The Loss of Micro-Privacy

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 sparse. 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 until early versions of ICQ had most features we’re taking for granted in today’s instant messaging apps: ICQ Version 99A 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 dial-in modems, chat rooms could feel like hanging out at an empty bar. The team came up with an ingenious and deceptively simple concept to let others know when users are available to chat: the online status. The online status was the first wide-spread instance in digital communication where users gave up a tiny bit of privacy to make a service more engaging and useful. It all started as a seemingly perfect win-win situation: by turning your online status into something that’s shared and visible by everyone in your contacts, it turned your computer into a less lonely place. After signing onto the service, your friends would immediately get notified. As a result, most users found themselves chatting to someone within minutes. The product’s engagement increased, and the issue of lonely chat rooms soon became a thing of the past. While ICQ was taking the internet by storm, others quickly took notice and an array of messaging platforms started popping up. MSN Messenger on Windows XP The most infamous alternative to ICQ was MSN Messenger. Microsoft Messenger contained all the features that defined ICQ’s success. The press release even emphasized the online status as one of its key features. “MSN Messenger Service tells consumers when their friends, family and colleagues are online and enables them to exchange online messages and email with more than 40 million users.” In 2001, Messenger became the single most used online messaging service in the world. With over 230 mio unique users, the platform’s quick rise soon led to new challenges. How transparent do we want to be? As the MSN user base increased, more users lamented they didn’t feel like they were in control. Upon logging on to the service, they immediately got pinged by people they didn’t necessarily want to talk to. The problem of lonely chat rooms was effectively replaced with a new problem: How can users be in control of who they want to talk to? How can users be in control of who they want to talk to? For many, not replying wasn’t a viable option as they felt guilty about ignoring incoming texts. It soon became clear that the automatic sign-in and public online status wasn’t without its flaws. Microsoft’s response was to introduce a new feature that enabled users to “appear” as offline. With this small change, users gained back some level of control on how openly they want to share their online activity. It wasn’t all perfect though. In its wake, the offline status left behind a trail of paranoia that gave rise to tools that allowed users to screen whether friends had blocked them….

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