Raise a glass for ICQ…

8 minute read

May 24, 2024, 5:32 PM

Today, I woke up to this little bit of news:

"ICQ will stop working from June 26"

Yes, ICQ, the messaging service that you used to use in the late 1990s and early 2000s, will go riding off into the sunset on Wednesday, June 26.  I don’t know why it’s closing down, and for most of us, this has no effect on our day-to-day operations, because we quit using ICQ more than a decade ago.  But at least for me, there was a comforting feeling in knowing that it was still there.  This feeling still existed even though (A) it had long fallen out of use in the American market in favor of newer offerings, (B) that the service has been Russian-owned since 2010, and (C) Americans had been advised against using it for some time due to security concerns relating to unfettered access to private communications by Russian authorities.  But all the same, it was still there.

One time, probably about ten years ago, I decided that I wanted to see if I could still log into ICQ.  So I went over to ICQ’s website, and tried to log in with my old User Identification Number, or UIN, but more commonly referred to as an “ICQ number”.  Surprisingly, when I put it in along with my old password, it still worked.  My old ICQ number, 12685343, was still alive and well.  It was a certain feeling of, “Hello, old friend,” as my ICQ account rumbled back to life after at least a decade of slumber.  I think that I was just amazed to find that it still worked, despite an ownership change and the brand’s transition to the Russian market, plus that many years of inactivity on the platform.  It was kind of fun to see, even though I didn’t stick around for very long.  My visit was largely just to see if my old number still worked, and not much more.  While I was able to pull up my old ICQ contacts, it was more like looking at a history document, because nobody that I knew still used the service anymore, including myself.  I suppose it was something of a bittersweet moment.  I was happy to see that my old ICQ number still worked, but I missed the fun times that we had on the service before we all moved on to things like AOL Instant Messenger and later Facebook Messenger.

I first started using ICQ in 1998 when I got my then-new Gateway 2000 G6-400 computer at the end of my junior year of high school.  That was what I used until early 2007, and it served me through college as well as a few years after that, with its then-blazing-fast 400 MHz processor, 128 MB of RAM, and a 10 GB hard drive.  I had heard about this new messaging service called ICQ, and so with so much more power and space to install stuff, I took it out for a spin.  Suddenly, I heard their trademark horn sound, and I was connected, and 12685343 became part of my online identity.  Soon, I received system messages letting me know that there were people who wanted to connect with me, and then the “uh-oh” chime filled the room many times over as I started swapping messages with my friends, both near and far.  This was occasionally punctuated with a “ribbit” sound when someone would send me links to look at, and the sound of the ICQ voice telling me that someone was sending me a file, and then the notification chime later on when the file finished downloading.  It was a wonderful world of online communication in a way that was very nineties in its execution, with a dedicated desktop client that used a green flower to indicate a user’s online status, and lots of delightfully weird sound effects.

After about a year, I also started using AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, alongside ICQ.  AIM served a similar function as ICQ, to communicate with others online, but with a very different implementation of that idea, which wasn’t nearly as funky as ICQ was.  It was clearly an evolution on the same basic idea and had some definite advantages over ICQ in certain places, but it wasn’t the same experience by any means.  AIM was far more businesslike in its execution, while ICQ was quirky and fun.  For a time, both services were owned by AOL, though ICQ was an outside acquisition, while AIM was developed by AOL directly.  The two were always maintained as separate platforms, though I remember in the later years of my using the services, they enabled cross-talk between the two, as one could use ICQ to message someone’s AIM screen name, and one could use AIM to message someone through their ICQ number.  Ultimately, as I got older and trends continued to change, AIM ultimately won out, as everyone gradually moved away from ICQ.

I eventually left ICQ completely and uninstalled the client by the end of 2004, because by that time, the last holdouts that I had on the platform had moved over to AIM, plus the ability to talk between platforms allowed me to eliminate ICQ altogether as a standalone service.  However, for a time, ICQ was a big part of how I communicated online.  For about seven years, from 1999 to 2006, I included ICQ on the Contact Information page for this website.  I suppose that I wholeheartedly endorsed “go big or go home” as my philosophy for those old contact pages, since I provided many ways to contact me.  Here’s what I did for ICQ in 1999:

The ICQ section of my contact page in 1999

Yes, this was very big, and it ultimately served no purpose, as I don’t recall any instance where someone ever actually used it.  I’m pretty sure that the only person who ever used this form was me, and I only did it for testing purposes.  This was in addition to email and AIM.  Was it overkill?  Absolutely, but such were the times.  As a side note, that 1999 version of the contact page makes it clear that I was the subject of some online bullying around that time, as the introduction includes a no-harrassment warning.  This warning became a lot stronger by 2001, indicating that I was being bullied online quite a bit by then.

