It’s been a whole week since my last post, and I’ve spent it writing a monster of a paper and then recuperating from the accompanying lack of sleep. My parents were rather…er…surprised to find me still sleeping at 5:30 PM one day. C’est la vie.

Mako, I’m going to respond to your comment one o’ these days, but some more recuperation is in order, I think, before I can properly gather my thoughts on the matter.

Instead, I’m going to be bloggifying one of my favorite papers this semester, a history of instant messaging and its social implications. Yes, of course, I’ll also be working on putting all the newly-uncovered information in it on Wikipedia, but I think that there is something valuable to be had in multiple tellings of the story just from a historian’s point of view. Even the most careful historian (which, you know, I’m not) will miss an ambiguity or two in her writing, especially with time’s help, and so even multiple stories talking about the exact same thing with slightly different grammatical structures can be helpful. I’ll be doing this in several installments (because it’s a 15 page paper), so this will hopefully keep any bored readers entertained while I break.

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Part 1: The Early Days — The Birth of Instant Messaging

The Very First Instant Message

Here’s my first admission to failure: I actually have no idea what the first instance of instant messaging was. Or rather, I haven’t found a definitive first instance that has declared itself as such. The earliest instance of a program specifically for instant messaging I could find, however, dates back to 1965, with the creation of .SAVED for CTSS, a very influential time-sharing system. Though CTSS actually had the capacity for instant messaging before, .SAVED created a user interface for ease of use and a scheduler to prevent the messages from interfering with the system’s own output. Shortly after, in 1970, Bob Frankston’s send_message utility would become an essential part of Multics.

Interestingly enough, CTSS also had one of the first e-mail programs. From the very beginning, programmers saw the fundamental difference in the two. Though they are very technically and conceptually similar, instant messaging was, from its conception, more focused on a synchronous model of communication. In many of the first instances, an instant messaging utility was developed out of the need for a notification system–.SAVED, for example, was used to notify users of incoming mail. Jeff Kell, creator of IRC-predecessor Bitnet Relay Chat, recalls that his first instant messaging session was through the ingenious use of operator error messages on an IBM 360 in 1975. As these notifications only needed to be sent to users currently online, there became a need for a communication system that focused on synchronism with minimum overhead as opposed to the formality of email.

What IS Instant Messaging?

For the purposes of this history, “instant messaging” will refer to only real-time, primarily text-based communication between users of computers, whether timeshared or networked. Though instant messengers often also support chat, the two are fundamentally different in that instant messaging resembles a conversation between two specific users, while chat is situated in a virtual “room” that users (usually many users) can enter and leave–a location-based form of communication. While new users can turn up in a chatroom without the consent of the others, this could never happen in an instant messaging session.

TO BE CONTINUED!

Sources:

Early Chat Programs from The Living Internet
“The History of Electronic Mail” from Multicians