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malevolent design weblog

This blog is now defunct, but you can find more stuff over at my personal site

Not-So-Instant Messaging

It’s always fascinating how people find ways to communicate with each other, even when the technology isn’t designed to allow it. Soon after Bluetooth allowed mobile phone contacts to be transferred, people realised it could be (ab)used to make messages pop up on strangers’ screens. Even a Wi-Fi network name can become a political statement.

Apparently in the late ’80s some people on the UK’s academic network JANET formed an online community, even though they didn’t have common access to a suitable (and permitted) chat/discussion board system. What they did have access to was an FTP server intended for sharing research project data, and someone must have one day tried uploading files with creative names and content. Soon users were staying on late into the night and exchanging messages just about quickly enough for real-time chat in ‘rooms’ made from directories, despite the effort and patience required to use a command line over a slow connection. Jokes were told, get-togethers organised, and chat-up attempts made.

When I heard stories like that while at university in ’89–’91, and saw how most students exposed to email, chat, bulletin boards and online gaming (I’m talking about plain text on green-screen terminals here) got hooked, it seemed obvious the internet would eventually break out of academia and become an important part of everyday life for many of us. The urge to communicate was too strong for it to fail.


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