with its own codes and rights. You had a long, impersonal string of numbers as your user name, and the platform had its own sonic signature. (Definitely click that link to be transported back in time.)

The tech, groundbreaking for its time, was Israeli but was soon acquired by the behemoth AOL. A brief history from Mashable:

In 1996, Israeli company Mirabilis launched ICQ, a text-based messenger that was the first to really reach a widespread market of online users. ICQ allowed for multi-user chats, file transfers, a searchable user directory and more. AOL acquired Mirabilis and ICQ in 1998, later selling it to Digital Sky Technologies in 2010.

I remember it as a clunky, but rather robust and reliable way to reach friends that lived elsewhere, before the days of Skype. 

Why is this interesting? 

Even though it seems like we are suffering from a modern glut of messaging options, turns out ICQ is having a renaissance. According to the WSJ

In Hong Kong, some are choosing an alternative that reminds them of their childhood—before algorithms, Big Tech and viral misinformation.

ICQ was a pioneering, mid-1990s internet messaging service then used on bulky PCs on dial-up. It was a precursor to AOL Instant Messenger, and was last in vogue when the TV show “Friends” was in its prime and PalmPilots were cutting edge.

It’s been modernized over the years, and now is an app for smartphones. Lately it has skyrocketed up Hong Kong’s app charts, with downloads jumping 35-fold in the week ending Jan. 12.

“It recalls my childhood memories,” said 30-year-old risk consultant Anthony Wong, who used ICQ when he was in grade school. 

Strangely, the flood of users on ICQ in the wake of privacy concerns doesn’t make a ton of sense. The ownership of the company is Russian, where technology firms are held by a tight leash. The Russian internet firm called Mail.Ru Group Ltd. bought ICQ from AOL in 2010, and now the user base for the platform is largest in Russia, Nigeria, and Germany. 

But it is clear nostalgia is also driving some of the appeal: people log in with a username they haven’t used in years, and are greeted with the trademark “uh oh” sound, as well as long-lost contacts that are seemingly frozen in time. If you have an ICQ account, I strongly recommend logging in for a trip down memory lane. (CJN

Chart of the day:

The NYT had a nice piece on the total cost of ownership and emissions output for electric, hybrid, and gas cars. (NRB)

Quick Links: 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & James (JJ) 

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