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Gchat’s Window Is Closing for Good

A eulogy for the Google platform that taught an entire generation to communicate online

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In two weeks, Gchat will be dead.

That’s not what Google will tell you. It will tell you that Gchat is simply being merged into something else. That it is being improved. Or else, smilingly, that Gchat never existed at all.

Don’t be fooled.

On June 26, when the tech giant formally forces the last remaining Gchat holdouts, including yours truly, onto the substitute-teacher-incarnated-as-chat-platform that is Hangouts, users will have their choice among that, Allo, Duo, Android Messages, Supersonic Fun Voice Messenger, and Voice. Google, which has infamously floundered in its attempts to build social platforms, will bury Gchat in its graveyard alongside Wave, Buzz, Labs, iGoogle, Picasa, Dodgeball, Knol, Jaiku, and others, including [pours one out] [pours another one out] [goes to the store to buy more things to pour out] [breaks into neighbor’s apartment to pour out his things, too] Google Reader.

Hangouts is notable principally for looking a lot like other chat platforms: colorful, eye-catching, feature-rich, and easily comprehensible. Gchat was always an oddball, understated on purpose, a sidekick to email that was content to sit quietly in monochrome. It was Google’s first real success at social networking, and is one of its only standouts in that realm. But it’s also emphatically from another era — one in which desktop functionality was not just king but also country, lords, serfs, and windmills — and is undeniably dated. Hangouts, first introduced in 2013 and largely ignored, plays much more nicely with Google’s raft of Android services; Gchat for the most part plays not at all.

But Gchat’s stubborn and dour simplicity is perfect, a visual representation of how an entire generation learned to talk to each other online. And now the platform is set to be stripped for parts. When Google robs you of something you love, it tends to congratulate you on your good taste.

I have had 17,460 conversations in Gchat. My first message, on February 15, 2006, was: “does this work?” (yes, responded a close friend from high school. it’s kind of weird though.) I’ve discussed elephants 73 times, Australia 31, Winston Churchill nine, toucans just twice. The name “Jacques,” which belongs to no one I’ve ever met, has come up seven times. My first chat with my boyfriend, one of 2,307, was on October 20, 2007. We have mentioned the word “class” 348 times, “ugh” 919, “love” 441. Early on the night that we would first kiss, I sent (sarcastically, I think) a heart — <3— and when it animated, connecting the characters and turning upright automatically, he replied, “whoaaa gchat.”

<em>Gchat no. 1, Feb. 15, 2006</em>
Gchat no. 1, Feb. 15, 2006

Gchat in 2017 is both an accident and exactly what it was intended to be. At its inception, the concept was simple: Google would find the other Gmail users you emailed frequently and add them to a chat list on the side of the window. Slowly, your list would populate with friends, coworkers, family members, and people you were obliged to work with on group projects. Critically, the service integrated with AIM, the instant messenger of choice for many in the mid-aughts, when Gchat first appeared a year after Gmail’s release: Plug in your old username and password, and suddenly everyone you knew was sitting in Gchat, too.

The platform was intentionally bare bones, plain text with no images. To make words bold, italic, or struck through you had to use what amounted to codes: *, _, -. Google copied a transcript of each conversation into your inbox by default, counting the lines of dialogue as you went: 321, 79, 232, 235. You could turn the feature off if you wanted, a helpful tool for people using Gchat at the office, and message boxes would caution — or dare you, depending on your interpretation — that what you typed was off the record. It wasn’t until 2007 that Gchat introduced a menu for emoji. Prior to that, you had to know the low-fi codes yourself: :) and :( and <3, of course, but also V.v.V for a pinching red crab, :(:) for a pig, +/’\ for a cowbell. The designs were comically simple — the monkey, :(|), was as likely to prompt a what is that?! as a how did you do that? — but they seemed magical in the midst of a plain-text monolith, like a page of a book growing bright red pincers and then going still again.

Over the years, status updates, formerly signposts of geographic location or the lyrics to the very cool song you wanted contacts to know you were listening to, fell out of vogue. The little video icons that used to denote who could video chat disappeared as laptop cameras became ubiquitous; robot cartoons slowly appeared beside the names of people on Android devices. The option for (very) slightly more advanced-looking emoji was introduced.

