My favorite phone of all time is the BlackBerry Bold 9000. Unlike the iPhone 3G, which touted a revolutionary design when it was announced just a month later in 2008, the BlackBerry Bold wasn’t super flashy. But it had one thing the iPhone 3G didn’t: BlackBerry Messenger. It became a defining characteristic on BlackBerry devices and forever changed how business and casual conversations were held by phone users. Today, after years of dwindling usage and financial woes from BlackBerry developer RIM, BlackBerry Messenger is going away for good.
BlackBerry Messenger (better known as BBM) was one of the first instant messaging (IM) platforms that arrived on mobile devices in 2005. People could choose to use a BBM account tied to their unique BlackBerry Pin rather than send a standard text message. BBM managed to take traditional desktop messaging and translate it to the tiny computers in our pockets. It was astounding.
It wasn’t perfect, though. BBM looked like an early version of Facebook’s WhatsApp. The text bubbles were cluttered, the user interface felt clunky when navigating between messages, and if the wheel on your BlackBerry got stuck, good luck scrolling through messages. Despite BBM’s weaknesses, it became the app that defined my early high school experience for two main reasons: group chats and a striking similarity to desktop IM platforms like AIM.
I got my Bold 9000 in 2008. I was in the 10th grade and, like everyone else, my life revolved around my phone. My friends and I texted every single day and night. We all had BlackBerrys. Some people got new devices from their parents as birthday gifts, others used old recycled phones. Through BBM, those individual text messages soon morphed into elaborate, endless group chats. We became a perfect batch of new BlackBerry users. RIM already made a name for itself among businesses and governments, but then it started reaching a crucial new audience: young consumers. By 2013, BBM had 60 million monthly active users. My friends and I were some of the earliest ones.
It sounds silly to say today, when WhatsApp has more than a billion users and group chats are part of our daily lives, but back then, it was sensational. I didn’t have to wait until I was home to log on to MSN Messenger to continue talking to my friends.
It was also through BBM’s group chat function that I entered my first high school relationship. We became close through constant group chats with our pals, and eventually, we split off into direct messaging. Yes, in 2008, I did the BBM equivalent of sliding into the DMs. Every time I saw my Bold’s flashing green light turn red, signifying a new message, I experienced that little burst of warmth in the pit of my stomach. It was ridiculous and exhilarating. There was no difference for me at 15 between my physical relationship with this person and our life on BBM. If anything, the latter felt even more intimate and safe.
I wasn’t the only person who felt this way about BBM, either. Early messages on the Crackberry forum are full of people trying to sum up why BBM felt better to use than standard text messages. “It’s like an exclusive club,” one Crackberry member mused. “It makes SMS look ancient,” another added.
Ironically, one of the most cited reasons on Crackberry defending BBM’s superiority is also partially a reason why my relationship fizzled out. BBM helped create one of the most anxiety-inducing messaging features that still exists today: read receipts.
Read receipts were introduced alongside BBM in 2005. When a message was sent, a tiny letter “D” would appear beside it. When that same message was read, the “D” would change to an “R.” People thought it was genius. Colleagues knew when someone was available and could hear back instantaneously. But the read receipt function came back to bite me, a person who often reads a message and replies hours later.
In 2011, Urban Dictionary added the term “rbomb” to specifically address a cultural shift on platforms like BBM. People didn’t want the other person to know when a message was read. Multiple Reddit posts asking how to deal with “read receipt anxiety” started appearing. Just this year, Dazed Digital ran a piece about how read receipts can poorly affect people’s mental health. Read receipts haunted me for years after I left BBM. I only just turned them back on through iMessage recently as an experiment. The only difference between my anxiety now and then is not having to deal with an angry, blinking red light at the top of my phone. The BlackBerry, via BBM, demanded attention.
For all that made BBM sometimes frustrating to use, it gave me something I miss today: a private community. BBM felt like a tiny oasis in a growing field of social networks and sites that wanted everything to be bigger. Sites like Habbo Hotel and Twitter helped create the internet we know today, all based on giving people the ability to talk to one another. But BBM was different. Group chats provided emotional support and a closeness that other sites couldn’t replicate. The fact that it was on your phone, a thing that already feels incredibly personal because it lives in your hand, only strengthened that feeling. Today, during a time when the internet feels too noisy, I find myself wistfully thinking about those early BBM group chats.
New York Magazine’s Max Read says group chats are “making the internet fun again.” It feels like many of us are fighting to get back to a place that reminds us of quieter old-school forums and IM platforms. That never stopped being BBM for me. It was the platform that helped me fall in love with cellphones and the thing that encouraged me to share dumb memes. It was the service that showed me small online experiences are usually more fun.
In 2013, an investigative report from The Globe and Mail suggested one plan to help save RIM, a once burgeoning company that was failing to keep up with Apple and Android, was BBM. One executive pitched a plan “to push wireless carriers to adopt” BBM as a complete replacement for traditional text messaging. The plan never got off the ground. BBM hung around for a little, eventually becoming an optional messaging platform on Apple and Android devices, but it never managed to reclaim the cultural cache it once held.
I still use group chats today with my friends. I’m in about four. One lives on Facebook Messenger, the others are through iMessage or standard texting. Those friends are in their own group chats, too, across iPhones and a variety of Android phones. No one uses BlackBerry Messenger anymore, but it created the very foundation of how the world still communicates today.