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MSN messenger chat box

How our extremely online generation grew up on MSN messenger

Nudge attacks, Smarterchild, ASL? – 20 years on from the birth of the instant messaging service, we explore how it shaped the way we interact

If you were a teenager in the noughties with access to a clunky family computer and a dodgy, screeching dial-up connection, you probably had some (if not many) experiences on MSN – thundering nudge attacks, a chatroom full of horny teens from your town’s *other* school, the pain of dropping an ex’s name out of your own screenname, replacing it with a poignant Fall Out Boy lyric.

If you used MSN in your youth, prepare to feel old – the now-discontinued messaging platform turns 20 years old this week. The instant messaging service shut down in 2012, so today’s teens are unlikely to know much about MSN – why would they? They have TikTok challenges and data-stealing apps that age your face now – but the communication that started on Microsoft’s clunky, painfully basic messaging app has influenced virtually every app that we now use to chat with (and bitch about) our friends. MSN truly walked so WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger could run – we have to stan.

It’s a well-known fact that, when you’re a teenager, all you want to do is hang out with your friends. When my family weren’t annoying me (or “ruining my life!1!!1!”) they received little attention between the ages of 14 and 17. I’d get home from school and pretty much sit on MSN all evening until it was time for bed. I even developed a cunning plan to get an extra 10 minutes or so online, where I’d tell my parents I had to say bye to people “properly” and bring conversations to a “natural conclusion”, because otherwise it’d be rude. In reality, it was just a matter of saying “g2g” (got to go), but those stolen minutes really made all the difference. 

“Maybe that’s the original dopamine hit? The MSN chat tone”

I wasn’t the only one who was hooked on the exciting new high of instant, free communication. “I would spend my life on MSN,” Magnus, 26, tells Dazed, when I ask others of their experiences on the platform. “My friends and I would rush home from school to open MSN and be on it ALL evening, which is just bizarre thinking back. It was a serious addiction. Maybe that’s the original dopamine hit? The MSN chat tone.”

Psychologist Ian MacRae, co-author of the forthcoming book Myths of Social Media, tells Dazed that there’s something to this theory. “Social media fulfils a very basic human need for interaction. This has always been there but it’s much more accessible now,” he explains. “This can be challenging, because whenever you’re grumpy or want to piss someone off, they’re instantly available. That’s a challenge for young people in particular, who need to develop impulse control.”

Sharon Coen, senior lecturer in psychology, social media and media psychology at the University of Salford, says that we use social platforms like MSN for both “identity exploration” and “identity consolidation”. “Identity exploration is trying new hats on and seeing how different aspects of identity fit us,” she says. “Identity consolidation is a person solidifying who they are, and how others see them, based on what people already know about them.” Coen suggests that chatrooms like MSN were places primarily for exploration, while today’s Facebook is a place where people consolidate their identities.

MSN is a relic of a particular time when social media was in its infancy. If you were online at that point, you’ll know it was a period that we all behaved like complete weirdos, because the norms of online communication that now we take for granted weren’t yet established. 

First, you had to pick an MSN “addy” (address) which was an email address people would add to request to talk to you. These email addresses were often young people’s first ever email accounts, so the names were predictably toe-curling. Mine, for example, was “”. Often they were awkwardly NSFW for pubescent teens, like “”.

Then there were MSN “names”. For the uninitiated, this was basically a few words or symbols to identify you to other users, which could be changed as often as you wanted (think Facebook status meets Twitter display name). “MSN names were intensely political,” says Holly, 25. “There was a trend in my school of putting all your friends initials in your MSN name – in order of how close you were with them – it was brutal! I remember getting into arguments with people because I was lower on theirs than they were on mine. I also included initials from people I didn’t even like that much just to exaggerate my friendship numbers. Sad or what?”

