The first instant messaging program I ever used was ICQ. One cool feature it had was the ability to set yourself as "available for random chat". If you opted into this feature, you were accepting the possibility that a stranger could randomly message you at any time. It was like if Discord had Omegle built into it. That's how I made my first friends on the internet. You could add interests to your profile (instant messengers used to let you have a profile) and people could randomly find you based on shared interests, much like Omegle. It wasn't anonymous, you had a persistent pseudonymous profile, so if someone sucked you had to take the extra step of blocking them instead of just ending the chat, but it wasn't that bad. This is how I got into Magic: The Gathering beyond the 3 or 4 family members I played with in real life. I found people to talk about the game with, share deck builds, create fantasy cards, and even play online with the cool and illegal Apprentice32 program. I was a member of an online M:tG community with an angelfire homepage and an IRC chat room, all before social media or hashtags were a twinkle in Mack Dorseyberg's eye.
I've had good Omegle experiences too, much later of course. The trick I discovered was to put "conversation" as an interest. That way you can find people who are actually interested in talking instead of dudes cruising for... something. I don't think even they could honestly say what they're cruising for without a lot of soul searching. But if you want to just have an instant message conversation with someone interesting, that was a good way to do it. Everyone is interesting if they allow themselves to be interesting, that's what I think.
Wouldn't it be cool if something like this was built into the chat program everyone uses? You know, the one? The thing everyone uses to communicate?
Another feature of ICQ I think modern chat programs should replicate is this: it had a status setting above "online". In addition to a number of more granular "I'm not here" options, like "do not disturb", "occupied", and "away", it had a "free for chat" status. The icon was the normal green flower icon used for "online" with a little smiley face:
This functioned the same as the "available/online" status, but it let people you were friends with know that you'll be there with an immediate response if they send you a message. This was extra thoughtful in the 90s, when dial-up internet meant you could usually assume that online=available, because why else would someone dial into the internet and open the ICQ program if not to make themselves available to talk to their friends?
Still though, the "free to chat" status is a marvelous way to signal tone and expectations. It's a way to say "I'm not up to anything important, and I'd like it if my friends message me just to say hello". I think that's something that's become more difficult as instant messaging programs have gotten more and more human-unfriendly. Facebook doesn't even let you control your online status; you show up with a green dot if you have the website or program open, and if you don't, it shows how many minutes it's been since you did. That's it. The green dot doesn't really tell anyone anything. Often people leave facebook open in a tab, so the green dot is on all the time, and thus might as well not be there at all. It really doesn't help with the question "is this person going to be annoyed if I message just to say hi?"
I know a lot of people reading this are like "of course I wouldn't be annoyed, I love it when my friends say hi," but this is definitely not a universal opinion——there's a website all about how awful it is when people do it. So people prone to anxiety are likely to just err on the side of never saying anything at all.
However, this can all be fixed with the "available for chat" status. People can actually signal that they're looking for connection and communication, and their friends can message with impunity. It should be a temporary status that clears after 30 minutes or so; you don't want people forgetting and leaving it on after they've wandered away from their keyboard or put their phone in their pocket. Then we'll have the "available" problem all over again, and have to come up with yet another level, "really available for chat", "actually really available for chat", etc.
This also helps make sure you won't accidentally take on more conversations than you can handle at once. In the ICQ days I could easily juggle 7 or 8 sessions, which sure is 5 or 6 more than I'd be able to juggle now.
For as many problems as it has, one chat program that will let you do this exact thing is Discord:
You can customize your status text, and use any emoji as your status icon, and set it to clear after a given period of time in case you forget. Perfect! What a good way to communicate to your friends "I want to talk. I'm not doing anything right now. Please reach out." In honor of our dearly departed ICQ, I say we should use the sunflower for this status.
I mean, a product called ICQ still exists. It's owned by the VK company now, so who knows what it actually is. If we want the spirit of old ICQ to live on, it's up to us 🦝🌻