Earlier this month, AOL announced that they would be scuttling their AOL Instant Messenger service on December 15th.
It’s been a long time coming. It’s a move that is at once inevitable, unavoidable, but most importantly tragic. For it to not impact you directly is only logical. The wild west nature of AIM was replaced by more purposeful chat programs like Microsoft Office Communicator, Gchat, and, eventually, Slack and Discord.
There’s a good amount of people this affects emotionally, too, but only if you were born before the year 2000. Its heyday was potent but brief, covering the span of my high school career and parts of my college years. But conceptually, this is a tremendous, stoic, grim milestone.
This marks the death of the first social network.
It was a remarkably tense experience, the point of which no one quite understood yet. The idea of asynchronicity had not yet penetrated the realm of user experience design, so when you asked to add someone to your buddy list (a genial term for a daily existential crisis of status), it was immediate. It was scary. It was exciting.
We were all exploring the fundaments that would form future social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The politics surrounding adding and removing people from your finely culled list of connects? That was us. We were the burgeoning sociopaths that used friendship—future LinkedIn connections, really—as currency, replacing the high visibility of going to the mall with signing on and off in tandem. And of course we laid the groundwork for which you would slide into DMs.
To call it passive-aggressive communication would be kind. We used away messages—a billboard of sorts you would put up when you were signed in but away from your computer—as oblique confessions of crushes, advertisements for burning bridges, and song lyrics for elementary grade philosophy. These were the prototypal subtweets and Don’t @ Me.
But by the very nature of AIM’s design, it was an extraordinarily intimate experience as well. There was nothing public about interactions; every single thing you did was ostensibly confidential. Conversations were one-on-one (unless you dared enter the chatroom fray, a menagerie of eyesores we’ll touch on soon), user profiles had no comments section, and away messages were like a mailbox you’d slip private notes into. To engage with someone was to implicate an intimacy that you simply accepted and embraced.
It’s a sort of, well, not secrecy—more like confidence or affection that is missing nowadays. It was before we understood that gossiping in the online realm was the same as gossiping in the real world; we lacked the awareness that has turned millennials into generally more well-groomed people (though the odd part here is that many AIM users also qualify as millennials) than those that came before them. Mutually assured destruction was trumped by trust rather than paranoia-fed self-filtering.
Every word you typed into a conversation was a whisper into your friend’s ear. Every word you read was a note slipped into your locker. And as soon as it happened, it was gone; nothing was permanent in this ephemeral thing. But when you entered the fray of a group chatroom, you were entering a lawless land. Snipes, quips, greetings, farewells, admissions, and pontifications. They were all equal here, thrown into a pot boiling over with thoughts unfettered. It was an experiment in stream of consciousness before we knew what consciousness was.
AIM was the place I first asked out a girl on a date. (Hell, it was the first, second, third—all the way to twentieth—place I chickened out on asking her out, too.) It was where I learned to write for the public as my user profile—a taut 1,024 characters I updated weekly with mindless ramblings—became a talking point in school every Monday. It was where I learned how to argue and make up. How to make friends and keep them.
Obviously, kids growing up find their own ways to make these same steps. We were not unique in that regard. But we were the pioneers that stepped onto the online social stage, and our actions formed the underlying philosophy that led to Tinder and Instagram and Tumblr. And that time has passed. This, as much as breathing, taxes, and lists of three, is necessary. On December 15, 2017, we close the book on a chapter the world finished reading back in 2008.
“Whoever does not miss AIM has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain.”
– Cher or whatever