The evolution of online courtship

I’ve heard of a time when kids gathered after school at diners and made eyes at one another over milkshakes. A time when connecting with your crush actually required leaving the comfort of your home. In my day, teens still hung around local malls in hormone-fuelled clusters, but MSN Messenger dominated as the ultimate flirting ground. There wasn’t any pressure to deliver that perfect line; you had time to calculate your charming words. If things got awkward, no need to come up with an excuse to leave. A simple G2G (got to go) would suffice. And with the mask of the screen, you could choose to interact while slumming in your pyjamas.

Microsoft birthed MSN Messenger Service in July of 1999, enabling countless online after-school rendezvous. Forbidden from using the communication device in elementary school, I only caught the last year of its authentic interface. In December 2005, it evolved into the more visually appealing Windows Live Messenger. According to a Microsoft report four years later, 330 million new users joined the service each month.

On March 15, the popular instant messaging service is set to sign off — permanently. Microsoft confirmed on Jan. 8 that Messenger would finally be retiring after nearly 14 years of activity. The email circulated to users explained the company was uniting the ancient program’s features with those of the industry’s new heavyweight, Skype. “Update to Skype and sign in using a Microsoft Account (same as your Messenger ID) and all your Messenger contacts will be at your fingertips,” read the message.

Microsoft promises the same instant message and video chat, but also boasts new ways of keeping connected on devices like tablets.

For us nostalgic millennials, this marks the end of a technological era. As we send off our old friend, let us commemorate the romantic flings it facilitated and the path it paved for its social media successors. But let’s also ask the question we’ve been avoiding: was time spent on MSN Messenger time well wasted, or one of the first steps in society forgetting the importance of real-life human interaction?

The golden age of instant messaging

My early MSN habits followed a predictable nightly ritual.

It began around 9 p.m. on a school night in a typical suburban neighbourhood. This was a simpler time; not as early as the era of dial-up, but one in which the average middle-class Canadian household contained only one family computer. When my 13-year-old self had completed enough Grade 8 math homework to earn a coveted half-hour of Internet, I launched into my routine. This is how it played out one evening.

Fall Out Boy wailed from crackly computer speakers. I anxiously pawed at the mouse to click on the MSN Messenger buddy icon in the bottom right corner. My fingers stabbed at the keyboard to enter a generic Hotmail account like “curly_cutiexo.” Anticipation built as those two blue and green faceless figures performed their seemingly eternal sign-in dance. Endless interactive possibilities awaited.

Finally, traffic light colours flashed down my contact list. Green signaled online friends, yellow busy and red offline. The most heart-palpitating pop-up possible was a Contact add. My pulse quickened as I hovered my cursor over the “accept” button of a crush-du-jour’s request. Should I add Ryan_BBall1991 back right away? If he was online, I couldn’t start the conversation without risking seeming overeager, in the same way messaging somebody whose status was set as “away” read as desperate.

“Heyyy,” Ryan_BBall1991’s sky-blue bubbly font flashed. The triple use of the letter y was a good sign. I started to type back “hii.” but decided against the greeting. “Hi” came off as snippy in cyber-chats, and periods were the angry breed of punctuation. It was best to avoid punctuation altogether.

I tapped at the delete key and instantly regretted it; I’d forgotten my partner could read when I wrote a message. Imagine my horror when I remembered my evening’s soundtrack was also displayed next to my screen name. I doubted that Fall Out Boy made Ryan_BBall1991’s playlist. I hurriedly browsed my prehistoric version of iTunes and settled on Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz’ “Get Low,” a more popular musical choice amongst my classmates. But before I could deliver a coy “hey theree,” my object of desire appeared offline. Utter heartbreak.

Playing by the rules 

“In a way, instant messaging programs like MSN created a new layer of dating rules,” says 21-year-old Zoe Syberg, a former sociology and anthropology major at Concordia University, now studying psychology at Camosun College. “You had to consider the implications of who added who, how long you took to respond, who instigated conversations, etcetera.”

The laws of this pseudo-world were sometimes just as confusing as real-life courtships. Remember the old signing in and out tactic? It enabled that special contact on your list to be notified you were online, just in case they’d missed it the first time. Or what about the carefully selected song lyrics in your screen name to hint at whatever you were too shy to actually say? You also had to be mindful not to commit the faux pas of blocking someone, only for them to find out you were still chatting with their friend.

As the Messenger interface developed, your conversation partner could “see” once their message had been read. Not answering would just read as rude, which was bad – unless, of course, you wanted to show that you weren’t interested. Display pictures were another delicate matter. It was essential to find that perfect image to best represent the true you. Depending on my web-date, my display picture fluctuated between moody shots of me wearing heavy eyeliner or donning a plastic smile at parties with my girlfriends.

“It removed the pressure that goes into actual dates,” Syberg says. “Conversations were unscheduled. They were casual. And you could project yourself however you wanted to be seen.”

Then there was the pivotal sign off. The way you bid adieu to your cyber-sweetie was of paramount importance. You could use the basic range of emoticon options: the saucy wink (usually held a naughty innuendo); the daring kiss (its magenta, puckered lips were self-explanatory); the ambiguous hug (most likely used to express friend-zone territory); or the love-loaded heart (typically reserved for relationships).

