AIM 🔴 AFK 4EVA
For the better part of two decades, starting in the mid ’90s, AIM (previously AOL Instant Messenger) was the way to communicate online. For a certain generation, which most of the Engadget staff happens to be a part of, it defined their youth. Those of us who experience high school and college in a world before Twitter, Facebook and, yes, Gmail, Instant Messenger was how we kept up with friends after class and well into the night. We made friends from across the globe, and a few of us even found love.
But around 2010 AIM’s popularity started to decline. Fast.
Now the OG of instant messaging apps is being put out to pasture. On December 15th AIM will finally shut down. But first the Engadget staff wanted to give it a proper send off.
The news of AIM’s demise initially brought on a moment of nostalgia and a twinge of sadness. But those feelings were quickly replaced with sheer relief that the embarrassing garbage I used to post as away messages would officially be wiped from the web. We all did it, but I still shudder remembering the truly awful lyrics I chose to post from bands I wanted to show off knowing because I thought they were super cool (they weren’t). And let’s not forget the remarkably uninspiring quotes that I felt meant something at the time.
The away message really captured who we were at the time or at least who we wanted to be, neither of which was great in most cases. And aside from the away message, there just isn’t really a better example of something that neatly and concisely depicts the often mortifying process of navigating through your teens. Maybe the senior yearbook quote, which was away message-level bad in my case.
This is truly the end of an era, but it happens to be an era marked by cringe-worthy teenage musings and humiliating posturing. So, farewell luvinsummer16, my one and only screenname, I’ll only miss you a little bit.
When my family graduated from AOL dial-up to DSL and got our own (Verizon!) emails around 2000, I was overjoyed to learn that AIM was a standalone client. AIM was a haven: While the AOL portal was sanitized and clunky, AIM was a simple and customizable communication platform where I started forming an online identity. I had a now-embarrassing Sega-inspired name — AlphaTails — and a profile box to fill with ~*feelings*~, song lyrics, janky HTML and links to my LiveJournal and Photobucket. All was well.
MySpace came around, but that was an asynchronous bulletin to posture and fiddle with my first passive online presence. AIM was the destination to regroup after school, to debrief the day’s drama one-on-one and conspire about crushes. It was personal and intimate. Behind the safe, new anonymity, everyone was exploring online, friends and strangers poured their hearts out. Amid piles of homework and overprotective parents, AIM was the frontier adults didn’t understand, and ergo the place for teenagers stuck at home to congregate.
Tech has removed so many obstacles to communication: There’s nothing like waiting up all night to see for your best friend or romantic interest and getting a thrill when the AIM’s “opening door” SFX announced their presence. Now, everyone is online, always, and accessible via miracle-thin computers in their pockets. When I loaded up AIM on my first internet-connected computer, a Bondi Blue iMac, I could no more imagine mobile internet chat than I could foresee my first messenger platform being left in the dust. Facebook became the new way to connect and, later, instantly chat — and with SMS flourishing and Gchat on the rise, I had no need for AIM. People moved on, and so did I.
I don’t remember my first AIM screenname, but it was probably either a reference to Dragonball Z or Sailor Moon, my first anime obsessions. I also went through several different screennames during the ’90s, as my family hopped between free trials on America Online, Prodigy and countless other early internet services. Eventually, I settled on “bokunotenken,” a reference to the anime series Rurouni Kenshin.
Once AIM launched as a separate app in 1997, it became more useful as a way to chat with people across the web, no matter their ISP. All of my school friends were there, but most importantly, so were my online friends. These were people I never met in person, but I still somehow ended up spending hours chatting with them about anime, video games and the ennui of being a ’90s kid. Looking back, it’s astounding how much those simple text messages meant to me.
When I headed to college in 2001, AIM was practically a requirement. Its iconic chime rang throughout the halls. And since cellphones weren’t nearly as ubiquitous back then, it was simply easier to get in touch with people over AIM. Away messages ended up functioning as a sort of proto-Twitter — a way to broadcast our moods and interests at a whim. While my school was home to an early social network, Planworld, AIM captured the pulse of campus conversation in real time. Things began to change when Facebook launched across colleges in 2004. And it turns out, that was something AIM would never be able to recover from.
I got on AIM in 2008, when I came to the US for a semester of college. It was my first taste of true independence, having spent all my life under the roof (and watchful eyes) of my parents. I was there with a group of Singaporean classmates, but I was eager to embrace American culture and joined the student radio station to branch out. There, I made lots of good friends, at least two of whom I now consider lifelong buddies. (Hi, DanaR and Cal Nash!)
AIM was instrumental in fostering many of my friendships then. Not only did we have a chatbot (called DJ3000) for the radio station to take requests, but I needed the messaging service to get to know my new friends (and let’s be real, crushes) better. In Singapore (and most of the rest of the world), MSN Messenger was a lot more common, so AIM became my little American silo that I clung on to even after I left the US in 2009.
That simple chat window on my laptop, my window to the American life I had left behind, is now closing. But that’s okay. Now that I work for AOL (er, Oath), I feel like I’ve danced through the doorway and can leave the window behind. Today, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and the myriad services through which I talk to my friends, I no longer rely on one service and frankly I haven’t used AIM in years. I am a little bit sad that AIM will be going away, but all my memories associated with it will remain.
I met my wife on MySpace (laugh all you want), but it’s on AIM where our love really blossomed. We talked for well over a month — late at night, first thing in the morning and throughout the day — on Instant Messenger before we met physically. And it remained an important part of our relationship even after we started dating. In a time when your cellphone plan only came with a certain number of text messages, it was easy to rack up overages. But I could easily drop a note to her in AIM for when she got home from school or work, and vice versa. And no matter how tired I was, I always had time to chat with her when I heard that creaky door open.
