The best preservation of my middle- and high-school years doesn’t exist in a yearbook or in a diary. All you need to know about me, between the ages of 12 and 17, you could find in my AIM chat logs.
AOL—or Oath, or Verizon, or whatever the messy conglomerate of failed internet companies turned confusing advertising businesses is called now—announced today that it’ll be shutting down AOL Instant Messenger for good on December 15, 2017. Frankly the news is a long time coming: AIM’s been a ghost town for a decade, long since replaced by Facebook and WhatsApp and Skype and Snapchat and an entire generation of social products that evidently nobody at AOL ever saw coming or understood how to compete with.
It’s easy to forget now, but for a brief moment at the turn of the century no internet company was cooler than AOL. But my parents wouldn’t pay for AOL, no matter how often I made the financial case for our improved internet access and the emotional lift of that “You’ve got mail!” clip. I had an email @optonline.net, and lived outside the walled garden while all my friends partied inside.
But then AIM happened. Originally a skunkworks project within AOL, the messenger almost wasn’t released, and even then shouldn’t have been so successful. But it quickly became undeniable: whether you were a banker on Wall Street or a pimply middle schooler, you were on AIM. It was the best messaging app, the only one that mattered.
Suddenly, though I still couldn’t browse AOL’s hyper colored version of the internet, I could chat with my friends. And everyone, I mean everyone, was on AIM. Every day I’d come home from school, plop down at the family computer in the den, log on as davep3355, and immediately resume conversation with everyone I’d just left at the bus stop.
For all we like to worry about how much of life happens on the internet now, a lot of life happened on AIM. Friendships and relationships started, ended, and often took place mostly in a chat window. It always started the same way: one person waiting for the other’s name to pop up on their Buddy List, then trying to wait at least a few seconds before chatting them so as not to seem desperate. Long before group texts, we planned life on AIM.
The longer you were on AIM, the more you began to understand the platform’s native conventions. We all learned that our away messages, which showed up near our names on friends’ buddy lists when we were technically online but not at the computer (back when that wasn’t the way all things were all the time), conformed to their own code. A particularly angsty song lyric, ideally a line or two from a Dashboard Confessional track, was a cry for help and comfort. Unless you overused the tactic, in which case, ugh, the drama.
AIM was a precursor to the modern social internet in so many ways. Custom Buddy Icons were the proto-profile picture. Colorful, ASCII art-rich profiles were the original MySpace page. AIM did voice chat before Skype, file-sharing before Dropbox. Any sufficiently sophisticated AIM user remembers SmarterChild, the dour, bizarre chatbot that would help you answer basic questions or debate the fate of the universe.
AIM taught an entire generation of users a particular version of internet-speak. “AFK” meant away from keyboard, a useful status update long before real-time presence indicators. “POS” meant Parent Over Shoulder, a secret code letting your buddy know not to say anything crazy. AIM taught me how to LOL, and the subtle difference between ROFL and ROFLMAO. I was always brb-ing, and always jk’ing.
Even now, there are features AIM figured out that nobody else has successfully replicated. If someone was trolling you or being offensive on AIM, you had real power: a “warn” button that would actually slow down the internet connection of the person on the other side before eventually cutting them off. It’s odd, too, that away messages have disappeared: in a world where we’d all like to be a little less connected, a way to say “I’m here but not really” couldn’t be more useful.
None of this is to say you should still be using AIM, or that AOL shouldn’t be killing it. AIM outlived its usefulness a long time ago, ruined by apparent corporate in-fighting and the same lack of vision that doomed AOL as a whole. But as AIM marches toward its final resting place, on the Buddy List in the sky, and an entire generation Googles “how to download your AIM logs,” just remember for a moment how great it was when everyone used the same messaging app, when it gave us everything we needed, and when logging on to the internet was a joyful moment rather than a bracing one.
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