Monday Tip-Off: A Requiem for ICQ

Monday Tip-Off: A Requiem for ICQ

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off with a requiem for ICQ.

Alright, so this topic isn’t strictly related to basketball gaming, but hey, it’s my column and I’m essentially the editor-in-chief here, so who’s going to stop me? Besides, ICQ is certainly relevant in the history of our community, as plenty of people who were around in the early days – me included – used it to chat with each other. Indeed, for those of us who were online in the late 90s, ICQ was likely one of our first instant messaging clients along with AOL Instant Messenger, aka AIM. I’m guessing that most of us haven’t used the program in years, but ICQ has remained active as of 2024.

Until now, that is. On May 24th 2024, it was announced on ICQ’s official website that the service will be shut down on June 26th, after almost 30 years. As someone who used ICQ back in the day, I’m compelled to become the latest person to eulogise this vestige of 1990s internet. Considering that we’ve also been around since 1996 and will now outlast ICQ, it also has me thinking about the passage of time; what’s come and gone, and what the internet has gained and lost over the years. I realise that this isn’t Wayback Wednesday, but nevertheless, I wanted to reminisce about ICQ and reflect on its impressive longevity, as well as my nostalgia as an Elder Millennial.

ICQ – a play on the phrase “I Seek You” – was originally developed by Mirabilis, and launched in November 1996. Relying mostly on word of mouth, its popularity grew over the next few years, peaking in 2001 with more than 100 million accounts. While real time chat wasn’t a new concept – Internet Relay Chat (aka IRC) has been around since 1988 – it was one of the first standalone instant messenger programs, preceding AIM by about six months. It featured one-on-one messaging and real time chatting, group chats, random chats (similar to Chat Roulette), and even file transfers, not unlike modern messaging apps. These things are always older than people think!

Logging In To ICQ 2003b

Of course, in the days of dialup internet, we weren’t constantly connected as we are now. When I first learned about ICQ in 1998 and it was gaining popularity among my peers, it was usually a case of making plans at school to jump online that night and talk, or hoping that your friends/crush/friend that you had a crush on would log on. In an era where not everyone had a mobile phone yet, and the only other way to talk to your friends in the evening was to call the landline and hope their parents and siblings didn’t pick up (or listen in), apps such as ICQ and AIM were an exciting innovation. I have very fond memories of developing and strengthening friendships thanks to ICQ.

And yes, like AIM and Yahoo! Chat, it was sometimes – shall we say – misused. From pretending to be someone we weren’t to sending contacts “nukes” that mildly messed with their PC – such as remotely opening their CD-ROM drive – mischief was afoot. It also probably gave us our first taste of cyberbullying, either as victims or perpetrators (or both). At least in those days we weren’t always online – not everyone had access to the internet for that matter – so it was somewhat easier to disengage. Still, I had far more positive experiences with ICQ than negative ones, particularly once I stopped chatting to randoms and stuck to talking to the people I wanted to keep in touch with.

As I mentioned, the NLSC has been around since 1996 – for those who are unaware, I’ve personally been running it since 2001 – so ICQ became another way to connect with people in our community. Obviously we had email and the original Forum, but some of us did develop friendships and partnered on modding projects, so it only made sense to message and chat in real time. AIM was also popular for that, but I preferred ICQ, seeing as it was more familiar and I’d already connected with more people on it. In fact, when Tim and I were finalising plans for me to take over the reins here at the NLSC, we did so in an ICQ chat that I still have saved as a text file!

Michael Jordan on the Wizards in NBA Live 2001

If you take a glance at the user profiles in our Forum, you’ll see a throwback to the days of ICQ and AIM, as there are fields to share your ID for those messengers. Not many people are filling out those fields these days, but there was a time when you’d share your ICQ User Identification Number (UIN) the same way you’d share your X and Instagram handles nowadays. I could probably stand to remove it from the user profiles now that ICQ is shutting down, but it’s not harming anything, and it’s kind of nostalgic seeing it there. It also emphasises our own longevity, and the fact that we’ve outlasted a platform that once boasted over 100 million registered users worldwide.

Although 2001 was the peak of ICQ’s popularity, many of us did migrate to MSN Messenger (later renamed Windows Live Messenger) around that time. I can’t recall what prompted the switch. It may have just been that MSN felt new, and was gaining popularity with people who weren’t as tech savvy. I also have vague memories of a few updates to ICQ that weren’t popular. Whatever the case, whether it was to talk to people I knew in real life or online friends from the NLSC community, I was using MSN far more than ICQ. Ironically, despite losing popularity to MSN, ICQ has lasted much longer as Windows Live Messenger was shut down in 2013 in favour of Skype.

