Modern technology is all about giving you lots of different options in order to complete very specific tasks. If you want to date, you’ve got a world of sites and apps to choose from. If you want to connect with a friend, you hop on Twitter or Facebook. If you want to let people know how you feel, you might post a pic on Instagram or Snapchat. Every emotion or want or need leads to a singular platform for you to find satisfaction, leading to an ever-increasingly fractured experience.
The internet didn’t start this way. More specifically, the internet user experience. For many of us in those early days in the 1990s when going online was just beginning to revolutionize the way we lived our lives, we mostly stuck to a singular place to accomplish everything: AOL. And within that, it was AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) that acted as Twitter, Facebook, Snapcat, and Tinder all in one.
If you weren’t there, you’ve probably heard the stories. Back before everyone logged on and opened their browser, going online was a process. First, you had to make sure the phone line was clear. God forbid your mom needed to make a call because that would kick your modem off every single time. Then you’d have to load AOL, which you got from a CD in the mail along with a code for a certain number of free hours to use while on it. You didn’t dare open a web browser or do anything outside of the confines of AOL’s protective walls. And that’s why AIM was so necessary. It was the place where you could personalize your online experience exactly how you wanted and with whom you wanted.
For those of us who spent an ungodly amount of hours on AOL in the 90s, that androgynous yellow AOL mascot was the most important person, er, thing, in your daily life.
Your AIM screenname was one of the most important decisions you made in your entire life. Do you go with some kind of codename or nickname or do you make it clear that you are you (inasmuch as that was possible)? I don’t remember all of my AIM names but I’m pretty sure First Name-Last Initial-Random Series of Numbers was the general crux of them. When I went to college (Syracuse) I decided to become CuseBoy913 because I was a) at Syracuse, b) very much still a boy, and c) living in dorm room 913. One night, my sister accidentally erased our AIM account names in some freak accident and I was told I couldn’t have the username again even though the other person who owned it was me. And so, I became CuseBoy931, an AIM name that stayed with me long after I ever used AIM, or AOL for that matter. An era that officially ends this December, per a recent announcement.
— AIM (@aim) October 6, 2017
AIM was your quick connection to all the people in your life, be they Buddies, Family, Co-Workers, or whatever else you wanted to categorize them as. More often than not, your lists were full of regrettable usernames that most people outgrew but never got around to changing.
All the ways we communicate with each other online today can be traced back to here. The shortening of language. Using buddy icons and emoticons instead of your words. BRB. G2G. LOL. ROFL. JKJKJK!!! Using strange colors and fonts to tell a story about your mood and interests without actually verbalizing them. There was an intricate code to the way we spoke to one another on AIM and it lives on today.
AIM wasn’t just for figuring out whose mom was picking everyone up to take them to the movies. It was also about meeting new people. Specifically, meeting people to date. You might come across someone randomly on AOL and decide to take it back to AIM to get to know them better. Even better, your local crush would start chatting on AIM with you, giving you the opportunity to spend way too much time overanalyzing what they say, how they say it, and how long it takes them to say it.
You waited desperately to hear the swinging door sound that indicated they’d logged on and then the rolling sound that indicated they’d sent you a new message. You never wanted another human being to say “Hi” so much in your life. Eventually, it became easier to send photos and videos over AIM but for a good while, all you had to go on was what you wrote in that little box and it was very easy to read way too much into so little.
AIM even worked hard when you weren’t there thanks to the ever-important away message. There’s a reason there’s still a Twitterfeed dedicated to the banal details that people agonized over when creating these chestnuts. Sure you could just put one of the generic away messages up but where was the fun in that. Instead, you had a collection of messages at the ready. A favorite quote from a band you now regret listening to. A wacky catchphrase that you don’t remember the origin of. A passive-aggressive message to a person who wronged you through the guise of a general statement to all. Your away message said as much about you and your state of mind than anything else.
so much drama
— your away message (@YourAwayMessage) May 19, 2017
Eventually, we all outgrew AIM as the internet outgrew AOL. We ventured out into the bleak open web to discover standalone websites and resources that didn’t need to be seven clicks deep in AOL’s platform. New media options sprang up. E-mail hit its stride. The game changed. AOL and AIM didn’t change with it.
The obvious joke now is to say “AIM was still around?” Of course, it’s obvious because it’s true. It probably shocks a lot of people who grew up in that era to know that as of 2015, over two million folks still paid for AOL service. That means someone out there was and still is using AIM. Who knows, maybe they reached out to you at some point in the last decade, asking a/s/l to get the party started. Or maybe your AIM handle has laid dormant, only interacting with the occasional spammer.
Either way, even though we all said goodbye to AIM a long time ago, it’s official passing marks a very clear reminder that the internet we grew up with is long dead and buried. That’s probably a good thing because we all said some really dumb shit on there.