My dad still brings up the pubescent fits I threw when forced to sign off before I was finished chatting. He teases me about how I was convinced the future of my love life was in jeopardy. “Maybe I’m old school, but in my youth, that form of communication didn’t exist,” he says. “We still managed to connect and stay connected.”

He recalls the process of sitting down to write letters by hand. “It was a sacred thing. You had to weigh your words,” he says. “The MSN chat seemed so scattered. You had all these conversations going on with different friends, but you ultimately didn’t seem to be saying much of anything.”

A new breed of socializing

MSN Messenger was once my be-all and end-all. But like most fads on- and-offline, it became outdated.

The service gave way to a new Goliath of communication: Facebook. There were some transitory steps along the way, like Nexopia and MySpace, but these services were limited. Although you were allotted a small album of display pictures, conversation existed only in back-and-forth email-style messages and wall-posts.

Launched in 2004, Facebook not only boasted unlimited photo uploads, but also eventually an instant chat of its own. It blended Nexopia’s photo creeping with the instantaneity of MSN Messenger’s conversation. Online socializing 2.0. In its Q2 2012 earnings report, the company’s active monthly users weighed in at 955 million.

With its reviewable wall history and tagged albums, Facebook also facilitated nosy personal research. In the summer of 2008, just before embarking on a two-month trip to Europe, I met the perfect boy. I knew he was perfect, because his profile told me so. After browsing his music interests, I learned we liked similar bands. After scrolling through recent status updates on his wall, I found out we caught the same From First to Last show. And after a not-so-brief flip through his tagged photos, I discovered his ex-girlfriend had been — pardon the pun — out of the picture for a while. All this in a matter of clicks. I even got to familiarize myself with his obscure favourite films. It was destiny.

“The expectation of getting to know someone before you date has gone out the window, since you can just find all that online,” says Syberg. “We have such a wider reach of information thanks to Facebook. But it’s reduced the importance of face-to-face contact.”

Before widespread technological interaction, going abroad all summer would have been a tragedy. But thanks to the power of Facebook, it wasn’t much of a concern. The website’s chat had been released that April, and all I needed was a cheap Internet café to communicate with my new flame from the other side of the world. By the time I came home, we were sending each other sentimental messages: “I really like you” and “I want to be with you when we’re back in the same city.” I think we’d talked a total of three times in real life. We ended up dating for over a year. Who knows if that would have been possible without our solid online foundation.

Then again, generations before us kept their long-distance spark burning long before it could be stoked by services like MSN Messenger or Facebook. How ever did they manage?

For insight, I turn to the resident expert on long-lasting love, my mom. “I think it challenged us to get creative on romance,” she says. “We had to figure out ways to connect across the miles with the little technology we had.”

A few months before I was born in 1991, my mom — then a young journalist — took off to cover the Persian Gulf War. While she was away, she would be missing Valentine’s Day with my dad. Before she flew out, he gave her a letter to open on the day, but she hadn’t prepared anything to leave with him.

“I was so far away and could only make one short call because of the long-distance charges,” she says. “So I phoned him and just put the receiver to a tape recorder that was playing Van Morrison’s ‘Have I Told You Lately’ (that I love you).” As was the case with many other couples of the time, they didn’t need the Internet to connect intimately — not even for a moment that would sustain them until they were reunited.

The dark side of our online lives

When we’re missing our partner, it’s easy to fixate on the technological outlet tying us to them. Some worry that increased online connection is resulting in decreased real-world communication. The problem gained recognition when Psychological Reports published the 2012 “Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale,” developed primarily by Norwegian Psychologist Cecilie Schou Andreassen. In The Atlantic’s June 2012 article “Can These 6 Questions Tell You if You’re Clinically Addicted to Facebook?”, Andreassen is paraphrased as saying that “people who can’t get enough of the social network show many of the same signs of withdrawal and mood swings associated with gambling junkies.”

Whether or not you agree the issue is serious, it’s impossible to ignore Facebook’s role in our everyday lives. Most smartphones are always connected to the website, delivering instant notifications right into our pockets.

“When you have the constant checking, it infringes on everything else,” says Syberg. “It can take its toll on friendships. Even when you’re out together, you’ve got another conversation going. It’s like, why can’t you just be present, here?”

Web exchanges aren’t always clear, either. Trying to decipher the tone of conversations can be complicated. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been accused of sounding angry based on a lack of exclamation points or smileys. Basic human body language isn’t accessible, and the cues we receive from face-to-face interactions are lost.

With so much of our lives on display, a potent breeding ground for jealousy exists. Knowing your partner’s password is like having a key to Pandora’s box. No need to snoop through recent phone calls when messages dating back years are at your fingertips. Even if your relationship doesn’t have a problem, you can click to create one.

As antiquated as it seems today, for me MSN Messenger still carries romantic sentimentality. Like the early incarnations of America Online Instant Messaging (AIM) and software that preceded it, MSN messenger wasn’t readily available at our fingertips, and it gave us cyber-flirtations to look forward to after school. Positive or negative, it inspired the social media embedded in modern online courtship.

That hi-tech means of cultivating a relationship has its place. But once the chase is over, let’s just try to sign off and hang out with our loved ones face-to-face.

To those two little blue and green buddies, let this not be goodbye, but a TTYL.

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