These days, there’s a million different ways to chat. Sliding into DMs, group texts, Slack channels, Facebook Messenger, encrypted messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp—you name it. But half these platforms are tied to a social network, and the rest are on your phone. Chances are, your various friend groups are scattered across a half dozen of these apps. Sure, messaging apps have come a long way in the past decade, but there are some days where I find myself longing for AOL Instant Messenger. Yeah, you read it correctly. AIM.
I mostly used AIM to socialize online in middle school and high school. Email was so sixth grade and how else was I going to chat with internet friends I made on dubious web forums? Livejournal and Xanga were cool and all, but the true sign of a budding friendship was when you added someone to your Buddy List.
To rewind a little, AIM began as a simple patent granted to Barry Appelman, an engineer at AOL, in February 1997. All it was meant to be a way to see when someone else was online. This eventually evolved into the aforementioned Buddy List. Somehow, Appelman and his cohorts created a free chat program that totally went against AOL’s whole subscription based model of the 1990s. For many people, myself included, this ended up as a gateway to the internet outside AOL’s walled gardens.
If you look into the history of AIM, you find the story of engineers who created an “unsanctioned” product against the wishes of AOL’s profit-hungry executives, resulting in AOL perpetually keeping AIM at arm’s length. Behind the scenes, AIM’s eventual demise was long in the making.
It’s a fascinating bit of internet history, but none of that contentious corporate back-and-forth really mattered to me as a socially awkward tween. What mattered was my screen name, the background color and font I picked for my messages, and learning how to make ASCII smileys. (I absolutely don’t remember why, but this sad lobster was a popular one with my friends (\/) (;_;) (\/) .) That, and crafting the perfect away message.
The away message was an art form. It’s where I workshopped cheesy jokes, left cryptic song lyrics that would supposedly indicate my mood, or dropped cheeky lil tidbits of my life meant to act as crumbs for my crushes to find. (Did it work? The evidence points to a big, stinking no.) You could save multiple away messages, labeling them for specific situations. They were the OG status updates and tweets—the digital equivalent of screening your calls. Hell, away messages were the original subtweet.
As much as I could wax lyrical about all the ways AIM paved the way for every single messaging app you currently use, the thing I miss most was the fact that everyone was on it. At its peak in 2001, AIM counted roughly 36 million active users worldwide, according to CRN. By the mid-2000s, 52% of people in North America chatting on instant messaging services were on AIM. Okay, sure, there was always some dweeby contrarian who had to say they thought Yahoo! Messenger or IRC was “better” but those people usually caved into pressure to download AIM, too.
After school, I didn’t have to wonder which platform was the best for messaging my friends or waiting for my crushes to get online. (Truly, there was no greater thrill than watching your crush log on in real time.) Today, I’m in five separate Slack groups, have seven different chat apps on my phone (not including DMs on social media), and three on my laptop. A stupidly large portion of my brain is dedicated to remembering which platforms a specific friend is most likely to respond on based on like time of day or the type of content I’m trying to share.
For example, my best friend is in one of those five Slack groups, as well as Signal, Instagram, and regular ol’ texting. During the workday, she’s more likely to respond on our shared Slack. But sometimes I’m not, so she’ll message me via text to make sure I see something. Unless it’s a small fluffy animal, which in that case, it’s more likely that we’re chatting via Instagram DMs. We used to use Signal to keep things easy, but then she started complaining I was her only friend there so what was the point? Repeat this for say, the 50 some odd people I keep in regular contact with and it’s frankly too much.
Was AIM perfect? Hell no. I will never forget the time some weirdo messaged me—then a tender 13-year-old—out of the blue, trying to get me to engage in porny Gundam Wing roleplay. I was glad when the great shift to Gchat happened because the friend drama on AIM had hit a breaking point. (When you’re tuned into the GOSSIP found in a random acquaintance’s away message, it is time to step away.) The internet began eulogizing AIM as early as 2011, but its true and final death didn’t come until the tail end of 2017. Ironically, AIM ended up outliving Gchat by several months.
Even though AOL let AIM waste away bit by bit until it was a husk of what it once was, I’ll be honest—I remember more of my lengthy AIM conversations than I do any of my chats on the platforms that came after.
I vividly remember the 40-minute conversation between me and my aforementioned bestie that consisted solely of us messaging “-_-” back and forth until one of us logged off. Come to think of it, our friendship actually started on AIM as she messaged me after freshman orientation about my “interest in Final Fantasy VII-X.” I spent several hours in the middle of the night with another friend trying to figure out our homework assignments, all the while typing in nigh unreadable StIcKy CaPs. My first successful foray into romance was enabled by AIM, when my high school sweetheart pinged me out of the blue one day, asking what homeroom I was in. Likewise, the pure agony of sending a message only to see seconds later that your friend/crush had logged off haunted me for years.
Sure, some of that intensity has transferred over to how we interact on social media and via text messages. Remnants of AIM’s Buddy List can be found in Slack and Facebook Messenger, while the whole friending thing is the foundation all social media was built upon. But it all seems so complicated now. Back then, it seemed my AIM conversations were always so earnest. It was about things we liked and were excited about, episodes of TV that left us screaming, games that blew our minds. Now, it’s irony-poisoned hot takes clogging up my Twitter feed, gif reactions that half-obscure what my friends are really trying to say, and everyone on Slack is doing some kind of bit. Now, it’s about taking as many breaks from chatting as possible. I miss the relative simplicity that AIM offered, and the rush of running home to see who was online.