Thursday, 30 May 2013

MSN Messenger, The Long Lost, Perfect Social Network

Recently, I've been making my small attempts to migrate friends and family to Google's new messaging platform, Hangouts. As a slight Google fatboy, it was music to my ears when my girlfriend exclaimed that it was "like having MSN [Messenger] back, but better." It's damn good: where WhatsApp is trapped on mobiles, Hangouts is cross device; where Facetime and iMessage are trapped on Apple products, Hangouts is cross platform; and where Facebook Messenger lags and the Android app acts clunky, Hangouts works smoothly and the Google cloud never fails to deliver a message on time. All this considered, I still can't agree with my girlfriend. To me, MSN Messenger is the long lost, perfect social network.

No seriously, it was just like a social network!

Some justification to go with the statement. Firstly, MSN Messenger felt closely knit to just those closest to you who you messaged often. Being a messaging platform first, it meant that interactions on the network were completely focused on talking to each other (you know, like, socialising.) But it was a social network. It had status messages, an earlier version of posting publicly. It could replace this status with the music you were playing, an early version of the frictionless sharing that Facebook still can't quite get right. It even let you keep records of all conversations, something we only just started reintroducing in messaging services. Throw in file sharing, a crazy load of emoticons, plugins and extensions and you've got a service that was way ahead of it's time, and for many reasons can't work on today's internet.

What happened? Who killed IM?

Over the years though, being social online moved slowly away from messaging, and gradually into a more "profile" based service. MySpace and Facebook delivered their service with the online profile in mind, as opposed to the actual talking to each other. Sharing was posting to a wall, for everyone to see. Having a presence was customizing your profile (even down to HTML on MySpace), adding movies and music you liked. The most important thing started to be you, and what people saw of you, rather than the conversations you were actually having with your friends. Chat moved into a sidebar.

The photos came along too. As Justin Timberlake said perfectly in the character of Sean Parker in The Social Network, we would come to re-live parties and other social events online, after they happened, and remember them forever. This is arguably the most important feature of modern social networking. Sharing pictures and memories. Messaging alone can't really deliver this service, it's an offshoot of the profile based social network. Your profile is not only where you house likes and interests, but the pictures you're tagged in.

Can we get MSN Messenger back?

I'd love for online networking to go back to something more similar to the days of MSN Messenger. Conversations were constant, and private. Group chats were easy to pull up, and sharing was simple. It was not about sharing everything with everyone.

This is where I really hold out for Hangouts. Google+ is the social network that's really built for all these services, more than any other. Sharing is much more easily managed with each and every post, messaging is integrated effectively across all major platforms and devices, and photos have never been better or easier. The new photos experience on Google+ auto-uploads your shots to it's backup service, curates hundreds of snaps, picking the best, auto-tunes these up, it even creates some animations and panoramas, and then gives you an album for review that can easily be shared with whomever you wish.

The only thing missing to bring the old MSN experience, is the crowd. While Google+ is still great for finding great content and networking with people across the web around your own interest and passions, even with Hangouts it still doesn't live up to the days of MSN Messenger.