In October 2014, the Washington Post published a piece by Caitlin Dewey, A complete history of the rise and fall — and reincarnation! — of the beloved ’90s chatroom
Dewey observes that it’s an odd time for Facebook to launch its new Rooms app, since over the past few years AOL, Yahoo, and MSN have been shutting down their realtime text chat features. “Like other modern attempts to reincarnate the ’90s chat room, [Rooms] seems to lack that critical quality that made early AIM, Yahoo Messenger and MSN fun: the edge of quirkiness, transgression and inventiveness. The feeling that this was a new and semi-lawless space, that unexpected things could happen.”
Dewey then launches into a look back at… Talkomatic:
Just look at the earliest, successful forerunner to online chat — a program that academics invented, almost by accident, long before the birth of the World Wide Web.
Talkomatic, the program’s appropriately retro name, was born out of PLATO, a computer-based education program at the University of Illinois, in 1973. It was primitive, by modern standards: Only five people could chat at once, and their messages displayed letter-by-letter as they typed. But at the time, Talkomatic was something of a revelation. PLATO had been designed for classroom use; according to its creators’ original plans, “communication between people would play [only] an incidental role.” But as more people signed on to the community, its participants began to notice something striking: In the freewheeling, pseudonymous realm of PLATO, people began to form highly personal, social connections that had nothing to do with academics. In other words, they just wanted to chat.
“People met and got acquainted in Talkomatic, and carried on romances via “term-talk” and Personal Notes,” one of its creators, David Woolley, wrote in his 1994 history of the program. “Many online personalities developed … Many people traveled to Urbana to see the lab and meet those of us who worked there … Over the years, PLATO has affected many lives in profound ways.”
Dewey describes the subsequent evolution of online chat, from CompuServe’s CB Simulator, to chatrooms on AOL, Prodigy, and Yahoo, and the proliferation of instant messaging services, populated by teenagers, technophiles, and stay-at-home moms.
Chatrooms were experiencing a cultural shift… A space that was once a frontier was being standardized, monetized – colonized by moms. And the places that remained on the fringes were categorically gross: full of spam and sludge and A/S/L (age-sex-location) style solicitation (age/sex/location), a far cry from the supportive communities of the late ’80s. Combine that with the advent of new paradigms for online social networking (Friendster, Myspace, Facebook) and the chatroom’s demise was obvious, if not imminent, by the early aughts.
But despite the closing of the 90s-era chatrooms, Dewey points out that the desire for chat remains strong, as illustrated by the continuing creation of apps like Yik Yak, Omegle, and Banter.
Dewey points out that in the bygone chatroom era, it only mattered what you were interested in, not who you were in real life. Facebook has turned that on its head: “By constricting our online selves to our offline identities, Facebook obliterated the infinite possibilities, and the intimate, interest-based communities, of the social Web.”
Dewey quotes Kyle Chayka from Gizmodo: “We’re tired of being told what to do, what to see, and how to interact online by platforms that resemble rat mazes more than sandboxes… Like artisanal hipster nostalgia for a time when men were men, shoes were handmade, and everyone pickled their own vegetables, the internet’s vanguard is pushing for a return toward a simpler digital era.” In this vein falls the minimalist social network Ello, and the really, really stripped down Tilde.Club, which is basically a server in the cloud where Paul Ford creates Unix accounts for whoever asks for one.
Dewey returns to Talkomatic in her conclusion:
Even the original Talkomatic, circa ‘73, has seen a modern reboot of late: Its creators launched a pared-down Web version in March, more than 40 years after their original. It doesn’t log your chat transcripts, and it doesn’t have ads. In fact, it doesn’t have anything, really, besides a series of elongated text fields you and a friend — or a stranger! — can type into.
It’s glitchy, sure. It’s stupifying simplistic. But on an Internet where so much feels dictated and pre-determined and over-designed, it’s kind of freeing, too.
In February 2016, Monty Munford published a very similar article in Ars Technica, also featuring Talkomatic. Munford’s piece even has a very similar title: “The Fall… and Rise and Rise and Rise of Chat Networks“.