The Social Spark: Instant Messaging

imageWhen you look back at the history of social computing, we often point to major brands and platforms that have transformed our personal or professional lives more recently – but we tend to forget the technologies that paved the way before them. All the media attention seems to fall on the enterprise collaboration tools as of late, and if you look beyond tools like Yammer, Tibbr, Box and others, you’ll see a number of consumer-based platforms that helped shape what we now have in the enterprise, like Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Friendster, LinkedIn, and I would even argue, going back a bit further, the AOL platform of yesteryear. But before any of these platforms (I’m being generous by calling AOL a platform) were the Instant Messaging platforms.

Of course, there were other collaboration tools in place prior to IM. Within the manufacturing sector, there had been product lifecycle management tools for a decade or more, we had email, and you could even argue that bulletin board services (BBS) provided some degree of collaboration between geographically-dispersed groups. But it was IM that was the change agent for social collaboration. My first experience with IM was when a former college roommate invited me to participate in the beta for AOL Instant Messenger within their closed network, sometime around late 1996. Mirabilis, an Israeli-based tech company, went on to create the very successful ICQ platform which is credited as the first stand-alone, web-based IM platform, which was sold to AOL a couple years later. Amidst the success of AOL IM and ICQ, other platforms were launched, including Microsoft Net Meeting, which came bundled with IE 3.0 and 4.0 (and was eventually retired when the Vista OS was launched) and very successfully incorporated video and voice over IP (VoIP) with 1-to-1 and group chat capability.

I often share some of my experiences testing systems and software in a pre-IM world, where my team would open up a conference line and leave it going throughout testing so that people could jump on the line, as needed. I remember one particularly stressful time where I left the office late after a long Saturday preparing for a Sunday cutover, and tried to get some sleep. I woke up around 2am, unsettled about the state of the project, and dialed into the conference line – only to find most of my test and engineering teams on the line trying to work through some serious issues. It seems almost surreal now that we would have to rely so much on such synchronous communication methods, but that’s what we knew. Fast-forward a couple years, and that same team had fully embraced the IM paradigm. At that time, we used the new Yahoo Messenger almost exclusively, with some folks connecting AOL and Yahoo using the Trillian tool, which linked various IM networks. When I started my own software company in 1997, one of the first things we did was build a simple IM client into our platform.

When 9/11 happened, I was at the end of a work day in Tokyo, dialed into Yahoo Messenger via my hotel phone line, using its VoIP capabilities to try and track down friends and family on the east coast as it was happening. IM is how I was able to get through to people when phone lines were busy.

Instant Messaging is at the core of almost every social platform. Whether we connect in real-time to have a conversation about an upcoming project, or to discuss an architectural diagram or PowerPoint presentation, IM has become embedded into the daily habits of the information worker. As a remote worker, I don’t know how I would be able to do my job without IM conversations, sometimes happening concurrently in Lync, Skype, Facebook, and Google. And as you can see, I am a fanboy…which is why when Adam Levithan (@collabadam) from Portal Solutions invited me to co-present on IM as the first in his social webinar series, I was happy to participate.

You can find our webinar recording below:

Webinar: Instant Messaging Ate My Intellectual Property from Portal Solutions on Vimeo.

And for those who like slideware:

With audio and video streaming technologies improving each year, you would think that we’d see a decrease in the written word – but it hasn’t happened, and I don’t see it happening at all. Instead, we’re augmenting our audio and visual collaborations with written communication. For example, I’ve been pushing the idea of the YamJam or TweetJam model for various group trainings or conferences – using Yammer for events that are internally-focused, and Twitter for public events. The idea is to simulcast the written conversations  with the audio and visual, allowing people to ask questions, comment, and otherwise capture another layer of collaboration that would otherwise be lost.

In my mind, IM is one of the three most important social technologies to be invented — along with video streaming, and real-time group editing. But that’s for another blog post.

Be sure to follow Adam for updates on his social webinar series, courtesy of Portal Solutions.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of, a blockchain-based video technology company.