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[ih] Instant messaging

At 16:36 2009-11-23, Alan J Maitland wrote:
>I really enjoy this list because it triggers so 
>many fond memories.  I think it just remarkable 
>how far things have come during the past 35 years or so.

It's a pleasure and quite fascinating for me to 
see the excitement about the topic of online chat 
and the early days of instant messaging. Some of 
you mentioned that they had interesting documents 
on the subject; I would be very grateful if they 
could send them to me if they are not available online.

I was not myself very happy with some rough 
"shortcuts" found in the chronology published in 
Six Revisions. In particular with this one:
>Also in 1988, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was 
>first deployed, paving the way for real-time 
>chat and the instant messaging programs we use today.

In a way, it's not completely untrue, in the 
sense that the wide diffusion of IRC probably 
contributed a lot to make Internet chat become 
mainstream. However, as Brian Dear said before, 
IRC was by far not the first system of its kind, 
and did not really *paved the way* to online chat 
as did EMISARI Party-Line (1971), PLATO 
Talkomatic (1973), CompuServe CB Simulator 
(1980), and BITNET Relay (1985) before it.

What IRC did even less is "paving the way for... 
the instant messaging programs". Simply because 
IRC and IM systems belong, IMHO, to two very 
different classes of computer-mediated 
communication devices. IRC belongs to the 
"conference management" type, while IM is more a 
"copresence" management system. While the former 
kind of chat systems are meant to create 
synchronous (pseudo-)anonymous social spaces or 
"places" (chatrooms) designed to foster 
sociability and encourage serendipity in social 
contacts, IM systems correspond to a very 
different communication pattern, centered around 
inviduals and their personal networks.

Furthermore, IM comprises other functions than 
the near-synchrounous transmission of brief 
messages (so called "instant messages"), such as 
the notification of recipient about the delivery 
of a new message and presence/availability 
awareness and management associated with the 
"contact list". Indeed, the instant message as a 
communicational genre or format should be 
distinguished from instant messaging (IM) as a 
practice or social media. Obviously, these 
distinctions were not clear in the 60s and 70s: 
the technology was there, social uses had yet to emerge.

As far as I know, the first implementation of IM 
is due to Anthony DellaFera and colleagues 
(1988), who figured out the specifications of the 
"notification system" in the frame of the Athena 
Project at MIT [see: 
http://www.rfrench.org/papers/usenix.pdf ]. This 
effort led to what is deemed the first IM system, 
Zephyr, deployed at MIT and a few other 
universities. The fundamental principle 
underlying this class of devices is that the flux 
of messages is centered around a person (via 
his/her identifyier), rather than around a place 
(a server address). It?s up to the system to 
locate the recipient in the distributed environment.

If you would like to read more about the 
distinction between "conference" and "copresence" 
chat systems, and how the latter "paradigm" tends 
to takeover these days, I can send you the draft 
of a paper I have submitted to the Bulletin of 
Science & Technology Studies. All comments would be welcome.


Guillaume Latzko-Toth
Ph.D. candidate in Communication Studies
Universit? du Qu?bec ? Montr?al