AIM, the AOL program first popularized in 1997 by shy kids chatting with their crushes before the age of smartphones, signed off for the last time Friday.
The news of its disappearance may be the first time younger millennials have heard of AIM. But for a cadre of veterans who grew up in the 1990s and served overseas after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, AIM and other messengers were the connective tissue between friends and family — a digital version of the centuries-old tradition of battlefields crisscrossed with letters to and from home.
Former Army infantryman Josh Martell was deployed in Iraq in 2006 with the essentials: extra batteries for rifle optics, tightly rolled undershirts and an AIM screen name, Jmert21. By then, Iraq’s sprawling forward operating bases hosted Internet cafes in hastily built shacks and tents, often staffed by local citizens or American contractors.
Essentially all the computers had AIM installed, giving Martell and others an instant line of communication to anyone who happened to be logged on at the same time. His high school friends fanned out from his native Wisconsin to universities in the region but kept connected on the program.
Deployment offers virtually no escape from the often mundane realities of cleaning weapons, maintaining vehicles and frequently uneventful patrols. Instant messaging was seismic in the ways it allowed troops to leave behind the war for slivers of time, hunched at dust-caked monitors and typing at keyboards slick from overuse and skin oil.
“AIM was an escape to feel like I was away, but not away at war — like I was any other college kid,” Martell said. Conversations with friends would briefly cover recent firefights or big news from elsewhere in the country, like deadly bombings in Baghdad. But there was an unspoken agreement that describing vivid details was mostly taboo, a subtle waltz between acknowledging the war and a subtle avoidance of its morbid undertones. Besides, Martell preferred discussing moments from recent Green Bay Packers games or how college was going for his friends.
It was a modern way of an ancient balancing act. Dan Lamothe of The Washington Post recovered a cache of hundreds of letters between four brothers written throughout World War II and its aftermath. The letters describe harrowing combat. But they also discuss baseball, the condition of cars left behind and how their parents kept busy.
AIM worked well in a simpler Internet age. Users registered screen names and signed onto AIM to chat with users who were also online. The slow death of the platform came after Internet-ready handheld devices and the proliferation of WiFi forever altered the way people communicate, Michael Albers, vice president of communications product at AOL parent company Oath, said in an October blog post.
Part of Ryan Gallucci’s job as a civil affairs soldier in Iraq in 2003, shortly after the invasion, was to shore up access to utilities providing water, electricity and, in the digital age, Internet. He became acquainted with locals who ran an Internet cafe in Khanaqin, on the Iranian border, and stopped by in body armor to check email and log onto AIM. “It was a great outlet,” said Gallucci, known as Pacman3742 then.
He recalled the time he used AIM’s ubiquitous “away” message to surprise his girlfriend with a visit during a leave. He went radio silent for 10 days in transit and manipulated his settings to make it appear he was still in Iraq. His girlfriend used the frequency of chats as a yardstick for potential danger he faced, and 10 days meant something was wrong, she said with relief when he revealed his surprise homecoming.
But there was a heavy cost to relying on AIM for correspondence, Gallucci said. You can’t hold the conversation logs in your hand. And the chats were often casual, not weighty like the stuff of letters penned with an unconscious idea they may be stuffed into a drawer and rediscovered decades later.
Yet those online connections did not always disappear into the ether. Martell had dated a woman back home, Janelle, but they separated before he left for the war. They maintained chats online throughout his deployment, and when he came home after 15 months of grueling combat and moved back to Wisconsin, they continued a relationship shepherded through the war by AIM.
They are married and have two daughters now. They text throughout the day before they see each other at night, in the flesh.