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AOL Instant Messenger Made Social Media What It Is Today

The once popular messaging platform goes dark this week, but its legacy of instant communication is here to stay.
December 14, 2017

It’s the year 2000, I’m just about eight years old, and it’s 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. I’m in Boston and they’re in New York, but “omg we can talk all the time!!!1!”

We weren’t 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 them today. It’s 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, AIM’s 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 AIM’s creator, AOL, and Yahoo) announced that on December 15 it would take this giant of the early Internet offline.

The move makes sense, but it’s bittersweet to see such a pivotal part of my introduction to life on the Internet disappear. So I’m 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.

Back in February 1997, Barry Appelman, an AOL engineer, was granted a patent for something opaquely called “User definable on-line co-user lists.” It promised to be “a 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.” In plain English, that’s what we came to know as the Buddy List—a then-revolutionary feature that showed you your online friends and indicated whether or not they were actively at their computers.

The Buddy List wasn’t an AIM feature from the start; at first, users had to request information about their contacts’ online status one at a time, and they even had to know the person’s username to do it. But these requests became so frequent that they were crashing AOL’s servers, so AIM engineers decided to just show users all their friends’ 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 today’s messenger apps are incredibly similar to how AIM operated in the late ’90s. Even Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook’s original chat feature as a reaction to the way AIM was designed. Zuckerberg’s 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 Apple’s now-dead iChat, and in Google Hangouts and Slack (the latter two even let you set status updates, like next-generation away messages).

Messaging apps are still so similar to the format AIM popularized because many of the people who ultimately built the tools we rely on today for keeping in touch with friends or communicating with coworkers came of age on all the features that AIM had to offer. Zuckerberg, 33, reminisced recently about the service in a personal Facebook post.

“AOL Instant Messenger was a defining part of my childhood,” he wrote. “It helped me understand internet communication intuitively and emotionally in a way that people just a few years older may have only considered intellectually.”

It’s hard to imagine that the success of messaging apps, ranging from the work-oriented Slack to the ephemeral Snapchat, would’ve been possible had AIM not been so popular. AIM wasn’t 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 a proving ground. It’s where millions of us became comfortable with the ideas of tracking each other’s movements online and, most crucially, transferring emotional intimacy with other people from face-to-face interactions to computer-driven exchanges.

Even 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 today’s news.

There’s also a dark side to what AIM brought us, and even a nostalgic goodbye shouldn’t overlook that. The freedom to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time also enabled early online bullying and trolling, which have only gotten worse with the spread of social media; that remains a challenge for today’s tech titans to solve.

But whether good or bad, AIM truly set the parameters for most of our virtual interactions, so when it goes dark on Friday, it will be gone but certainly not forgotten.

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