Mind you, outside of regions where other messaging apps were unpopular or indeed prohibited, ICQ became increasingly niche. The last time I used it was around 2005, when I began working at a company that was using it for internal messaging. It felt like a nostalgic throwback then, only four years removed from it being my messaging app of choice! I also remember we ran into a few problems with ICQ and ended up replacing it with other apps, including Windows Live Messenger. I never had a need to return to ICQ for personal use, and even Windows Live Messenger gave way to Facebook Messenger, DMs on Twitter/X, texting, and other apps before its shutdown.

Dennis Rodman Modded Into NBA Live 2000 PC

Now that ICQ is set to follow MSN/Windows Live Messenger into digital oblivion, it’s the end of an era. I’ll admit that it’s a wistful moment for me as a 90s kid. Sure, I don’t have a need for its services anymore, and with the way the app has changed hands since I last used it, I’m not sure I trust it or its current owners with my data. Still, since I did track down my UIN, part of me wishes that I could log in one last time before the shutdown. I’m not sure that it’s possible – I’ve read conflicting reports about old accounts being deleted for inactivity – and there’s not much that I could do in there anyway. The mere suggestion probably sounds like foolish sentimentality.

Still, seeing online support for NBA Live and NBA 2K titles end year after year has taught me to make the most of access while we still have it, and to leave no business unfinished whenever possible. If you want to take one last look around, so to speak, don’t put it off. In this case, reminiscing is probably enough! As for sentimentality, while it may seem strange to eulogise an instant messaging platform, for us 90s kids, it was a part of our childhood and adolescence; our introduction to something that is now ubiquitous and taken for granted. It’s the digital equivalent of losing video stores, or a favourite hangout spot. Another proverbial paradise paved to put up a parking lot.

There’s another reason to mourn the loss of ICQ, even if you haven’t used it in years. It’s well and truly closing the book on the Web 1.0 era; like Yahoo! GeoCities before it, another giant has been felled. Their era brought us the first generation of what we now call content creators, as independent fansites flourished. Those days and so many sites are now gone, replaced by toxic social media platforms, and content produced by media conglomerates and AI. Dishearteningly, the internet is rapidly disappearing, and it’s not just ancient sites. Around a quarter of pages that existed between 2013 and 2023 are no longer accessible. On the bright side, the original Space Jam site lives on!

Sitting Reflectively in The City (NBA 2K21)

That brings me to what we do here at the NLSC. While we’ve always tried to keep up with the times and will continue to adapt as best we can, in some ways, we remain a throwback to the era of ICQ, AIM, and Web 1.0. We’re an independently-run fansite with a discussion board; a passion project rather than a business or brand. Changes in content management systems mean that our archives don’t stretch all the way back to 1996, but some of the tools and mods in our Downloads section do. We’ve been able to weather challenges, changes in the basketball gaming space, and shifting trends in content creation. I’m proud of our longevity, and I must emphasise we’re not done yet.

At the same time, seeing the end of ICQ and reflecting on how we came along shortly before it and are now set to outlast it…well, you can’t help wondering where the years went, and what the future holds! Again, this remains a fulfilling hobby for me and I’m not planning on stepping away, but when that time comes, I hope that I’m in a position to preserve the NLSC for as long as possible. It’s always cool when someone who was a regular years ago drops by and is delighted that we’re still around, not to mention humbling that we’re part of their online nostalgia. It’s how I look at ICQ: I’ve moved on, but it represents some really fun times when the web was still new and exciting.

The impending shutdown doesn’t change that, of course. After June 26th 2024, I’ll still remember the excitement upon hearing that a friend has come online, and seeing their name in blue at the top of my contacts list. I’ll always be grateful for long chats and message chains with friends from school, as well as people I met through the NLSC and online basketball gaming community. Memories of mischief will raise a smile, and a roll of the eyes at a teenager who thought he was being such a clever troll. And, like everyone else who used ICQ, I’ll never forget that iconic sound effect when a new message arrived, a yellow note flashing in the app window and down on the taskbar:

Indeed, every notification sound echoes with nostalgia.

Vale, ICQ.

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