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How AOL’s Instant Messenger influenced Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook design

Because of AIM, Facebook lets you choose whether to show people when you’re online.

Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at Facebook’s F8 Conference. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Before Mark Zuckerberg was battling Russians trying to influence presidential elections on Facebook, he was jerry-rigging his “away” status on AIM.

AOL’s iconic instant messenger service is shutting down after 20 years. As with many Americans of his generation, AIM was a pivotal social tool for the Facebook founder. Living at a distance from his classmates meant that AIM was Zuckerberg’s main form of socialization with friends after school.

“I developed a lot of empathy for the nuances of how people expressed emotions and ideas online, and I became very focused on improving how this worked,” Zuckerberg wrote in a public Facebook post Saturday. “For example, I didn't like that I had no control of whether AIM told my friends I was active online, because sometimes I just wanted to code without being interrupted unless someone I really wanted to chat with signed on.”

Since this was Mark Zuckerberg and not, say, a typical teen, he built some code to help.

“I hacked together a tool that let me set myself as if I'd been idle for a long time, even if I was actually at my computer,” Zuckerberg said. “Because of this, Facebook chat today always lets you turn off your online activity indicator.”

The quest to make a better version of AIM for his father’s business also led Zuckerberg to create a sort of Facebook 1.0, called ZuckNet, that allowed his father to chat one-on-one with colleagues and also “broadcast an update to everyone in the office at the same time.”


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