“Talking online is now used to achieve other ends – arrange where to meet up on WhatsApp, or show off how woke you are on Twitter – rather than the joy of just chatting to form a bond” – Amelia Tait, digital culture journalist

Crushes, or boyfriends/girlfriends, were often featured on MSN names too. “I remember it was normal to have ‘I <3 ???’ in your MSN name, with the number of letters of your crush’s name corresponding with the number of question marks you’d use,” says James, 26. 

Entire relationships were born and lived out on MSN. “When I was in school I had a really strong crush on someone, like properly infatuated,” comedy writer Mollie Goodfellow tells me. “We used to chat a lot on MSN but not so much in real life, so when our relationship was pretty much wholly online. I’d sit and wait until he got online and we’d have our chats. I used to have song lyrics in my MSN name as a hint of my feelings, and if ever he was online but didn’t start a chat I’d log off and on to try and get his attention. Truly pathetic.”

Song lyrics were a common source of cringe-worthiness, particularly when people had their hearts broken. “Once a girl rejected me when I asked her out on MSN so I changed my name to lyrics from R.E.M.’s ‘Everybody Hurts’,” says Ross, 27, (he’s gay now, coincidence?). 

Jess, 28, tells me that she’d often ask if her friends were okay when sad or depressing lyrics appeared in their names. “One of my friends suddenly put the lyrics to Rihanna’s ‘Take a Bow’ in her name, and I was immediately like ‘You OK?!’ It turned out she’d been dumped, it was such telepathy!”

MacRae tells me that using MSN in this way is a normal part of growing up. “The interesting thing about how people behaved on MSN was that it was often about inviting the type of interaction you wanted,” the psychologist says. “Particularly adolescents are constantly developing their own ways and codes to get different types of attention. It’s a safer space to do so, but it also carries risks, like copying and pasting or screenshotting conversations.”

Matt, 25, fell afoul of these particular risks when he told a girl he liked her, only for it to be sent around. He says: “Half my year had seen me being rejected by the time I got into school the next morning. It was public humiliation via copy and paste.”

Amelia Tait, a writer who specialises in digital culture, had her own romantic troubles on MSN. “When my year nine boyfriend changed his name from ‘AMELIA!!! <3 =]’ to ‘Amelia <3’ I was like, ah, that’s it, the end. I have been spurned,” she says. Though, all jokes aside, she views MSN as a unique time for digital communication. “Logging on for a set span of hours to chat meant that everything was high stakes, but also meant that we were often communicating for communicating’s sake, which was really rewarding,” she says. “Because we’re talking online all day every day now, then arguably the one-on-one conversations we’re having are less valuable and less intimate. Talking online is now used to achieve other ends – arrange where to meet up on WhatsApp, or show off how woke you are on Twitter – rather than the joy of just chatting to form a bond.” 

A wide variety of ‘bonds’, shall we say, were formed on MSN. Lots of people spoken to for this piece detail how they used it for sexual exploration which, looking back at it, probably wasn’t always responsible. “Going ‘cam to cam’, where you’d get naked on webcam to complete strangers who could definitely have been paedophiles, is probably my MSN low point,” says Mark, 27. “I convinced my parents to buy me a webcam so I could ‘chat with friends’, but really it was mostly me wanking on webcam to people I’d met online.” 

This was common. Adam, 25, tells me: “Gay culture is the first man who saw your dick being an anonymous person who added you on MSN when you were 15.”

On one hand, people often had a lot of their school friends on MSN. But there was also space for anonymity by creating alternative accounts or adding people who don’t know you. It was very common to be added by complete strangers and begin forming a friendship or romantic connection without much of a care in the world. MacRae explains that anonymity can influence how people behave – we still see it in the rise of ‘alt’ accounts on today’s platforms, an ‘alt’ being an additional account belonging to a user that already owns a main account, usually used for sharing more candid or personal posts. “Being anonymous has a huge effect on how people relate to each other. There can be a lot more freedom in that sense because the social interaction is more abstract,” MacRae adds. “This offers a lot more flexibility and a lot more ambiguity, which can be attractive to young people who are still figuring out how to navigate social interactions.”

