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If the AIM Away Message was the original Facebook status, as some people have claimed, then what are we to make of Facebook’s new attempt to reincarnate AIM?

The social network is, as the Verge reported yesterday, experimenting with a new feature that would mimic the classic away message: essentially, a quick, casual way to share your current “status.”

[A complete history of the rise and fall of the beloved ’90s chatroom]

But as anyone who came of age in AIM’s Golden Era knows, the away message did considerably more than that. It was a generational touchstone. A turning point. An artifact. In other words, there’s a reason that 280,000 people still follow Caroline Moss’s excellent @yourawaymessage, almost a decade after most people stopped posting them.

In the event you missed the Age of AIM — and what an age it was — the program functioned like pretty much all chat services since: You had a buddy list that showed which contacts were online, a profile with a little info about yourself, and a series of chat windows (quaint, to modern eyes!) through which you could chat with your friends. The away message, which debuted early on, was intended as a solution to a practical problem: If you walked away from your computer but left the the program on, people had no way of knowing if you were actually there or not. (This was, after all, an era when being “away” from a desktop actually meant something.)


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This was also, incidentally, an era in which people had relatively few ways to broadcast private sentiments to a specific, public audience. Sure, message boards had been around forever, as had forums and blogs and e-mail groups. But rarely was there a clean overlap between those online social circles and one’s offline acquaintances; the Golden Age of AIM predated the mainstream rise of Myspace and Facebook and Twitter, the places we later turned to for that kind of diffusive group expression.

When you think about it, actually, AIM was kind of a radical space: a petri dish where the public and the private, the online and the IRL, unexpectedly interfaced. It’s little surprise, then, that the away message quickly evolved from a functional tool to a kind of experimental art form. It was not uncommon for people to post horrifically maudlin song lyrics or shameless pleas for others to engage. (“So bored, IM me,” sounds a little bit thirsty these days.)

There were other expressional oddities: inside jokes broadcast to the clueless masses, passive-aggressive references to “u” or “my crush” or initialed names. The classic away message was littered with inexplicable acronyms and capitalizations, with text lovingly italicized or magnified or turned different colors and typefaces. In the ultimate show of how important the statuses had become, people regularly posted away messages when they weren’t even away.

Now, of course, the world is changed: You can not only receive messages at virtually any place and time, but you can send messages about your status on a dizzying plethora of platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Secret, Yik Yak, Kik … the list goes on and on, there’s no practical end to it.

It seems worth noting that, on Gchat — the closest modern corollary to AIM — virtually no one writes away messages anymore, though the function does exist; instead, they just let their status indicators fade from green to orange to offline grey.

Why bring the away message back now, in any form? Admittedly, Facebook’s foray is a limited experiment: The company is testing the feature only among mobile users in Australia and Taiwan. And the Facebook away message doesn’t feel or function quite like the classic AIM away message did: While users will surely turn them to more emotive ends, the in-app prompts encourage factual, status-based updates: “stuck in traffic” or “hanging out with friends.”

And yet, despite the differences, it would seem that the motivation behind Facebook’s away messages aren’t so different from AIM’s. (Further evidence of Facebook’s intentions: The company also suspended support for AIM’s existing chat service yesterday.)

“People were having a difficult time staying in touch with their friends and seeing what they’re doing on a daily basis,” the product manager behind the feature told the Verge. But the reason for that has totally reversed: Today users have so many friends, and so many ways to connect, that they need “away messages” just to cut through the tangle that years of friend requests and status updates and oversharing have left.

It’s no wonder, really, that so many people feel a latent fondness for the away message of yore; it is, Moss once said, “our generation’s version of ‘when I was your age, I had to walk 27 miles to school in the SNOW.”

As for the original AIM away message, it no longer exists: You can set your status in the program as “available” or “away,” but it no longer comes with any messages.

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