AOL Instant Messenger Is Dead (And Why It Mattered)

After a twenty-year run, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) closed its doors for the last time on Friday. There were a few news articles about this back in October, but it feels like it happened suddenly–I haven’t heard anything about it in a while, but as promised, it’s gone now.

On one hand, it’s not surprising that no one was talking about AIM. To be honest, when I saw the news of the closing back in October my first thought was, “Wait, AIM is still around?” But on the other hand, I think AIM was a meaningful part of the earlier days of the Internet, and from that perspective it’s sad to see it finally go.

I’m not really intending this to be a eulogy for AIM, because I think writing eulogies for non-living things is kind of weird, but this news did spark me to think about my own history with AIM, so here goes!

The Early Days

AIM launched in 1997, in the days of terrible websites and mediocre search engines (anyone remember GeoCities and that ubiquitous “under construction” GIF everyone had on their page?) The Internet had already existed for years, and people were already chatting online through archaic bulletin board services. But I think the mid-to-late 90’s were when the Internet first started to become accessible for “normal” people. I know that’s when I first started to use it–and I was 8 in 1997, so I wasn’t exactly a power user. It was the perfect time for a user-friendly messaging application to come on the scene.

When I was first learning about the early Internet, instant messaging felt like one of the core building blocks. If someone had asked me what you could actually do with this new technology, I think I would have told them that you could use it to learn things and talk to people. There were other things, of course, but those were the ones that felt unique, and felt like they set the Internet apart from everything else that existed before it. I don’t really think things are any different today, actually.

And AIM was one of the best ways to talk to people. Connections were too slow to reliably use voice chat or video chat, so everything was based in text anyway. Unlike a lot of the messaging services before it, AIM offered a few great features. For one, it was easy to use. You didn’t need to know much other than how to install a program on your computer. It also let you connect with friends as long as you knew their screen name, which was a unique nickname that would allow you to identify any AIM user in the world. This sounds like such a basic idea now, but there was a time when that wasn’t an obvious feature.

There were instant messengers before it and instant messengers after it, but I feel like AIM served a large role in shaping the way this type of communication works. The services we use today, like Google Hangouts and Whatsapp, are certainly more modern and have conveniences that AIM didn’t have, but they really aren’t all that different at the core.

Instant Messaging: Across The World, And Next Door

The funny thing is that while the Internet allowed us to connect to people all over the world more easily than we ever could have before, a lot of times we just used it to talk to people we already knew. I did talk to some people from far-away places, and I made a few friendships that were deep enough that I’ve still occasionally kept in touch with those people, but a lot of what I used instant messaging for was to talk to people I already knew.

I feel like I grew up in an interesting time where we had instant messaging but couldn’t send texts from our phones. Flip phones were starting to spread when I was in middle school and early high school, but most people I knew didn’t send texts. This was probably partly because the only way to type a message was with T9 and partly because most people got charged per-message, but it just didn’t seem to be something that most people did. Instead, we were all online, chatting on AIM, MSN Messenger, and other chat services.

I don’t know if I can definitively say that I’m better or worse off for having had that as part of my childhood, but it was certainly a big part of my social interactions growing up. When everyone was at home in the evenings, we’d all be talking online, complaining about homework, gossiping about other kids at school….you know, the normal things kids talk about. I definitely spent a lot of time chatting with friends from school. Would I otherwise have been hanging out with them in person? Maybe, but maybe not.

Instant Messaging Isn’t Dead

As I said, I think I grew up in a particularly interesting time for instant messaging. It might have been the “golden years” of instant messaging, if a web technology can have golden years. As I was going through high school, cell phones started becoming more and more ubiquitous, and before long we were all texting each other from our phones and spending less time at home on the computer. Just like social media these days, you tended to move to whatever chat service your friends were on, so the migration to texting happened quickly once it reached a critical mass of users.

This isn’t to say that instant messaging is dead. In fact, I’d say in the last few years we’ve seen new products and technologies that make it easier to send IMs from a computer. On my Mac, I can use the Messages application to send iMessages and regular SMS text messages to anyone in my phone’s address book. I also use Google Hangouts all the time, and one of the best features of that chat platform is that I can start a conversation on my phone and continue it when I sit down at my computer at work or home. Instant messaging in 2017 is great.

In a lot of ways, I think we have AIM to thank for setting us on the right track with instant messaging. It popularized the platform and solidified the basics of how a one-to-one chat program should work. It also introduced people like me to the idea of instant messaging, and likely had an influence on a lot of the software engineers who are now working to develop the communication technology we’re using today and will use next year. I’m sad to see AIM go, but I’d say it’s lived a long and successful life.


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