An Internet era is ending today as AIM, the instant messaging program started in 1997 by AOL, signs off permanently.
The service is shutting down because the “way in which we communicate with each other has profoundly changed, ” wrote Michael Albers, vice president of communications product at AOL parent company Oath, in an October blog post.
Even though it had languished in irrelevance for years, AIM occupies a warm spot in the hearts of kids who came of age online — the place where we discussed Beanie Babies and Destiny's Child albums, but also where we shared our thoughts about 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For me, AIM was the first element of the Internet that caught my fascination and addiction. I was constantly exceeding the time limit we had on our dial-up service because of my many AIM conversations.
The chat service taught a young, influential technological generation the ground rules of digital communication. Hearing the door open online let you know your friend was logged on, in some ways paving the way for the Pavlovian response to modern digital notification. It was more instant than an online forum, and so the reactions you gave — emoticons :) and Internet-speak abbreviations like lol — became very important. It was also the first place where I learned people online are different than they are in real life, and the heartfelt conversation you had with someone on AIM did not guarantee that connection would carry over into class the next day.
In some ways, it was the ideal tool for dealing with high school, if you kept your wits about you. You could craft a version of yourself online that was never betrayed by your faltering vocal cords or blushing cheeks. You could put up an away message to be not participating, conspicuously, in the way teenagers love. You could always try on a different personality by creating a new screen name to use just with your best friend, the friends from your old school or your secret crush. (That was, in fact, the whole basis for the once-hip but now hilariously dated hit movie “You've Got Mail.")
I am biased, but I think it was actually just the right amount of digital connection for a teen. Watching others go through their adolescent years now with glossy selfies, crafted moments and check-ins that let you know when your friends are hanging out without you, makes me glad to be old. It would have taken too long to send a picture of myself doing anything over AIM on the connection I had. Plus, I didn't have my own phone, let alone one that took pictures.
Yet, AIM languished as its users and the technology world around it matured. We abandoned AIM for other platforms that offered us more: Facebook, Skype, Gchat, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Slack. We required more from our online lives, and maybe — certainly in my case — we wanted to leave our childish things behind.
According to an information post by Oath, "if you are an AOL member, AOL products and services like AOL Mail, AOL Desktop Gold and member subscriptions will not be affected" by the chat service's shutdown. AIM users had until Dec. 15 to download and save their images and files.
Most of us probably didn't have anything to save from those accounts. Or, perhaps more truthfully, we didn't have anything worth saving.
Still, let's take a moment to say thanks, AIM. You represented a fleeting, golden age of Internet communication: one in which we could connect in ways we couldn't offline, but not to the point where we had to overshare with everyone. In that way, you were too good to last.