It's very strange to me that it's been (just about) ten years since MSN "shut down" their hosted chatroom service. I didn't even know they shut it down at all, actually — I just looked it up on wikipedia while I was writing this. I have a lot of strange memories of those MSN-hosted chatrooms, during the early days of my generation's internet.
I call it the early days of my generation's internet because it's distinctly different from the proper, real early days of the internet. I won't get into what those days entailed because they're mostly irrelevant to my nostalgia — I don't care much for the old BBS systems, the pre-Usenet mailing lists, and all the crap. Yes, it's informative, and it's evolutionary, but the people who were using them were old. Very few people on those BBS systems grew up with them.
In the good old year 2000, when I was twelve-going-on-thirteen, I hid inside MSN chatrooms like a war-torn refugee. My family had just moved during that summer between six and seventh grade, so I was going to go into Junior High School, a scary new world. My best friend moved away that summer, and I didn't have many other friends at all. In our new house, we moved our shitty eMachine into its own room, initially known proudly as "the computer room" and then later, mournfully, as "Cyle's room". I went in there every day after school and then again after dinner and shut myself away from the world.
Honestly I cannot remember how I found MSN Chat. One day I was just patrolling around the web in good old Internet Explorer 4 or 5, loaded up some clunky ActiveX chatroom, and was blown away by just how many people were actively on this thing. Remember: at the turn of the century, the internet was not a populated place in that there was no activity feed, no members list, nothing that would visually indicate the existence of other users in anywhere near real-time. The exception to this was a select few gaming platforms like Battle.net, but never in the browser, never while just bopping around the web. The internet at large was static, unmoving, unfeeling, devoid of human touch.
This was also long before anybody was really worrying about pedophiles sitting in chatrooms, waiting to text-chat unsuspecting preteens. When I really think about it, I don't know why it would be scary. This was long before you could send photos over the web — having a webcam was very rare and the resolution was never above 320x240. The best digital camera (for several hundred dollars) took maybe a 640x480 pixel photo. For comparison, a trash flip phone camera today takes at least 1024x768 images, which was the resolution on my CRT monitor at the time. (All of the PowerMacs I owned could only go up to 800x600, so 1024x768 was a big deal.) The iPhone or Android phone in your pocket right now takes 3000x2000 photos, at least.
Anyway, I just remember that here I was, in a chatroom, and it was revelatory to me. MSN was made up of dozens, maybe hundreds, of individually-themed chatrooms. You could join only one at a time, and the topics ranged from "Sci Fi Chat" to "Automobile Chat". I frequented Teen Chat #3 — there was always between four and seven "Teen Chat" channels available, provisioned as the maximum limit of users-per-chatroom (around 30 I think) was reached. I remember waiting for the number of users in the chatroom to momentarily dip below 30 so I could "sneak" in. Popular chatroom themes always had multiple instances, and "Teen Chat" always seemed to be the most popular.
I remember the absolute mess of the space — and it did feel like a space — as at least a dozen people all talked at once. At the time, and still now, I'm baffled by the fact that we don't have better vocabulary for our new communication models. The verb "to talk" seems wrong. We texted, typed, or wrote to each other, but we kept saying that it was talking. People would be talking indirectly to each other about nothing in particular, whether it was about TV shows, movies, video games, social problems, whatever. The topic, instead of being really focused on a hobby or occupation, was simply being a teenager.
I quickly realized that the composition of the room's populace was more diverse than I expected. Being in a rural area in Maine, I was in one of maybe three families who had a computer at home. I knew plenty of adults who had computers at home, but not very many kids. It was a big deal in school when someone handed in an essay that had been printed from a computer. Of course, I watched this radically change over the next few years through high school, to the point that when I graduated, everyone in my class had a computer, and typing up papers for class was the expectation. If anyone didn't own a computer, they lied about it, and this form of strange technological/socioeconomic pressure cast out some people, I believe.
I, however, was vaulted to some kind of tech-elite based on the fact that I had always had a computer at home and I was familiar with pretty much all of its functionality. When I was 15 or so I was the first person in school to get a CD burner, and the first to figure out how to use peer-to-peer file sharing, so I'd burn music discs from MP3s if someone brought me a blank CD. In an odd way, this didn't necessarily make me a cool kid, but it did make me popular and well-known.
