I remember MSN

Yet again, I’ve been given a flash of inspiration from Jay’s 301 Permanently Moved podcast. “Do you remember MSN?” asked the podcast app notification. And just like that, all at once, I remembered it.

I remember the OG XP interface with someone’s screen name far too long to fit across the application window’s title bar. I remember the font and text colours me and my most regular interlocutors used. I remember that there was always one person who only typed in lime fucking green. I remember the custom backgrounds I chose – usually tropical fish, classy like. I remember too many windows for the task bar – a time before tabs – each a portal to a different school friend, chatroom acquaintance or person I met once at a party. I remember task bar tabs flashing for attention with each new message. I remember sitting back in my chair after dropping off dial-up, pleased with myself after a particularly active session, a master of windows carefully sized and placed across the screen for maximum visibility, like a pilot in flow over a brightly-lit dashboard. I remember pleading with my mum for another 15 minutes of internet because “it’s really good tonight”. I remember XD and o__O and brb and :-* and gtg and my signature sign-offs, the simple “ciao x” and the droll and juvenile “seizure l8r”. Most fondly, I remember ({) and the warmth of receiving (}) in return, which could sometimes feel as tight as a real hug.

Like Jay, I remember pouring my heart and soul into the chat window. No one could have laid claim to them more than Abi, the first person I ever loved. I remember my mum asking what I could possibly have left to talk about given I’d spent all day at school with people I was talking to. She didn’t get it, how could she? At an age when articulating your innermost feelings to someone’s face made you both wish the ground could swallow you (even in the event that the mere fact of being alone at school with someone of the opposite sex wouldn’t itself attract intrigue and rumour from your peers), MSN was the small lattice window between two teenage confessors. Whoever you were or had to be at school, over MSN you could be someone else, yourself. MSN taught me how to write. It also taught me how to articulate my emotions with words and gave me means and cause to practice every day.

For me, MSN was a schizophrenia that ended in heartbreak. By the time Abi and I had reached the point of being able to articulate our feelings offline – a long, cold night under the heater of a train station after being busted out of a party; another long night, walking from Hoylandswaine Hill and culminating in perhaps the longest hug of my life behind a building on Bridge Street – she was preparing to move to Tennessee forever. What even teenage inhibition couldn’t deny, time difference could. At first we exchanged photos occasionally – I still have some – but the distance was too great. Not so long after I left home to move into a place without internet, still in the days before smartphones or ubiquitous broadband.

That was a golden age. Now, I hate what instant messaging has become. I hate how smartphones have allowed it to supplant text messaging. I hate that conversations with friends have been relegated to a low-level irritable murmur of notifications in amongst the emails and pop-ups and system updates and Amazon delivery notifications. Jay describes how he now recognises the how MSN generated within him the symptoms of what he now recognises as a slow-moving panic attack. Thankfully, that isn’t how it made me feel. But it was doubtless my first experience of software-as-serotonin, notification-as-adrenaline. And have we not all overdosed in decade and a half since? I treat messaging like a recovering addict might treat their particular vice. I won’t have WhatsApp or email notifications turned on anymore; they make me too tense. I downloaded the Facebook app once and deleted it almost immediately, sensing what was good for me. I deleted Twitter because it’s too easy to get sucked in, and easier still to say you’re not.

It strikes me that, like SMS, instant messaging was a medium borne of the limitations of the technology upon which it was conducted. Dial-up was slow, relatively costly, it relied on having a proper PC, and, as our parents used to remind us, meant sacrificing the telephone line – prime household communications real estate in the days of cheap evening calls. MSN was basic and light, and messages were exchanged quickly because both users had to be online with the software open to speak to one another. If you only had a window of 30-60 minutes, it meant you could talk as quickly as you could type, in real-time and without the annoying interface of an email inbox. And, most importantly, when you had to go, you went.

gtg, ttyl x

There is no off now. There might be a gtg, but it comes with an apology rather than a mutual understanding that the connection is literally going to cease imminently because a household is a site of competing wants and expectations. There is no longer any waiting – or hoping! – for someone to be online. Only notifications (real or phantom), digital twitch, leaving unread or on-read, and our constant, repetitive, insipid apologies for not replying sooner, as if having other things to do was shameful. All messaging apps now assume the instancy of MSN, but with the added fucking massive difference that the connection is literally continuous, and the device has somehow become as fundamental as the keys to our actual homes.

This is my idea of a panic attack.

The first time a friend told me in all seriousness not to apologise for replying ‘late’ on WhatsApp – told me off, even – I was taken aback. Last year, another friend admitted to “massively respecting” the fact that I have read receipts turned off. Since I’ve turned message notifications off and stopped replying to anything immediately unless I happen to literally be looking at that app at that time, and with time to spare, I’m certain I’ve been variously perceived as absent, uninterested, unbothered and worse from time to time.

We talk about taking ‘breaks’ from social media and digital detoxes as if we can’t imagine digital communication outside the prism of substance abuse, and yet this still doesn’t capture the sense of social obligation we acknowledge in so many of our digital customs. Most troublingly, the basic principle that, actually, we should all have complete autonomy over our time and attention seems arrogant and selfish, entitled even. Who are you to go about acting as if we’re all still on dial-up just because it suits you?

A friend was recently asking if it’s possible to have WhatsApp without having a smartphone, because he hates smartphones and doesn’t have one but feels WhatsApp would be useful. I said the idea confused me because WhatsApp is one of the primary things I hate about having a smartphone. He clarified that not having WhatsApp leads to missing out on things and, more reprehensible still, inconveniencing people.

Why do we do this to each other? It seems totally out of hand, like we all need a telephone-hungry parent to come over and detach the modem. Even writing this post, I sense that while I’m able to reflect on the more distant past with a great deal of compassion, attempting to approach recent instant messaging culture with a similarly open heart leaves me crabby and irritated. Maybe it’s that for me the early days of social media were personally bound up with early love and, in the case of MySpace, self-realisation (a topic for a whole other blog). Then again, maybe it’s that I don’t know a single Gen Z digital native without an anxiety disorder, whereas at least I remember MSN.

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