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What Was Chatting on ICQ Like?

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Enjoying a conversation with a 21-year-old niece recently, I was reminded of how very different the world is now when compared to that my 21-year-old self grew up in. She could not believe that not only did we not have such things as ‘instant messaging’ services, but mobile phones were very much a thing of the future. It’s a sobering reminder of just how far social media technology has come in the past few decades.

These days, a glance around in the street, on public transport, or anywhere there is a crowd will see many people engaged in texting on their smartphones. It is now so prevalent – and taken for granted – that it is no surprise it’s difficult for youngsters to imagine a world without an instant message service. Yet, it all began more recently than you might remember.

The Origins of ICQ

While not the very first instant messenger (IM) service, there is no argument that it was ICQ that set the standards, and that yielded influence that is still seen in today’s IM services. The name is a clever take on the phrase ‘I Seek You’, and the platform was developed by an Israeli company, Mirabilis, in 1996.

Where ICQ differed from other IM solutions of the time is that it was the first to truly focus on people wanting one to one conversations, and to use the individual user account format we are so familiar today. In these respects, ICQ was genuinely ground-breaking, and fast became extremely popular.

To put things into perspective it’s worth considering the state of mobile communications in 1996 when ICQ was launched. First, bear in mind that the very first SMS – Short Message Service – text was sent in 1992, by a developer working for Vodaphone. In 1995, there were just 10 million mobile phone users worldwide (this would rocket to 100 million by 1998). Emoji’s – ubiquitous today – had yet to be invented, the smash-hit Nokia 3310 – fondly remembered by many as their first mobile phone – didn’t arrive until the year 2000. Almost unbelievably, the iPhone did not make an appearance until 2007!

It’s easy to see, then, why ICQ was such a massive hit in the mid-’90s, as it really did point to the future of mobile communication and social media. What did it offer the user that they didn’t have before? Keep reading to find out.

The Rapid Growth of ICQ

Whichever messaging platform you use today, you can guarantee that it uses at least some ideas that were first brought to the market by ICQ. ICQ was free to download when first released. It gave users a unique identity, plus ICQ allowed private 1 to 1 messages. This was the ground-breaking development that technology companies had not yet latched onto, except for Mirabilis. The fact that the service was fully centralized added to its appeal.

Users could also chat with more than one person at a time! Group chat is a standard feature of messenger platforms these days, but it was new when ICQ launched, plus messages were retained, and users could recall them to read again. Furthermore, each user was given a User Identification Number – UIN – and by way of this, a unique ‘handle’ or name. You could use these handles to search for other users on the network. This, once again, is a standard feature of current platforms like Facebook Messenger.

It’s arguable, then, that ICQ actually changed the way we communicate. In the early years, text messaging was seen as something of a novelty. Many tech companies – and users – thought it would not take off. It was seen as a gimmick initially, yet by the year 2001 – that’s just five years after ICQ was launched – user accounts numbered over 100million!

By this time, the US internet service provider AOL – who doesn’t remember getting the CDs in the mail? - had purchased Mirabilis in its entirety. The purpose being of course to gain ownership of ICQ and access to all those users. That they paid $287million for it in 1998, plus a further series of payments reportedly totaling $120 million, shows just how important this technology was to AOL. And that’s just a few years after messenger technology had been written off as a gimmick by many commentators. After the acquisition, AOL patented the technology behind ICQ in 2002.

ICQ Influence Today

We should add that ICQ still exists, and is used by many people for communications. However, AOL sold the platform in in 2010, but by then its influence on modern social media platforms could be seen very clearly.

ICQ gave rise to AOL’s AIM – AOL Instant Manager – plus other similar platforms such as Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger. All of these became very popular platforms, and diluted the market. As a result, by the time AOL sold ICQ in 2010, the number of registered user accounts had more than halved.

The idea behind most modern social media platforms came directly from ICQ: the ability for individuals to build their own ‘network’ of friends for single and group communication. The ‘chatroom’ had effectively been invented.

The Growth in Social Media

Other tech companies had seen the future in social media, as influenced by the success and usability of ICQ, and hence the game-changer didn’t take long to arrive. MySpace launched in late 2003. It took many of the elements of the ICQ IM solution, and advanced it to include more versatile media. This brought together the idea of message-boards, groups and also integrated social media, and was soon usurped by the now ubiquitous Facebook, which became open to all in 2006.

More complex platforms – such as the image-based Instagram and Snapchat – also took their cue from the innovative features that were first seen with ICQ back in the 1990’s. It’s worth noting that while ICQ still exists – the owners,, claim it has 11 million users – AIM was shut down in 2017, Yahoo’s messenger service, along with many of their other offerings ceased operating, and MSN service – went as long ago as 2014.

The development of social media can be directly traced to the highly original and innovative launch of ICQ in 1996. It is arguable that ICQ changed the way the world communicates as much as the invention of the telephone itself, back in 1876.


Keith Kakadia

I am a native of New Orleans, LA with a passion for social media marketing, entrepreneurship, and making new connections. I enjoy the opportunity to work with amazing individuals and brands everyday.

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