RIP Gchat

A eulogy for a simpler age of internet messaging


Let’s first acknowledge that Gchat was never officially called Gchat. Launched in February 2006, Google named it Google Talk, refusing to refer to it by its colloquial name. For anyone mourning its demise, which the company announced in a March blog post, those names sound awkward, like they’re describing something else. To me, and to many other users, it’s Gchat, and always will be.

The brilliance of Gchat was that it allowed you to instant message any Gmail user within a web browser, instead of using a separate application. This attribute was a lifeline for those of us who, a decade ago, were online all day at our entry-level jobs in open offices, every move tracked on computers that required admin access to download new software, with supervisors who could appear behind you at any time. You could open a separate browser window or a single tab, keeping Gchat running in the background as you ostensibly worked on projects aside from the dramas of your personal life.

Before Gchat, IMing was cloaked in anonymity. On AIM, I dialed up as “thalia587”—inspired by the Greek muse of comedy—after finishing my homework every night in high school. I shed that identity in college, when I’d log onto iChat on my blue iMac as “beulahtengo,” a mash-up of Beulah and Yo La Tengo, two of my favorite bands at the time. My friends knew it was me, but if I’d been a more rebellious youngster, I could have used those handles to IM anyone anonymously.

On Gchat, I was myself. When my invitation from Gmail—which at that point was still invitation-only—arrived right before my college graduation, I jumped on a username that was a variation of my real name, something I could print on a resume.

My college friends all did the same. When we scattered across continents after graduation, just a few months after abandoning Friendster for a new site called Facebook that, as far as we could tell, was most useful for determining who on campus was In A Relationship, Gmail and later, Gchat, helped us stay in touch, filling in the gaps between LiveJournal entries.

* * *

Gchat became another sort of lifeline during my time as a stay-at-home parent. I no longer had an employer standing over my shoulder or restricting what I downloaded. But some of my friends still used Gchat. So once my son whittled his naps down to one a day, guaranteeing a solid chunk of time for me to turn off Raffi and seek adult conversation, I’d crack open my MacBook and launch Gmail, around the time my friends were eating leftovers at their desks, their idle yellow status icons turning green again.

In the middle of my days of unpaid labor, Gchat was my remaining connection to the world of paid work. While I scanned the latest tweets in my feed, I kept a tab open to run Gchat in the background, ready in case someone wanted to talk during the one time of the day I was free.

* * *

Other people used Gchat for its ability to talk “off the record” without saving a transcript of the messages exchanged. As a digital packrat who saves folders of downloads and screen shots in case I need them someday, I never opted to do so. I wasn’t trading secrets or conducting an illicit affair. On the contrary—I loved being able to, for the first time, preserve transcripts of chats with my quick-witted friends, that, short of hiring a stenographer to follow me around, I’d never be fast enough to record in real life.

Only after a decade of trying to capture the ephemeral did I realize my mistake. Now, whenever I use Gmail’s search feature, essential for a service that urges you to keep everything while making it tedious to organize anything, driftwood from some years-old chat floats to the surface. Searching for, say, “Sleater-Kinney” in an effort to retrieve purchased concert tickets bubbles up ancient conversations with a variety of people with whom I’ve discussed the band over the years, only some of whom I’m still friends with.

Reading email exchanges from past relationships that soured is awkward enough. But it’s the old Gchats, conducted in close to real time, that transport me to the past, revealing thoughts I don’t remember having in conversations with people I no longer speak to, people who at the time I could never imagine not knowing. There they are, in stark black sans-serif: my overabundant exclamation points, my unsuccessful attempts at sarcasm, my bad jokes, or worse, responding “lol” to misogynistic ones. All preserved in digital amber, like the insect from Jurassic Park. And just like in the movie, when the past is within such close reach, I can’t leave it alone.

I understand why Google abandoned what it calls Talk. Like Google Reader, the now-defunct RSS feed aggregator that was the first Google product I mourned, Gchat’s limited features are a relic from a simpler time. When Gchat launched, you were either online or offline, with your status indicating your availability. The cultural tide has shifted in the opposite direction—now we’re always on, all messages are instant, and people have embraced the impermanence of digital scraps that briefly remain “on the record” before disappearing forever—think Snapchat, and Instagram Stories.

Unlike with Reader, which Google killed outright, the company has in mind a replacement for Gchat—Google Hangouts, which was stealthily integrated into Gmail in 2013. The company says Hangouts offers “advanced improvements” to Gchat’s “simple chat experience,” and that the vast majority of users who’ve switched over report few differences in functionality. Any tweaks are minor, like the discontinuation of idle and busy status icons in favor of “Last Seen” indicators and a mute feature.

