The IM legacy of MSN Messenger

Let’s talk about something not too old, but also something that no longer exists: MSN Messenger, later known as Windows Live Messenger up until its demise. For the sake of simplicity, and in reference to what most of us colloquially called it after its name change, it will be referred to as MSN Messenger for the remainder of this post.

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First released in 1999, MSN Messenger was one of the most used instant messaging clients in the world. The program evolved from a simple plain-text messaging service between contacts, to a full interactive experience that went beyond text conversation and added webcam chat, audio, file sharing, multiplayer games, emoticons, and much more. In competition with other IM’ing services such as Yahoo! Messenger and ICQ (both still in service, believe it or not), MSN Messenger arguably left the biggest impact in the history and culture of instant messaging.

I created my first account when I was seven or eight years old in early 2004. My contacts consisted of a few older cousins, and maybe one or two friends from school who were allowed to have an account back then. I was using version 6.0 at the time on my Windows ME.

The program was my oyster. Customizable backgrounds, display photos, fonts, and emoticons were fun and exciting at the time. They don’t seem like a big deal by today’s standards, but as a kid who had never used something like it at the time, it had a lot of useful features to offer.

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Some of the classic MSN emoticons
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The re-designed emoticons from the 2010 Wave 4 release

The iconic emoticons, to this day, are still one of my favourite things. Nearing the service’s death I had a large custom collection I was very proud of. Once Microsoft had changed around the emoticons in the “Wave 4” version of the service, I personally thought it took away from the perfect, classic looks of the originals. The MSN emoticons set a standard for graphic emoticons on the internet as a whole, but also for what we have now with Unicode emojis.

Another feature that also made the experience enjoyable were the games. Something that I miss is being able to play a game against a friend while you were chatting. A quick match of Minesweeper Flags, Checkers, Bejeweled (the only three games I kicked ass at), or any of the other options was always a fun way to spice up a conversation. It also made for a good plan B when you and the other person ran out of things to talk about. Sending a game request is something I’d love to do through an iMessage conversation today.

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A game of Minesweeper Flags played in a conversation window. (Photo from http://blog.daum.net/trendit.co.kr/123)

As more versions of the program were released, more features came along such as winks and nudges. Winks, for those who remember, were one of the most god-awful, annoying things that you could receive. For those who don’t remember, winks were these short animations that you could send to whoever you were talking to. They would typically take up almost your entire screen, and were incredibly loud and obnoxious. In retrospect, it’s fair to say no one used them for any purpose other than to be a pain in the ass. If you got a lot sent to you at once, you’d experience the fun of your computer crashing.

Nudges, on the other hand, actually served a purpose. While they were arguably just as annoying as winks, depending on how you look at it, they weren’t as bad. If your friend was taking forever to reply, sending a quick nudge would shake their screen with a quick ding noise, notifying that you were waiting to hear from them. At least with these, there was a limit placed on how many you could send within a certain amount of time.

Messenger Plus! was another popular feature that came around in 2001, but didn’t become popular until the late 2000’s. It was popular around the time I’d reached middle school. I never installed it, but I remember a lot of my friends using it. For those who had it, you’d likely see a rainbow of different coloured display names on your main contacts page. For those like myself who didn’t, you saw a sea of code.

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Colourful names as seen on Messenger Plus! (photo from http://mundotech.net/colocar-los-iconos-grandes-en-nick-del-msn/)
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The memorable and hard-to-look-at code for those of us who decided to not install Messenger Plus! (photo from https://nayarasanfer.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/saudades-saudades-parte-dois/)

Sadly, the fun had to stop, or at least start slowing down, at some point. As the 2010s began getting close, communication technology had advanced through the growing popularity of cell phones and social media. There were efforts made to improve the service as means of keeping up with competition, but as users started to turn to other methods, the program was officially shut down in 2013.

Post-MSN

Since its death (or even past its peak), people have turned to texting and using services like Facebook Messenger or Skype. I speculate the Wave 4 release of the service in late 2010 also had a lot to do with people using the service less. In design and functionality, the unnecessary changes to a familiar interface wasn’t the smartest move at the time, especially considering the competition that came from other newer programs.

Though its final years weren’t the best for the program, it ultimately left its mark on the world of digital communication. For a lot of people, it was their first experience in instant messaging, depending on which generation you ask. Its endless features enhanced the experience and paved the way for future messaging programs. In addition to its impact toward future services, its everyday usage by over 330 million users left behind nostalgia and memories of conversation and activities between friends and family.

Feel free to share your experiences in the comments. 

Have a suggestion for a future post? Have a net memory of your own that you’d like to share? Post it in the comments below, or send an e-mail to thenetstorian@gmail.com.

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Author: The Netstorian

Internet culture enthusiast and creator of The Netstorian.

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