Remember When AOL Instant Messenger Was Our Facebook?

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After bowing down to Google Talk this week, AIM is effectively dead. Most buddy lists are ghost towns. Chatters fled to Google, Skype and Facebook for their conversational needs. But at its pinnacle, AIM was something singular and amazing.


By opening its gates to Gchat, AIM is saying that it's no competition. But AIM wants to stay relevant, and holding—gripping, even—Gmail's hand will do just that. A decade ago, this would have been unfathomable.


And a decade ago, AIM version 5.x on Windows was king. The program itself was lean and mean. It was responsive, it never got in the way, and nothing felt unnecessary. There were chat programs with more features and functionality and beauty, but none then—and none since—felt quite so intuitive.

IM clients today are convoluted. They support multiple accounts across multiple protocols. There's a status message for everything, whether you're at your computer or not. You can still chat with an away message up. Sometimes you can't even tell when you're accidentally logged out of one account.


AIM 5.x was simple. One protocol, one account. A status indicator meant you were away from your computer. The away message went away when you started chatting again. And when you got disconnected, it sure as hell let you know.

And it was ubiquitous. There was a stretch of time in the 90s and early 00s when AOL was a social requisite. This was short lived, of course, but the AOL name remained powerful, and the screennames we accumulated from it stuck with us. AOL was a bloated horror creature of the internet—but AIM was graceful, and because of the former's monopoly on the web, the seed was planted widely. Everyone had an AIM handle. You didn't have to worry about who used what. Saying "what's your screenname" was tantamount to asking for someone's number—everyone owned it, everyone used it, it was simple, and it worked.


And when we all finally got broadband, it was always on. Your friends were always right there on your buddy list, around the clock. This was the first time that it felt like we had presences online—that our friends were out there in some sense, and easily accessible. We always knew what everyone else was doing. The away message preceded the status update (Zuckerberg was still a kid!), making it normal, for the first time ever, to make public what you were doing.

"homework, brb"
"working out"
"out! call me!"

Short, often misspelled, hardly pithy. But poignantly personal and beamed out into the internet void, AIM was what you were doing.


AIM was also a sliver of who you were. In many ways, it was the internet's first mainstream social network. AIM profiles were a cocktail of all MySpace's tacky, inane juices squeezed out, but again, they were personal and public. Blank slates. White boxes. You could make them whatever you wanted—grating, bleeding pink text on black backgrounds, sprawling links, Odyssey-length inside jokes—anything that fit within the 1024 character limit. It was primitive but pioneering. And if you needed to say more, you could sign up for services that would trick your profile window into loading expanded profiles.

This was many years before Facebook gave us a sterile, hermetic place to chart our lives and tastes. You could make AIM whatever you wanted. You made it you. This was social networking wilderness. AIM stalking was a thing before Facebook stalking.


And everyone saw you. Your screenname, you profile, your font, your buddy icon (animated GIFs!)—all things that seem so archaic and trivial now—they were your internet identity, the most consolidated of its time. AIM was you on the internet. As a teenager on AIM, your online persona had to be as carefully manicured as your real life one. You never knew how many people were reading on the other side of the conversation, or who got ahold of any given transcript.

Chat rooms were a chaotic incubator full of hormonally charged co-eds, less inhibited by the awkwardness of face-to-face interactions. Conversations were about everything and nothing. Reading between the lines was mandatory. And there was always the quiet one in real life who said the craziest stuff in those rooms.


Then there were the little nuances you'd discover as AIM slowly took over your post-homework life. Remember hitting your friends with AIM warnings, to the point that they weren't allowed to talk for hours? Remember the code snippets in people's profiles that made it look like you said things you never said? Remember masking a link to some annoying popup site so that it looked like a link to an eBaum's World soundboard? Remember the one asshole friend who used comic sans as his font?

Growing up with AIM, it became more than just a program we used. It turned into a culture all its own—long before we realized we'd been living it.