If the acronym AIM doesn’t mean anything to you, you were probably born past the year 1997. Because to the rest of us, it’s like a part of our childhood. A staple in the history of social media, yeah, social media. All that Facebook and Twitter ever wanted to be was a bigger version of AIM.
First released in 1997, AIM was a popular way for millions of people to communicate throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, and it helped form Internet culture and communication as we know them today. It’s where so many of us became fluent in LOL-ing and emoticons, and caught the itch to stay in constant contact with others no matter where we are.
The lingo of the Internet started on AIM and AOL was a pioneer for it. Stuff we still say today, like BRB, LOL, ROFL, TTYL, 143, A/S/L????, LMAO, IDK, IDC, LYLAS, LYLAB, OMG, WTF, SRY, L8R, is all thanks to AIM. At its peak in 2001, AIM had 36 million active users; as of this summer, it had just 500,000 unique visitors a month.
In early October of this year, Verizon-owned Oath (which comprises AIM’s creator, AOL, and Yahoo) announced that on December 15 it would take this giant of the early Internet offline. Long gone are the days where parents would mandate time limits on teens’ internet usage as you messaged away emojis and emo song lyrics in a chat room with friends.
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.
“We know there are so many loyal fans who have used AIM for decades; and we loved working and building the first chat app of its kind since 1997,” read a statement posted as part of an FAQ on AOL’s website. “Our focus will always be on providing the kind of innovative experiences consumers want. We’re more excited than ever to focus on building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products.”
Back in February 1997, Barry Appelman, an AOL engineer, was granted a patent for something opaquely called “User definable on-line co-user lists.” It promised to be “a real time notification system that tracks, for each user, the logon status of selected co-users of an on-line or network system and displays that information in real time.”
In plain English, that’s what we came to know as the Buddy List—a then-revolutionary feature that showed you your online friends and indicated whether or not they were actively at their computers. The Buddy List wasn’t an AIM feature from the start; at first, users had to request information about their contacts’ online status one at a time, and they even had to know the person’s username to do it.
But these requests became so frequent that they were crashing AOL’s servers, so AIM engineers decided to just show users all their friends’ information up front instead. That simple solution set the stage for how we interact with folks online to this day.
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.
Zuckerberg, 33, reminisced recently about the service in a personal Facebook post:
“AOL Instant Messenger was a defining part of my childhood,” he wrote. “It helped me understand internet communication intuitively and emotionally in a way that people just a few years older may have only considered intellectually.”
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.
There’s also a dark side to what AIM brought us, and even a nostalgic goodbye shouldn’t overlook that. The freedom to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time also enabled early online bullying and trolling, which have only gotten worse with the spread of social media; that remains a challenge for today’s tech titans to solve.
Essentially, it also presented an issue that grew to be the threat of online predators. 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?