Nonetheless, the population in these for-teens chatrooms seemed to actually be made up of teenagers. I spent probably two months in Teen Chat #3 before I became "a regular" and could identify the screennames of the other "regulars". We would PM (private message) each other and have small, one-off side chats about specific things. The screennames (or "handles" as they were called on some other platforms) were never someone's name, they were always strange jumbles of characters. I don't remember any of them specifically, but one host would be "yah828" or "z3lda" or "RedRover6". The galactic internet shift from not using your real name and distinctly using a constructed pseudonym, to always using your real name, is something I wish could be socially documented in some grand fashion. Perhaps a mausoleum for lost, abandoned usernames.
I remember one day I happened to be PMing with the host of the chatroom, a "host" being a special person who "owned" the room and could kick people out. He told me about how it was better to use AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, which had a much higher teenage user base than the then-newly-released Yahoo and MSN IM applications) to talk to other "cool people". It was then that he introduced me to a few people — most of them other "hosts" in different MSN Teen Chat rooms — by giving me their AIM usernames. Back then you could just IM someone with a "hello" and introduce yourself — nobody was afraid of anyone, and there weren't bots regularly spamming you.
Through these other hosts I learned that the whole MSN chatroom system was simply a layer on top of a basic IRC server. IRC, being one of the earliest modes of chatroom communication across the web, was something I'd never heard of before. I already had Microsoft Chat (an IRC client) on my Windows 98 machine, so I loaded up the MSN chatroom system instead of going to the browser interface. I felt like I was looking behind the curtain, like a fish who learned how to breathe beyond the confines of its pond. It was just one of the small, formative moments in a long series of technological revelations for me.
Being in the MSN chatroom via IRC instead of the browser elevated me to a different class of user to the hosts, so I was promoted as a host of Teen Chat #3. It was strange, being thirteen and feeling in charge of something bigger than myself. I sat there pretty much every night, watching the chat text fly by, moderating the flow of the conversation. If someone got aggressive and started swearing, I kicked them out. I did favors for people and kicked the annoying ones. People in the chatroom treated me with a kind of strange reverence that can only be found between the ignorance of youth and a will to power. Realistically, it was a Lord of the Flies situation on the tiniest of islands on the internet.
I very quickly upgraded to using mIRC instead of Microsoft Chat, and with it came a whole new world of options. Instantly it felt cooler because the green-on-black color palette mIRC had as default looked like the "hacker" mythos I saw in movies. The hosts of the Teen Chats, and other hosts around the MSN system, created "back rooms" that didn't show up in the browser-based version of the chatroom lists. Inside these more quiet, formal spaces, I made close friends who introduced me to other sites like GeoCities and LiveJournal. Don't laugh — they were a big deal ten years ago, and were the first true manifestations of a managed independent internet sociality not tied to a mere chat protocol.
A few of the people I found in those back rooms, the "real hacker types", helped teach me the scripting language included in mIRC. They had built chatbots that would automatically moderate the chatroom for them when they weren't at their computers. Bots that would kick someone out when a swear word was triggered, or keep kicking someone out if they were on a special ban list. In the space of six to eight months, I went from a "nobody" to a fully scripted IRC-based op. ("Ops" are synonymous with "hosts" in IRC jargon.) I was a member of an elite few who kept their computers logged into the MSN chatroom system via mIRC 24/7. People noticed, and when we were actually sitting at our desk with the chatroom open, our presence was celebrated.
I don't know this for sure, but I'm fairly certain this atmosphere was what directly created some of whom are considered to be "the internet innovators" of my generation. Guys like Mark Zuckerberg, Christopher Poole, David Karp, Alan Schaaf, Aaron Swartz, et cetera, whose egos fermented in the strange atmosphere of hidden IRC channels and message boards, just fiddling around with what scrappy technology was available. The unimaginative, office cubicle work of 30- and 40-something-year olds at Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, etc, during the 90s were our imperfect tools that we fought against to build something unique and satisfying.
My life in the MSN chatroom universe ended around a year after its beginning. I outgrew it. By fourteen, the seeds planted by the little efforts of scripting IRC bots, making HTML/CSS pages on GeoCities, pouring my heart out on LiveJournal, were rapidly expanding beyond the existing capacity of my available technology. I kept using IRC, but I didn't bother moderating any chatrooms. I moved on to the more asynchronous world of message boards, and the faster-paced environment of multiplayer gaming. I suddenly started spending a lot of time building computers instead of just using them. I found the intimacy of using AIM more profound than the social soup a chatroom encouraged.
It was only a couple years ago that one or two of the people I met via those early MSN chat days contacted me on Facebook. It was odd, but our experience was the same at a basic level: believing in the internet as a true social device profoundly shaped how we used computers and understood friendship. It's no surprise to us that the rest of the world followed, and is now clamoring to be online even more than we were.