R.I.P. Gchat -- You let us pretend we were working
Gchat was born the day after Hurricane Katrina: Aug. 24, 2005. The latter made landfall in Louisiana a few days later, thrashed cities and killed people and became shorthand for catastrophe and folly. Gchat gathered strength, swamped our workdays, tightened our connections but eroded our relationships.
Recently, there were months of ominous warnings from Google, to prepare users of its instant-messaging feature for a wrenching change.
And then on Monday, Gchat went with the wind.
Born in that interlude between the launch of Facebook (2004) and the release of the iPhone (2007), it has now been replaced by something called "Google Hangouts."
"Hangouts offers advanced improvements over Google Chat," Google said, but who are they kidding. In this era of relentless iteration, we cling first. We nostalgize and rhapsodize.
A moment, then, for Gchat.
Or half a workday, if we're being honest.
Gchat was like passing notes in class, but at the speed of light, and by using the same motions that looked like actual work. If you texted on your phone at your desk, you looked like you were goofing off. But if you Gchatted on your computer screen, you looked like you were answering emails. You could narrow your eyes and type with intensity, as if making great progress on that article you promised your editor by 4 p.m. When really, in a little box hiding among more pertinent browser windows:
me: i'm so f-ed. how am i not fired?
friend: i found out everyone else in the world is doing the same thing: nothing
That's a chat from 4:40 p.m., June 21, 2006, resting in my Gmail archives. It is a time capsule of insecurity, honesty and awareness that Gchat - then 10 months old - was a problem.
All of a sudden your Gmail was not just a static mailbox. It was virtual recess, with all of your email contacts now available to play in real time. For those who spent college on AOL Instant Messenger, Gchat was both recognizable and an improvement. There was no hunting for complicated screen names. The chat function just appeared one day, and fit snugly into the email interface. It was, like every new innovation in the internet age, novel and unexciting. Back to my archives: March 15, 2006, 5:15 p.m.
friend: does this work?
friend: this isnt that wild
Wild, no. Useful, yes. You could gracefully have five or six conversations at once, each chat box flashing when it needed attention, though you risked confusing boxes and sending gossip to the wrong person. You could color-code your availability: A green dot next to your name meant you wanted to talk, yellow meant you might actually be working, red meant you were busy and important and you wanted everyone to know you were busy and important. Gchat gave us the illusion that we were all at work, together, pretending to be working. And its archives provide carbon-dated, minute-by-minute evidence of how much you've changed, or haven't, and of how long and hollow your days were, and are. The entirety of a Gchat exchange from July 20, 2009, at 6:50 p.m.:
friend: i can't seem to get off the couch
me: Don't fight it
friend: at some point I'll need to get up for food
Scroll through your chat archives and live the minutiae of your personal history. Marvel at who used to be a part of your daily life. See who was always trying to get your attention, and see whose attention you were always trying to get.
me: you there?
me: okay text me
In 2006, Twitter opened a new venue for instant, free-wheeling conversation with anyone in the world. Facebook debuted its own messaging component for friends in 2008. The chat platform Slack was introduced in 2013, took over the American workplace, and became a verb for intra-office communication. Texting on the phone is as easy as ever: iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal.
Google won't share Gchat data, but there are now 1.2 billion people with Gmail accounts - so maybe, until this week, there were a billion or so Gchatters out there. A portion of this number probably has six other ways of messaging people, so what made Gchat special? Longevity? Familiarity? Ease? Maybe it was the feeling that, in the quiet isolation of your cubicle, a friend was right there with you, in a box that you begged to flash.
The dumb thing about all this is that Google Hangouts doesn't appear to be much different than Gchat. Except it is different. It's different in a way that all these iterations of software are different, in the way that likes are different from favorites on Twitter, or that Facebook's timeline is different than its news feed. Each difference, each change, is incremental, inconsequential and excruciating.
As my best friend asked me Wednesday: "are you on? I can't tell with the new set up. BRING BACK AOL INSTANT MESSENGER."
She sent this plea by old-fashioned e-mail.