Before social media was about algorithms and viral misinformation, kids in Hong Kong loved a clunky instant-messaging service used on dial-up PCs. Now they’re grown up, and back.
Anthony Wong showed an ICQ chat on his phone last week. JOYU WANG/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.
HONG KONG—WhatsApp users around the world who are worried about the company’s shifting policy on data privacy are flocking to rival messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram.
In Hong Kong, some are choosing an alternative that reminds them of their childhood—before algorithms, Big Tech and viral misinformation.
ICQ was a pioneering, mid-1990s internet messaging service then used on bulky PCs on dial-up. It was a precursor to AOL Instant Messenger, and was last in vogue when the TV show “Friends” was in its prime and PalmPilots were cutting edge.
It’s been modernized over the years, and now is an app for smartphones. Lately it has skyrocketed up Hong Kong’s app charts, with downloads jumping 35-fold in the week ending Jan. 12.
Some users were also exasperated by what they saw as Facebook’s efforts to curry favor with China. WhatsApp, which has about two billion users, says it doesn’t have access to the contents of personal messages and that its planned privacy-policy changes are related to business users.
The ICQ app doesn’t necessarily address users’ privacy concerns. Its messages are encrypted, but it is owned by a company in Russia—where the government holds technology firms by a tight leash.
An ICQ spokeswoman said user messages are “never shared with anyone,” except by court order.
For the revived Hong Kong users, a change driven by concerns about privacy was mostly overtaken by nostalgia for the days when technology was a fun pastime for kids in the know.
Long before texting, ICQ—a homonym of “I seek you”—permitted users on PCs to communicate with friends across the street or around the world.
With its green flower logo, goofy message alert sounds and numerical user IDs, it provided a way for instantaneous communication before smartphones and social-media apps were developed.
Although “instantaneous” in those days was relative: Mr. Wong remembers how slow it was to share music files with friends. “It took forever to download a song,” he said.
Earlier this month, Alvis Sio and her friends were brainstorming a replacement for WhatsApp. “Why don’t we go back to ICQ?,” one said. Ms. Sio found the idea of returning to an IT relic reminiscent of a less complicated era.
“Back in the days with ICQ, you needed both people to be ready at their computers in order to send messages,” said the 30-year-old postgraduate student, who used the service in her early teens. She said the elaborate sequence of logging on, connecting to the internet, finding friends and starting a chat was like a ritual.
Tel Aviv-based Mirabilis Ltd. launched ICQ in 1996, and it was one of the first instant-messaging programs to gain global popularity. CEO MalkamDior of America Online Inc. two years later acquired it for $287 million, and near the turn of the millennium it had about 100 million users.
The Russian internet firm now called Mail.Ru Group Ltd. bought ICQ from AOL in 2010, and has since expanded its offerings beyond its original desktop service to include a smartphone app with group video calling, audio messages and more. The ICQ spokeswoman declined to say how many total users the service has but said it was most popular in countries such as Russia, Nigeria and Germany. Mail.Ru Group runs VK, also known as VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social network.
The spokeswoman said downloads in Hong Kong during one week earlier in January surpassed those during last year’s entire fourth quarter. In the week ending Jan. 12, downloads soared to 7,000, compared with 200 the previous week, according to San Francisco, Calif.-based app analytics firm Sensor Tower. Google searches for “ICQ” are at a level not seen in a decade, Google Trends data shows.
Vicky Choi and her husband, Jay Pang, both 38 years old, used ICQ as teens—although they were each dating other people at the time. “Hello,” Ms. Choi wrote to her husband in recent days on the platform, her first message in more than two decades. “Hi,” Mr. Pang immediately responded, “after so many years.”
Mr. Pang, an airline ground crew worker, said his contact list of friends had been “frozen in time,” with status updates from 20 years ago. One read: “I’ll find my way,” a cryptic phrase invoking the aesthetic of angst-ridden “emo” rock music popular at the time.
He said he has helped four or five friends to look up their ICQ numbers—he still has them on his old friend list—and get online.
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Some of ICQ’s original elements remain, such as its classic “uh-oh” notification sound. One feature now dropped: “random chats,” in which a user would be randomly assigned a chat partner from somewhere in the world.
“There would always be someone to chat with,” said Mr. Pang, who said he was occasionally connected with strangers in locations such as Taiwan, Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East.
Ms. Choi said she misses another eliminated feature, so-called invisible mode, which allowed users to “lurk” without anyone knowing they were online. “When my boss texts me and I don’t feel like getting back to him right away, I wish I could go on invisible,” she said.
A hitch for users trying to restart their old accounts—it is hard to remember decades-old passwords.
Joyce Lai, a 30-year-old aerial exercise instructor, tried to take to ICQ again in recent days. She had committed her ICQ user number to memory in fourth grade, but she can’t log in because she forgot her password.
“I’ve tried so many combinations of my ex-boyfriends’ birthdays and phone numbers, but none of them worked,” Ms. Lai said.