But Google was seemingly slow to recognize Gchat’s emergence as a behemoth. The platform fueled a behavior I have to this day: If I’m on my computer, Gmail is always open in a browser tab. This is probably more an indication of my own unhealthy habits than anything, but for years my chances of being good friends with somebody were near zero if they didn’t use Gchat regularly. Yet as the service collected fans, Google seemed mostly indifferent. Even the name, “Gchat,” was never really its title: It was officially known as “Talk,” and even as loyal users steadfastly declined to adopt that appellation, Google wouldn’t budge.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

So Gchat stayed basically the same, even as a universe of copycats and competitors grew around it. While at the outset of Gchat your choices for real-time messaging were that, AIM, and assorted instant messengers (Skype, ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, Pidgin, Trillian, etc.) with generally lesser saturation, the choices today are dizzying. The first iPhone was released in 2007, and the ensuing tidal wave of smartphones brought email to mobile, making it suddenly conversational, the kind of place you might share a picture of something you just saw or have a where are you? exchange. With the integration of things like Apple’s iMessage onto desktops, the already thin line between instant messaging and text messages blurred even further. On platforms like Slack, launched in 2013, the division between those forms of communication and email crumbled, too. Facebook’s longstanding messages feature became Facebook Messenger, brought into app form in 2011 and morphing from the lengthy, email-esque missives of yore into just another chat app on mobile and desktop alike. Twitter DMs, originally designed for rapid-fire chat, ditched their character limit in 2015 to allow for longer (and more formal) communication. Instagram DMs are a no-man’s-land; Snapchat is basically instant messaging on meth. Communicating instantly with multiple people in a single digital setting could have been accomplished only with an unwieldy chatroom a decade ago. Today, that’s just a group text, which has all the ease of instant messaging and an email-borrowed relaxation of how urgently it’s necessary to reply.

But the urgency was always the point in Gchat. From the outset, your contact list was organized into four categories. At the top, people were marked with a green dot: online and available to chat. Then came red: online, but set to busy, so messages to them would display a warning that you might be interrupting. After that was orange, idle, for anyone who hadn’t been active in the Gmail window in at least 15 minutes. And then, finally, came the long, grayed-out list of offline contacts, who wouldn’t see your messages until the next time they logged in.

When my boyfriend and I broke up, it happened due to Gchat. He’d graduated and moved away; our daily chats were the only way we, phone-averse to the end, communicated. We had a slow and awkward argument one day, but that wasn’t what caused the split. For two weeks, we signed on to Gchat every day, as we always did. But this time neither of us messaged the other. I sat there, knowing when he was online, when he went idle, and when, from the blink of his icon from orange to red, he had come back to his computer and seen, surely, that I was also online. At the end of the two weeks I blocked him, and it was like he totally vanished, covering a whole person with a thimble.

Google Hangouts isn’t that bad, and it’s not that different from Gchat. Most of the basic features remain: A list of all the same contacts will still sit next to your inbox; little chat windows can still be minimized at the bottom of your window. But with Hangouts, Google is clearly trying to offer some of what you can find on other chat platforms. It supports inline images and GIFs. Messages appear with a sender’s picture instead of just a name. The service defaults to blocky, bubbly spacing. And, worst of all, it prioritizes contacts not by who’s currently online, but by who you last spoke to.

At its best, Gchat was like being in a room with your entire chat list. You could see who was there with you, who was at their desk or in class or at any rate less than 15 minutes removed from being simply around. You knew who had volunteered themselves for a distraction, who had their head down for a minute, and who you’d have to catch up with some other time. It had a perpetual low-tech pretense of being casual: Whoa, fancy seeing you here.

Today, most of my contacts are people I haven’t spoken to in years. My days of Gchat-only friendships are mostly through. While it remains the only place that I talk to my best friend from college (2,045 conversations), the diversification of platforms has coincided with the ubiquity of their access, and now whomever you might want to reach is always available in some corner of your phone or other. The way you might’ve described Gchat upon its 2006 launch — “IMs in email!” — doesn’t even register now. The fact that next to nothing about its functionality has changed in all that time is telling.

Four years after I blocked my boyfriend, I sent him an email saying I would be visiting his city. We traded a few responses, but my trip fell through days before I moved overseas, and again we slipped into silence. Then, nervously, I unblocked him on Gchat — and suddenly, both tagged “available,” the messages started flowing. Now, when we don’t message each other, it’s mostly because we can yell from the next room over. We have a cat: 23 mentions and counting.