Itâs the year 2000, Iâm just about eight years old, and itâs my first day on AOL Instant Messenger. My fingers move clumsily across the plastic keyboard as I try to type fast enough to keep up with two cousins who are already seasoned AIM pros, sending me rapid-fire missives of excitement in our little online chat room. Iâm in Boston and theyâre in New York, but âomg we can talk all the time!!!1!â
We werenât alone in our excitement. First released in 1997, AIM was a popular way for millions of people to communicate throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, and it helped form Internet culture and communication as we know it today. Itâs where so many of us became fluent in LOL-ing and emoticons, and caught the itch to stay in constant contact with others no matter where we are.
But in the two decades since its launch, AIMâs popularity has dwindled in favor of mobile-focused platforms for communicating, like Facebook, Instagram, and Slack. At its peak in 2001, AIM had 36 million active users; as of this summer, it had just 500,000 unique visitors a month. And so, in early October, Verizon-owned Oath (which comprises AIMâs creator, AOL, and Yahoo) announced that on December 15 it would take this giant of the early Internet offline.
The move makes sense, but itâs bittersweet to see such a pivotal part of my introduction to life on the Internet disappear. So Iâm saying goodbye to AIM in the best way I know how: by looking back at how it came to be, and how it will, in many ways, always be with us.
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Back in February 1997, Barry Appelman, an AOL engineer, was granted a patent for something opaquely called âUser definable on-line co-user lists.â It promised to be âa real time notification system that tracks, for each user, the logon status of selected co-users of an on-line or network system and displays that information in real time.â In plain English, thatâs what we came to know as the Buddy Listâa then-revolutionary feature that showed you your online friends and indicated whether or not they were actively at their computers.
The Buddy List wasnât an AIM feature from the start; at first, AIM users had to request information about their contactsâ online status one at a time, and they even had to know the personâs username to do it. But these requests became so frequent that they were crashing AOLâs servers, so AIM engineers decided to just show users all their friendsâ information up front instead. That simple solution set the stage for how we interact with folks online to this day.
In fact, with the addition of some other clever features, many of todayâs messenger apps are incredibly similar to how AIM operated in the late â90s. Mark Zuckerberg built Facebookâs original chat feature as a reaction to the way AIM was designed. Zuckerbergâs version, now known as Facebook Messenger, has a few improvements, but the basics are all there: a buddy list, online activity statuses, and the ability to chat one on one, or in a group. You see this same basic design in Appleâs now-dead iChat, and in Google Hangouts and Slack (the latter two even let you set status updates, like next-generation away messages).
Itâs not hard to imagine why messaging apps are still so similar to the format AIM popularized. Many of the people who ultimately built the tools we rely on today to keep in touch with friends or communicate with coworkers were coming of age on all the features that AIM had to offer. Zuckerberg, 33, reminisced recently about the service in a personal Facebook post.
âAOL Instant Messenger was a defining part of my childhood,â he wrote. âIt helped me understand internet communication intuitively and emotionally in a way that people just a few years older may have only considered intellectually.â
Itâs hard to imagine that the success of messaging apps ranging from the work-oriented Slack to the ephemeral Snapchat wouldâve been possible had AIM not been so popular. AIM wasnât the first instant messaging tool to exist, but it was the most widely used and influential in broad strokes, making it possible for us to feel at home in lots of different online settings.
In many ways AIM was also a proving ground. Itâs where millions of us became comfortable with the idea of tracking each otherâs movements online and, most crucially, transferring emotional intimacy with other people from face-to-face interactions to computer-driven exchanges.
Even our familiarity with chatbots began, for many of us, on AIM. Remember SmarterChild? It was a total jerk, but in the early 2000s millions of people used AIM to message this chatbot about everything from whether it liked them to what the weather would be the following day. These types of interactions primed us to feel normal asking Siri to tell a joke, or querying Alexa about todayâs news.
Thereâs also a dark side to what AIM brought us, and even a nostalgic goodbye shouldnât overlook that. The freedom to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time also enabled early online bullying and trolling, which has only gotten worse with the spread of social media; that remains a challenge for todayâs tech titans to solve.
But whether good or bad, AIM truly set the parameters for most of our virtual interactions. When it goes dark on Friday, it will be gone but certainly not forgotten.