I've noticed a lot of messenger apps such as HipChat and Facebook Messenger have implemented a horizontal 3 dot icon which signifies a user is typing.

Screenshot showing the three dots

I'm curious to know how this icon came about and what the history/thought process behind it might be?

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    Are you looking for the history/thought process on the ellipse (...) or the idea of showing an icon of some type while another user is typing? – BruceWayne May 12 '16 at 18:18
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    Hangouts has this too – Suici Doga May 13 '16 at 2:22
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    Which app first used an ellipsis icon for this purpose? It's much cuter than its verbose forebear Your contact is typing... – joeytwiddle May 13 '16 at 8:17
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    Please remember that there is a Unicode codepoint for the horizontal ellipsis (U+2026, "") that should be used instead of the three consecutive full stops ("...") that everyone in this thread has been using so far. – n.st May 14 '16 at 23:47
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    @n.st it's kind of harder to animate single character than 3 dots... – Aprillion May 15 '16 at 10:15

The three dot symbol is called an 'ellipsis' and has been used in text since at least 1588

Originally it signified a pause or tailing off in speech but, in modern times, it also signifies and implied continuance of any textual content. An example of the modern usage might be in webpages where you sometimes find "More after the jump..." meaning that an article will be continued after clicking a link.

Both the original (pause) and modern (continuance) meanings are relevant here as that is exactly what's happening when your friend is typing their reply to you via your IM.

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    I'm gonna start feeling really old if it turns out people don't learn what an ellipses is in school anymore... – WorseDoughnut May 12 '16 at 17:13
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    I'm convinced people don't learn in school any more at all. – coteyr May 12 '16 at 19:04
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    @WorseDoughnut I've heard of kids seeing a 1.44" floppy and saying "oh cool, you 3D printed the save icon". :-p – ceejayoz May 13 '16 at 3:36
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    @ceejayoz That's an extremely small floppy... – Anders Tornblad May 13 '16 at 7:27
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    1.44mb perhaps? :) – Sahbas Has May 13 '16 at 9:28

MSN Messenger Service

How do you feel about the typing indicator—“David is typing”—that appears on your buddy’s screen while you’re composing a message in chat? Does it make you feel self-conscious about how long you’re taking to write a message? Do you hate it when you are multitasking and your erstwhile best friend keeps sending messages like “Are you still there? What are you doing? Do you still like me? Have I fallen in your heart?”

If so, you have me to blame, because I was one of the people who invented the damn thing. But I can explain everything...

I Built That “So-and-So Is Typing” Feature in Chat

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    Nice find. To supplement the answer there's an article here: nytimes.com/2014/08/31/fashion/… which claims that Blackberry BBM was the first chat app to bring the feature to mobile - but doesn't specific why the icon used are dots rather than text. – Midas May 12 '16 at 8:22
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    MSN/WLM never had an ellipsis, animated or otherwise, for the typing indicator. That article is about the feature in general, not the icon (and in fact it makes no mention of iconography whatsoever). – BoltClock May 12 '16 at 10:45
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    @BoltClock is right. While info here is interesting, the actual answer is provided by Andrew – Mario Trucco May 12 '16 at 10:54
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    @Dipak: The thought process behind the icon, not the feature. It's even in your quote. Like I said, MSN/WLM never had an icon for the typing indicator - it simply printed "[contact name] is writing a message." in the status bar. This was true for all versions, including the original Windows Messenger. Icons weren't in use until Skype (which appeared a couple of years later), and even then 1) it wasn't an ellipsis, and 2) the icon that it used was also accompanied by text. – BoltClock May 12 '16 at 11:06
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    Nice ytalk reference. I miss chatting through a ytalk-like interface. – gerrit May 12 '16 at 13:51

The other answers have explained (excellently!) the origin of the ellipsis symbol, and how older chat programs displayed typing indicators. However, this doesn't directly answer the question.

To my knowledge, the first mobile app use of the "three dots in a bubble" indicator is iMessage. As Samuel pointed out in his comment, this was taken from iChat on the desktop, which had this UI as early as 2005.

When iMessage launched, the "typing" indicator (and read receipts) was a big differentiator from SMS. A lot of other mobile apps have since copied the typing bubble UI, even though desktop chat apps have had these types of indicators for a while.

  • this is the best answer so far - personally have not seen this icon until facebook started using it recently, yet iMessage has had it since late 2011 – RozzA May 15 '16 at 21:50
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    iChat, the predecessor to iMessage, had the three dots as well, as far back as 2005; maybe earlier. Source: cocoaforge.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=1668 – Samuel Bradshaw May 15 '16 at 23:22
  • @Samuel: Cool, I didn't realize that! – Nate Barbettini May 15 '16 at 23:23

I would think it is based on the ellipsis, which, according to Wikipedia, is a punctuation mark indicating: "[…] an unfinished thought, a leading statement, a slight pause […]".

When you see an ellipsis in a sentence, you know the sentence is not (yet) finished. When you are in a written conversation, it seems the best representation of: my sentence is not yet finished.

  • Could you find any references for this? Its a logical assumption but at the moment just speculation – Midas May 12 '16 at 8:56
  • Yes, it is my assumption at this point in time. Looking for references, though. – Gino van de Staaij May 12 '16 at 10:07
  • Still no definitive reference, I'm afraid... – Gino van de Staaij May 13 '16 at 9:37
  • Note that you used ellipses in your answer in yet another way, which is to be a placeholder for omitted text. – jamesdlin May 15 '16 at 9:53

I believe the use of the ellipsis in modern messaging apps derives from its use in some Internet chatrooms of the mid-to-late 90s. I can recall myself and others, when in essentially one-on-one conversations with other chatroom patrons, sometimes responding to the other person's statement first with simply "..." and then with an actual sentence.

Why did we do this? I can't speak for others but I remember that when I used "..." in chatrooms I meant it to convey a befuddled snarkiness, rather than a "Please Wait" prompt, because I didn't like what the other person said and I was a brat. So perhaps we should interpret it in modern messaging apps as an implicit "Bite Me" from the other person. ;D

But perhaps some of the young people that frequented these chatrooms at that time simply took the "..." to mean "Please Wait" and then grew up to become software engineers that worked on the messaging apps that use "..." as we see it today.

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    I also used this in chat rooms, but I sued it to mean "hang on, it's a long response and I'm going to take a while to type it up" – Basic May 13 '16 at 20:24

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