RIP ICQ: Remembering a classic messaging app that was way ahead of its time

A 2000-era Windows 98 desktop with ICQ running
Enlarge / ICQ under Windows 98.

Samuel Axon

After nearly 28 years in business, messaging service ICQ will cease operations on June 26, according to its current owners.

You’d be forgiven for not realizing it still exists; The proto-IM service hasn’t been common since the 2000s. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it simultaneously laid the foundation for direct messaging and social media as we knew them in the post-Facebook era.

28 years of history

ICQ was somewhat of an accident, as popular as it was. Created by four Israeli computer enthusiasts, it wasn’t even supposed to be the original idea.

Following Netscape’s IPO, which heralded a new era of lucrative technology ventures, all four were looking for an idea with which to launch. Their initial plan was to launch a service that would make it easier to check sound messages. They invented ICQ as a tool for themselves while working on this project.

In the days of dial-up, staying online all the time to receive messages or chat on platforms like IRC wasn’t for everyone. Most people had to keep these lines open for phone calls.

As a result, ICQ’s creators were frustrated by not seeing each other’s online posts. They developed ICQ as a better way to communicate from home while collaborating on the (now useless) beeper project.

The app didn’t have much marketing behind it, but it spread quickly through word of mouth, particularly in the burgeoning online gaming communities around multi-user dungeons (MUDs), from early matches to death, etc. More than anything else, the carrier of ICQ’s legacy today is Discord.

ICQ was eventually acquired by AOL and lost ground to more funded services like AIM and MSN. Then came MySpace, Facebook, social networks, iMessage, etc., leaving no room for the old ICQs.

In 2010, ICQ was acquired by a company then called, a major Russian Internet application provider. That company eventually morphed and changed its name to VK, and has been keeping ICQ on life support ever since as a sort of Russian alternative to Skype.

Messaging Memories

In light of the news, a few Ars staff members shared some of their memories on ICQ.

Samuel Axon – Editor-in-chief

ICQ had several unique features for its time. Those of us who used it may still remember our ICQ numbers; there were no usernames, but something more like a phone number. The sooner someone joined, the smaller their numbers could be, so there was prestige in smaller numbers. (Mine was 6377119: seven digits was respectable, but not the top.)

I signed up because I was playing the game online Meridian 59and its community used ICQ extensively for out-of-game communication.

ICQ offered online profiles, and it was through these profiles that I met my first girlfriend in high school. I lived in Springfield, Missouri, and she lived in Joplin, which is a little nearby. She was looking for people with similar interests, came across my profile and saw that I was interested in writing and journalism. A classic 1990s teen summer romance followed.

It was the first thing I could think of in my life that resembled a Facebook-like social network, and it was also my first experience with anything resembling online dating. She found my profile, I seemed cool to her and she sent me a message.

I continued to use ICQ for years to communicate with my friends in the MUD and game development communities before other services took over in the 2000s. I probably lasted longer than most. Honestly, that “uh oh!” miss. messaging sound. It was a strange choice, but to me it’s iconic.

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