28 years of ICQ: When the Internet was still fun

After 28 years, ICQ is being laid to rest. The messenger accompanied an entire generation as they discovered the Internet, with its iconic “Uh-Oh” and start-up fog horn. Today, the ailing software is out of date – but its death is also proof of the lack of fun on the Internet, says our author.

If you ask people between 25 and 45 for their ICQ, it’s quite possible that they’ll be able to recite a five- to nine-digit number without hesitation. After all, the so-called “UIN” (Unique Identification Number) was often the first thing that people from that age group used to identify themselves on the Internet. Apart from the most embarrassing email possible to GMX, AOL or Web.de, of course.

For those who don’t know: Originally, everyone was given a number by ICQ as a login, and the order was sequential. Only employees had five-digit numbers, six-digit accounts were a nerd trophy, and even seven-digit numbers were considered “early”. The first Internet showdown, as innocent as the era of the web itself was at the time.

The first social network

ICQ was more than just a messenger. Around the turn of the millennium, it was perhaps the first social network in the true sense of the word. The internet was still in its infancy compared to today, and ICQ was used to keep in touch with friends. There were no influencers, no reels, no Tiktok, no YouTube, and no timelines optimized for maximum click rates.

In addition to chatting, you could send links or leave status messages if you weren’t on the computer. Back then, however, that required you to have one of the flat rates that were emerging, which made it possible to be online all the time. Time-based or volume-based tariffs didn’t make you any friends at home if you wanted to leave the computer on just to send a message. Being constantly reachable, especially via the Internet, was unusual back then, even frowned upon. How could it be? The big computer was too heavy and not mobile, and the cell phone had no Internet access.

Today, of course, things are different. Everyone has the internet in their pocket, they’re online all the time, everywhere, live. And the services we use today want it that way too. Instagram, Tiktok, Facebook, even Whatsapp. There’s always something going on somewhere. Don’t look at your phone for five minutes? You can do that, but you don’t. Because you might miss something.

Life is negotiated publicly, in real time, and so are the reflex feelings, the instant reactions, the portioned drama. One shitstorm follows the next, hang in there, folks. Things were different in the best days of ICQ. If you weren’t there, you weren’t there. The expectation that you had to respond to everything immediately simply didn’t exist. Two weeks offline because you were on vacation? Cool! How was it?

Communication was, you can say it, it must be said: simply nicer. The anonymous hatred from social networks that we now almost mindlessly tolerate was barely there. People met each other as they would have spoken in person. A huge benefit for virtual interaction, logically. And if there was an argument, there weren’t thousands of people ready to turn a small outrage into a big story, to spin what they had overheard, to blow it up, to use it as a basis for their own feelings. The World Wide Web was quieter, more relaxed, a digital village not just in name, but also in terms of the atmosphere within.

I contacted my wife, who was at school with me at the time, via ICQ. I would probably never have spoken to her in person and she would probably never have spoken to me. It was via ICQ – we have now been a couple for 17 years. ICQ, the first dating site, too, but without swiping.

An undignified end for ICQ – and long overdue

Unfortunately, the spirit of the past can no longer be found today – chats have only been synchronized and stored in the cloud for a few years. Before, the data was found locally on the computer, which always meant: hard drive gone, chats gone. When that changed, unfortunately no one was using ICQ anymore.

It’s a shame, but somehow also good.

I’ll be honest, I thank the internet god every day that the digital traces of my youth have disappeared into data nirvana. If I had been able to upload Tiktok videos at the turn of the millennium, they would have been burned into the internet forever as unexpected embarrassments. An internet that forgets – that too is unthinkable today.

ICQ is a bit like Nintendo 64 games: you should keep these relics of the good old days in gentle memory, but stop trying to chase the feeling of those days. The old things can no longer keep up with new standards, and nostalgia alone is not helpful when comparing performance. My colleague tried this with ICQ in 2018 – and didn’t have much fun with it.

And yet the sudden demise of ICQ is quite undignified; the messenger deserved a decent end. The final years did not do it and its importance justice. The downward spiral must have started around 2010, when AOL, which had owned ICQ since 1998, sold it to the Russian company VK, then known as Digital Sky Technologies.

Although VK did indeed continue to work on updates and improvements for many years, ICQ never experienced a second spring. The concept of a chat, now well covered by Whatsapp, Signal, Threema or iMessage, was no longer up to date. At the beginning of 2021, the app briefly benefited from a Whatsapp crisis, but was unable to keep up with the sudden influx of new (old) users.

If you don’t move with the times, you’ll be left behind – this saying is also true for ICQ. VK couldn’t (or didn’t want to) make the messenger more than it already was. And since the critical mass of users for successful operation was long gone anyway, even the best idea might not have been of any use. So there’s nothing left but a final “goodbye” when ICQ closes forever on June 26, 2024.

UIN 845250 says thank you. It was a good time.

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