After 20 years, the time has come to say a final goodbye to AOL Instant Messenger. The famed chat client more commonly known as AIM is one of the internet’s longest-lasting cultural touchstones, and one of the few pieces of software that arguably changed how people interact with each other.
AOL announced in October that the beloved program would be shutting down for good on December 15 — and broke the news on a Tumblr called AIM Memories, a strong indicator of how firmly relegated to nostalgia AOL Instant Messenger had already become.
But that doesn’t negate its cultural influence, or its influence over the many messaging apps that have emerged in its wake. AIM was the chat client for a generation, one that left an indelible mark on the way we talk to each other online.
AIM entered an entire generation’s lives as part of the internet’s great cultural osmosis
AOL Instant Messenger was born in 1997. It wasn’t the web’s first instant-messaging client — a different one called IRC preceded it by nearly a decade. But it was the instant-messaging client that most widely proliferated at a moment when the internet was just starting to become a real part of people’s daily lives.
AOL was the first major internet service provider that many Americans experienced back in the mid-’90s, and most of its products were available for AOL users only. But in a stroke of genius, which the company’s owners initially hated, AOL developers chose to make their first chat client, AIM, free to download for non-AOL users as well. This move meant that AOL had a much deeper reach into our homes than any would-be competitors.
AIM’s design, with its bright colors and square shapes, would become indelibly associated with nostalgia for ‘90s internet culture. Its logo, a little yellow running man who greeted you by eagerly racing to sign in, is now iconic. It was designed by JoRoan Lazaro, who told the Atlantic in 2014 that he had been inspired by the round, well-defined shape-figures of post-war logos and trademarks.
AIM offered us that first crucial taste of the interactive world we now occupy and take for granted. It was part of a cultural moment where its level of virtual interactivity was still new and exciting: when making friends on the internet was still a scary and exhilarating experience; when chatting with a crush for hours online was often easier than talking to them at school the next day; when that familiar sound of a door opening as a friend arrived online could perk your interest, and that familiar “new message” Ping! could trigger real emotions; when a carefully chosen username or a carefully chosen quote, in a carefully selected font, set to serve as your “Away message” could say more about your personality than anything else.
And oh, the tricky politics that came with an away message, and all the subtle intricacies of online social etiquette, which we were all collectively figuring out, usually via AIM. Back in the days before blocking and muting someone on social media were common, before passive-aggressive subtweeting was somewhat routine, friendships could be tossed into upheaval over the mere act of “warning” someone. (Remember the warn button? It allowed you to essentially “buzz” someone — see the lightning bolt icon in the image below — to tell them they’d gone a step too far. If a person was “warned” enough times, they had to take the equivalent of what we now think of as an enforced timeout before they could sign in again.)
remember being on AIM and getting hit with that "warn" button.......devastating pic.twitter.com/UePm65chBC— There’s more to me than just my cat you know (@GraceSpelman) June 26, 2016
Then there were the perils of going invisible: making yourself look as though you were offline when you really weren’t. It was a great way to avoid a friend you didn’t feel like talking to, unless they somehow managed to find out you were ghosting them in the era before “ghosting” existed.
For many of us, AIM was the platform through which we learned much of the early internet speak that’s common parlance today; that phrases like “brb,” “lol,” and “rotflmao” somehow became integral parts of how we communicate to one another on the internet still two decades later is a mark of how homogenous the AIM experience was for the millions of people who used it.
At its peak in the early 2000s, AIM was the most commonly used chat client in North America. And even in the twilight of 2006, as the dawn of modern social media was beginning to encroach upon the quaint instant messaging service as a ubiquitous form of communication, it still had 53 million active users, dwarfing its closest competitors, MSN, Yahoo, and Google Talk.
AIM presaged the way we talk to each other today
While AIM thrived, the legacy of its creator, AOL, is one of a storied rise and fall, from once-mighty internet service provider to floundering tech giant to piecemeal communications company to, finally, Oath, the result of an odd-bedfellow wedding to its former nemesis Yahoo as part of a complicated merger carried out by Verizon.
AIM might have continued to flourish, was it not so deeply tied to its failing parent. But it was also a victim, in the early aughts, of the rise of “web 2.0” and the subsequent age of social media, and the emergence of a fully mobile internet that made it tough for the old guards of AIM, MSN, and Yahoo to compete with up-and-coming young whippersnappers like Snapchat, Twitter, or WhatsApp.
Third-party chat clients like Trillian and Adium arrived relatively late in the game, launching in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Both attempted to give users a way to bring all of their that clients into one application. But by the time such clients had gained saturation among online chatters a few years later, texting and social media had taken over, and the way we thought of “chat” was changing: Instead of seeing an instant messaging client as a destination, or online conversations as a unique, isolated behavior, we began to experience organic digital interaction as a larger part of our daily lives. As of 2011, AIM’s market share had dropped to an incredible low of under 1 percent.
Still, AIM’s enduring influence cannot be denied. So many of the features it revolutionized are now commonplace: The “Buddy List,” a then brand-new way of displaying all your contacts in a sidebar and showing when they’re online and offline, is now a ubiquitous part of most of today’s communication-based software, from Slack to Skype. Twitter recently instigated a warning and timeout system similar to the one AIM pioneered. The ability to block a user, customize your online or offline status, be notified when someone messages you even if you’re away from the app — these are all things we take for granted as a routine part of the messaging, texting, or social media experience.
Alice Chuang, a product designer at Facebook Messenger, told Vox in an email that AIM profoundly influenced both the world of messaging design and her as an individual designer: “For many of us who came of age in the 2000s, AIM transitioned us into the world of digital communication,” she explained. Chuang continued:
The chat window was texting before the smartphone was ubiquitous; mercurial Away Messages represented our identities before social media arrived. AIM paved the way for real time communication as we know it today, and was undoubtedly instrumental in my decision to work at Messenger to further connect our world and enrich the way we communicate with the people and businesses we love.
AIM is the last of the original chat gang to die. MSN called it quits in 2014. Yahoo Messenger bit the bullet in 2015. And while IRC, the original server-based chat-client, is still going strong, it functions much differently than other forerunning social apps; its echoes are largely found in multi-faceted group chat programs like Slack, while AIM’s heirs are an endless stream of social messaging systems — WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Kik, and many more.
In essence, AIM was a tiny but fundamental, hugely influential piece of nostalgic internet software that helped shape the internet as we know it today. Who could have predicted, when that little yellow running man zoomed onto our screens two decades ago, how far he’d travel by the end?