I don’t know that I need Gmail to offer group video calling, photo messages or location sharing. I miss the time when green, yellow, and red bubbles of availability sufficed. We’re already flush with ways to convey the intricate mundanity of our lives, though each new one requires someone younger and younger to explain it to me. Inevitably, something new will change the game again. As an individual user, caught up in the whims of corporations competing for eyeballs and profit, it’s best not to get too attached to any one particular method of communicating.

Hangouts ushers Gchat into the mobile era, allowing asynchronous communication between two or more Gmail users, none of whom need to be sitting behind a computer to send a message. I downloaded the Hangouts app on my phone, but as I examine it in the lineup of other options, its relevance to my own life seems questionable. Rather than using it to contact the people I’m used to Gchatting, I imagine I’ll reach them with another app we’re both already on.

* * *

When I first signed up for Gmail, the mobile world as it exists today was unimaginable. I’d just upgraded from a 30-minute-a-month phone plan, reserved for emergencies, to my first two-year contract. T-Mobile shipped a small box to my first apartment with a shiny black flip phone wrapped in clear plastic. Texting was difficult and expensive. Each one cost about a dime, and if you wanted to type a C, you had to hit the “2” button three times. My mom had a similar phone; until she got the hang of it, she’d type my aunt Marcia’s name as “Mapaga.” The nickname stuck, even as the technology improved.

As new phones and data plans made texting easier and cheaper, and smartphones popularized multimedia messages, like videos, GIFs and emojis, our phones became our go-to sources for instant connection. Now I can send a minute-long video of my son’s first haircut to a group message of out-of-state family members, or show my friends a screenshot of an acquaintance I just saw on TV, and receive an instant response, before the show’s credits roll.

This impulse to share is what Google is trying to leverage through Hangouts, but with a corporate-friendly spin. “We’ve been working hard to streamline the classic Hangouts product for enterprise users,” reads the blog post announcing Gchat's demise. Another post on a different Google blog goes further, highlighting the company’s efforts to “[double] down on our enterprise focus for Hangouts and our commitment to building communication tools focused on the way teams work.” Clearly, people using Gmail for work, not just during work, are increasingly critical as Google competes with Microsoft and Slack for corporate users.

* * *

After Google announced the future of its messaging tools, I could only think about the past. When Google Reader vanished, the accompanying data disappeared forever, so I worried that the formal end of Gchat might mean the loss of those conversations. I searched Gmail’s help section for steps to download an archive of my chats, which number in the thousands, but there’s no easy way to do so. My pulse quickened at the thought of losing all those transcripts I hadn’t read in years, but that I might someday want to read again.

Like the one in which I coached my younger sister, who now has a masters degree and just bought a house with her fiancée, on her college application essay. “I suck at the ‘how did you first learn of Smith College’ question,” she’d lamented. “I was lurking colleges in Princeton Review … and I saw that Smith had ‘dorms like palaces’?”

Or the wistful ones from a friend in the throes of new motherhood, including one in which she contemplated a long car drive with her infant. “What’s the worst that can happen? She cries for three hours? That just sounds like…yesterday.”

Even ones that make me cringe, like one in which a guy who knew I pined for him told me “Serious Talk is a Poor Idea right now” because he was drunk on cheap wine and watching Predator 2 on a Saturday afternoon. “I mean,” he’d typed, “this movie has Bill Paxton in it.”

As with most 21st-century dilemmas requiring an immediate solution, I consulted—what else?—Google search. I discovered a step-by-step method to export all archived chats that looked legit. I followed the instructions and a file started downloading to my desktop with the extension .mbox, something the Mail application could read.

Once complete, I scrolled through the new Mail folder, relieved to see my fleeting correspondence from the previous decade. But as I looked closer, it became clear that the file had only imported the last line of each one of the thousands of chat threads in my Gmail history. Most of them were simple salutations or responses to something unknown—ttyl, haha, brb, lol, you too—stripped of all context through this technological hiccup. But some friends had a habit of never formally ending Gchat conversations, so scrolling through some lines revealed more about what we’d been discussing when one of us had signed off.

            al qaeda clearly has the wrong target

            did you bring the hobo gloves?

            not really wastednot really wasted

            plus i have to find some meat to eat

            she wants help with her Ikea bookshelf

            but Im Mom Terrible, which is much better than regular terrible

            life is continually amusing

Fortunately, my paranoia was unwarranted. Google’s communications team assured me the company will archive all on-the-record chats, even those predating Hangouts. I’m relieved I can still peek at that time in my life to see how much has changed in a decade, but it’s unsettling to realize that ultimately, it’s not up to me. To keep enjoying the perks of any communication platform, some control over the content must be ceded. Not a comfortable thought, this powerlessness, but technology unspools in one direction only, offering no way to rewind.