History of chat starts in the 1970s. Discover the major apps and what they've offered.
May 30, 2023
Online chat and chat rooms have come a long way in recent decades. In this quick guide to the history of online chat, you’ll find out where online chat started and how that history informed Arena Live Chat, AI and today’s chat experiences.
The first email was sent in 1971, and chat followed soon after. It was limited to universities, researchers, and governments. We see the first online chat emerge.
Developed at the University of Illinois in 1960, this early computer network included chat rooms, email, screen sharing, and other networked features. The key development form PLATO was the launch of Talkomatic in 1973. Talkomatic supported multi-user chat interactions. The technology was limited compared to today’s tools - the application had a maximum of six rooms and a limit of five participants per chat room.
Bulletin board systems (BBS) can be seen as social media before the Internet. The first BBS was invented in 1978 in Chicago. BBS users mainly used dial-up modems to connect to a BBS, post messages, and download files. By one estimate, there were thousands of active BBS systems active in the 1980s and 1990s before the Internet, as we know it, took over in popularity.
The 1980s saw a significant leap forward, with online chat becoming more widespread. Compuserve, a critical early Internet service provider, launched CB simulator in 1980. This online chat service made history as the first chat service available to the public.
The launch of IRC pushed the adoption of online chat much further. Internet Relay Chat - along with email - is one of the few Internet communication apps from before 1990 that remain in use today. IRC made history when it was used to report Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. While IRC is still online, it has declined in popularity due to the launch of social media platforms.
The popularity of online chat exploded in the 1990s as more user-friendly technology, marketing, and innovation made the Internet available to millions of people.
In the 1990s, web browsers became popular, bringing millions of people online. However, many people still had slower connection speeds, so text chat was the perfect solution. Chat messages are easy to transmit, which allows near real-time conversations.
In the 1990s, chat rooms boomed, so it’s difficult to discuss them in depth. Instead, let’s look at some of the most influential services.
In the 1990s, America Online (AOL) was a prominent Internet service provider. The company also became known for its popular chat rooms. The company offered unlimited access to its chat rooms to its subscribers. In 1998, the company made its instant messenger service - AIM - available to non-AOL subscribers.
Released in 1999, MSN Messenger was another popular chat service. The chat app was widely perceived as a competitor to AOL’ AIM app. The app blended 1 on 1 messaging with some social networking functionality.
Launched in 1996, ICQ quickly acquired millions of chat users. The chat service was notable because it was available on multiple operating systems - Windows, Apple, and Unix. Text messaging between individual users formed the core of the app. At its peak in 2001, the app had an estimated 100 million users.
As social media platforms grew in popularity in the 2000s, instant messaging apps lost some of their users. Despite that loss, chat and messaging remained popular features. One-on-one messaging (also known as private messaging) remained a key feature on Twitter, Facebook, and other social sites.
Three trends emerged over the past decade that shaped online chat as we know it today.
Online chat services started to move away from purely social and recreational uses with the rise of customer service chat. This chat service took off by promising greater speed than phone or email customer service. Chat service is also cheaper to provide - about 15-33% cheaper than phone support, according to one estimate. The cost savings is driven by the fact that it is possible for one rep to participate in multiple chat sessions in succession.
Chat and online experiences came together with streaming chat experiences in the 2010s. Across multiple platforms like Discord, Twitch, YouTube Live, and Facebook Live, users could come together and share their thoughts in text chat. These experiences often involved a shared video experience, such as watching a live stream.
With tools like Chat Analyzer, brands can see how their organization and products are being discussed by users in Twitch chats.
The success of delivering customer service through online chat prompted a question: could computers do more of the work? The rise of chatbots - a kind of automation that relied on scripts and simple automation - provided the answer. These automated chat experiences show that many repetitive questions (e.g., what’s the status of my order?) could be handled through automation.
Using scripts to handle routine questions, chatbots helped companies redirect customer service staff to address complex issues.
The launch of Arena in 2017 took the history of chat in a new direction. Arena’s live chat brought the social experience of chat rooms back in a new way.
Brands and publishers can now engage their customers directly on their websites. Social media platforms increasingly struggle with disinformation and toxic content, so people are hungry for alternative ways to connect online. Arena also made live chat more accessible since it is a lightweight application that can run on almost any website.
Artificial intelligence and the need to connect with others beyond social media are two significant trends for the future. Large language models like chatGPT show that chat-style interactions with AI have exciting potential. In some ways, chatGPT brings together a search engine experience with chat.
AI chat experiences are powerful. These technologies are in their early days, so it’s difficult to know how they will used. For example, AI chat tools may be useful in facilitating brandsafe discussions and moderating conversations. AI chat may also play a role in growing online communities and easing the burden of community management.
Connecting with other people is the core of online chat. The first chat platforms succeeded because they offered group and 1-on-1 messaging. The social need to connect through chat isn’t going anywhere. Instead, we will see the growth of online chat experiences on many different websites. We look forward to sharing more insights exploring how AI and people can come together to offer exciting digital experiences.
The history of chat has seen many technologies come and go. What hasn’t changed is the desire to connect with other people. Brands seeking higher customer engagement are vital to give your audience a place to connect. Find out how to grow a digital community on your website with Arena.