“There has been a lot of concern that young people don’t know how to communicate effectively offline. But I think many of those concerns are overblown” – Dr Erin Vogel

This can make people act more boldly than they would normally. “I actually came out as gay to a friend I made on MSN years before I came out to my IRL friends,” says Hamish, 28. “I still don’t know for definite who it was, but I still remember the first time I wrote and sent the words ‘I am gay’”. Though there are times when risky behaviour could be taken advantage of. “A girl in my school sent very explicit nudes on MSN, which then made themselves across the entire school via Bluetooth,” says Tom, 26. “Her dad was a teacher at her school and ended up finding out about it. MSN and Bluetooth were really the beginning of modern ‘revenge porn’, and not much was ever done about it.”

Others interviewed express regret for things they said to people on MSN that they didn’t mean. “I remember we used to endlessly add a girl into group chats and pretend to be friends with her for amusement, when really it was an inside joke she wasn’t in on,” says Daisy, 27. “I knew it was wrong but wanted to impress people who I thought I wanted to be friends with, turns out I was just being a cunt and following a crowd.” 

Others say the knowledge that conversations would be shared made them act in a way they regret. “I remember I had an argument with a friend on MSN. I literally typed ‘THIS CONVERSATION IS OVER’ at the end like I was Regina George in Mean Girls,” says Eve, 24. “I knew others would ask to be sent the conversation so I was so extra horrible to her so I could look like a badass bitch, which couldn’t have been less true.”

Acting differently, more boldly for some, when they have the protection of a screen is common, the nuances of which are explored by Dr Erin Vogel, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “People do communicate differently on social media messaging apps than in person. Communicating on messaging apps can be challenging because many social cues are lost,” she says. “You can’t hear someone’s tone of voice or see their posture or facial expressions.” 

But despite the challenges of text-mediated communication, Vogel says some people prefer it. “Messaging apps are really appealing for people who are shy and/or have social anxiety. They face the same challenges when communicating via messaging apps, such as social cues getting lost, as people without social anxiety, but they often feel more comfortable using messaging apps nonetheless.”

Vogel suggests that messaging apps, like other social media platforms, give us time to construct ideal versions of ourselves by carefully controlling our output. “Communicating via text feels perfectly natural to young people,” she says. “There has been a lot of concern that young people don't know how to communicate effectively offline. But I think many of those concerns are overblown.”

MSN has long been banished to the social media graveyard, with Microsoft releasing the final version back 2012; it rests among Formspring (2009-2013), Bebo (2005-2014), and Piczo (2003-2012). But so many of its features were eventually commandeered by other apps. Facebook took ‘pokes’ from MSN’s ‘nudge’ feature – which one user could choose to shake the conversation window to get another user’s attention – and generally the whole instant chat function which rendered MSN obsolete. Emojis, originally popularised on MSN, now form a part of our online lexicon, as do reaction acronyms like “lol” and “lmao”.

In terms of digital culture, Tait says she believes WhatsApp group chat to be MSN’s biggest legacy. “On MSN, you could add an infinite number of people to a group and annoy one another all night with nudges and flirting,” she says. “On WhatsApp, group chats are now a great way for friends to stay in touch, share their live thoughts about Love Island, and enjoy proper flowing conversations in the online space.” It’s true that there are many similarities between MSN and WhatsApp, with the main difference being that WhatsApp is popular with all age groups and not just teens. Workplace messaging app Slack is also strikingly similar, but adapted for a professional setting.

Ultimately, MSN bridged the gap between emails and the social media apps of today, teaching a generation of young people how to (or more importantly, how not to) communicate online. In many ways (and not all of them good) MSN Messenger prepared us for a lifetime of presenting a public version of ourselves from behind a screen. In a time when we weren’t so acutely aware that every move we made was being watched, it taught us how to channel our personalities into the limited places a platform would allow, but also develop strategies for generating the kind of attention we wanted in any given moment. 

So rest in peace, MSN Messenger, our teenage years and subsequent era of being Extremely Online wouldn’t have been the same without you.