Plus, I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly in my youth. Talking to people, especially new people and especially new girls, came about as naturally as unpowered flight. AIM allowed me to pause and think about what I wanted to say and generally pretend to be far more charming than I actually was. But it was also good practice; it helped me break out of my shell. I developed and maintained friendships with plenty of people primarily through AIM — whether that was because we travelled in different social circles or because they went away to school. AIM was like a training ground; it’s where I learned to interact with humans.
In the mid ’90s, AOL was initially the only way to get online in my hometown. The fine city of Tehachapi would eventually be dragged onto the information superhighway via its very own dial-up ISP, but until that happened, my friends and I would buy random magazines bundled with CDs promising “20 Free Hours” of AOL access to get online. Because we were basically scamming AOL for free access, we were constantly creating new accounts and screen names after our introductory hours had dried up. Nearly all of mine were references The Smiths or Morrissey. I was OurFrank, BoyRacer, xVauxhaul, VivaHate and long list of other slightly embarrassing online call signs. But I eventually settled on Strngwys, a handle I still use today. When AIM was spun out as its own app, it became a means of chatting with my first online friends who, like me, had dropped AOL’s walled-garden for a proper ISP. It also became a means of chatting with my long-time IRL friends without running up our phone bill.
As the new way to communicate flourished among my circle of friends it, like texting today, became more than a way to say hi. Breakups, problems with a job, financial difficulties, family drama were all shared from a keyboard instead of a phone. Through all that, my AIM list expanded.
When I got my first job writing online, the entire staff used it as a sort of early Slack but without corporate overlords checking our chat logs. We used it to chitchat and share story ideas. But it was also how we reacted to our boss’s sometimes-outlandish behavior. He’d say something ridiculous or insulting and the newsroom would erupt in a chorus of keyboard clatter.
I still have my AIM account linked to the Messages app on my Mac. It’s a sort of life history told in buddy lists — TMZ, Extra, Gizmodo, MacLife, and finally Wired. After that, everyone just stopped sending messages. AIM lost to texting, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and a plethora of other messaging apps. Sadly, the only AIM I’ve received in the past six months was this morning announcing its demise. I would say I’m sad to see it go, but I got a ton of DMs to reply to right now.
Senior News Editor
More than 20 years ago, and under pressure to act quickly, I made a decision that would have a surprisingly far-reaching effect: I chose my AOL screen name. It wasn’t my first or fifth choice, and if I knew that years later people would constantly tweet at me instead of the Japanese airport they’re trying to reach I might have picked something else. But this is the name I chose, and for many of the friends I’ve made, it’s the first or only one they know.
That even includes my initial batch of Engadget coworkers, since, before IRC or Slack, we managed the site in a simple AIM chatroom. No other communication tool we’ve tried since has been quite as reliable, and it was way ahead of the pack on mobile access. Between my always-running desktop and a slew of yesteryear’s smartphones — Sidekick, PPC 6600, Helio Ocean — I went years without logging off.
Watching status updates from friends and colleagues around the world was my information dashboard long before Facebook or Twitter. And, seeing how the world has changed, I’m starting to miss it. With no algorithm or likes, the only options were irony or passive-aggressive notes about relationship drama, which if you think about it, is the way the internet should be.
Senior News Editor
Back in college, AIM was the primary method of communication on campus. We had landlines in our rooms sure, but back then, cellphones were mostly for calls and texts. AOL Instant Messenger was free and easy, especially when you’re planted in front of your computer for hours at a time trying to get coursework done.
All the AIM stereotype were key parts of my experience: obscure screen names, away messages filled with emo lyrics and more. My most obscure screen name was probably endringwars — a shortened version of “The End of the Ring Wars,” an album from The Appleseed Cast.
The chat app was your lifeline to friends on campus at Campbell University, and it was unforgivable to forget to put up an away message if you stepped away from the keyboard for longer than a few minutes. AIM also helped my wife and I keep in touch one summer when we had just started dating. I’ve never been a huge fan of talking on the phone, so online chats were much better, and again, free of charge.
Sure, I haven’t used AIM in years. Well, not since the end of Engadget Distro (RIP). It’s amazing how something can be such a huge part of your life for several years and then it’s just not anymore. Who knows, maybe we’ll be fondly remembering 140 characters, open DMs and the addition of GIF support when Twitter fades out in another 10 years or so.
AIM was how I communicated with online friends after my parents decided to axe our home’s AOL subscription in 1999. In the decade-plus that followed, the chat app went from how I kept up with high school friends outside of school to how I talked to editors and colleagues while freelancing.
But a funny thing happened last winter. I upgraded from a MacBook Air to a MacBook Pro, and with the new machine the last vestige of my old online life disappeared. I’d long abandoned the official AIM client in favor of Pidgin on Windows and Adium on Mac, and when it came time to install my usual apps on my new hardware, I couldn’t remember the password for the screen name I’d used since my junior year of high school. At first losing my carefully organized buddy list of offline friends, PR contacts and fellow journalists bothered me, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that AIM was a relic of the pre-social-media era.
At this point, I’m Facebook friends with the people talked to most. Or I follow them on Twitter or have them in my Gchat list. If I really need to get a hold of someone these days, it isn’t all that difficult. Eight years ago I’d have been crushed by news of AIM’s demise. But now it just feels like a matter of course. That doesn’t mean I’m killing the line with my screen name from my email signature, though.
Goodbye, AIM. I’ll never forget all of your dark away messages, filled with broken-hearted Dashboard Confessional lyrics.