Then in 2002, I was clearly becoming tired of ICQ, as clearly, spammers had locked onto my ICQ number and started sending me advertisements, causing me to lock it down a bit.  Here’s what I wrote about ICQ on the 2002 version of my contact page:

For users of ICQ, my number is 12685343. Due to the amount of ICQ spam I have received in the past, I have closed my number to the general public, and you must be on my ICQ contact list before you are able to contact me. To request to be on my ICQ contact list, please send me an Email stating your ICQ number, and that you would like me to add you to my contact list.

The real question that I have here is, “What was the point of this?”  Yes, I still wanted to communicate via ICQ and provided my ICQ number, but I had locked it down pretty hard to combat spam.  Thus in order to use ICQ, you had to email me first so that I could add you.  Looking back at it now, it seems like a lot of work.  But at the same time, ICQ was very much my second messaging client, as I was primarily using AIM for messaging by then, so I suppose that the more roundabout method was justified, as by then, I was using it mainly to keep in touch with ICQ contacts that didn’t also have AIM.

By 2003, the ICQ and AIM platforms could communicate with each other, and the contact page was updated to reflect this:

Note for ICQ users: Download the latest version of ICQ, and you can contact me via my AOL Instant Messenger screen name.

It was quite clear that I was done with ICQ by then, and was telling people that if they were still on the platform, that’s fine, but I’m over on AIM, and your platform will talk to my platform, so do that.  That version lasted until early 2006, when that line was quietly removed.  A site update on March 18 indicates that the contact page was changed at that time, and the contact page as of March 27, 2006 no longer showed it.  It doesn’t specifically indicate that the ICQ wording was removed, but it seems likely that it occurred then.  Thus my involvement with ICQ came to an end in early 2006, as I dropped all official support for it on the website.

And let’s admit it: by 2006, ICQ was old news.  By then, AIM had more or less fully supplanted ICQ’s function, as there was nothing that ICQ could do that AIM couldn’t also do, and it was clear that ICQ was the red-headed stepchild in that family, as AOL put more efforts into their homegrown platform than the similar one that they had acquired from outside.  AOL sold ICQ to a Russian company in 2010, but by then, ICQ was more or less just a memory in the USA, though it is my understanding that it had a much bigger following overseas.

As far as my own experience on ICQ went, I think of it mostly in context of a few people.  Most specifically, I think of Sarah Lanthier, who lived in Sudbury, Ontario, whom I’d originally come to know in 1997 through my Today’s Special website.  I got her to install ICQ, and that was how we communicated with each other for the most part.  We would chat on the messaging service, we would share files, and we had a lot of fun.  I remember one time, we tried the live chat function where we each had our own windows, and could see each other’s typing live.  I remember that it was a lot of fun to do, and we ended up spending four or five hours just chatting in that space.  I don’t recall exactly how long it took, because we were having such a good time chatting about whatever that I completely lost track of time, and then I was quite surprised to see that we had been at it for many hours.  But it was time well spent.  Sarah was my last ICQ contact, and when she passed on in late 2004, that really marked the end of my activity on ICQ, because by then, everyone else had moved on, and with no one else to talk to on ICQ, I moved on as well.

I admit that I’m going to miss ICQ, even though I haven’t used it in decades, because knowing that it was still out there chugging along in Russia was a comforting feeling, even though it was well known that no one should ever use it due to security concerns.  It was a forbidden service to an extent, but knowing that it was still there was still something (I hope that makes sense).  But everything must come to an end some day, and apparently, for ICQ, it was time, and in a little more than a month’s time, ICQ will be no more.  I’d say that it had a pretty good run, though, as it was launched in November 1996, and will sunset in June 2024.  That’s 27 years, seven months, and 12 days.  It was older than AIM by about six months, and it outlived AIM, which itself was discontinued on December 15, 2017, by about six and a half years.

And despite the passage of time, we will never forget our old ICQ numbers, even though they will soon correspond to nothing.  I still have 12685343 seared into my memory, and I will take that number with me to the grave.

So raise a glass for ICQ, as it passes into Internet history.  We used it, we enjoyed it, and we moved on from it, and now the service itself is closing down.  Farewell, ICQ.  You served us well for all of those years back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and you will forever live on in our memories.