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Why AOL Instant Messenger Was So Important for Like 5 Years

AOL Instant Messenger will shut down forever on December 15, but that news isn’t shocking. What’s shocking is that it was still around. But just because AIM had long ago been swept into the dustbin of the internet, to spend a digital eternity taking pictures with Tom from MySpace and listening to pirated music on Napster, doesn’t mean its importance should be forgotten. Because for a brief period of time it was the most important form of communication in every teenager’s life, far more than our parents or children will ever understand.

In the mid ’90s, when the internet really became a thing everyone knew and cared about using, most people connected to it through America Online. (They wore us down by sending everyone a free CD. Every day. For years. A scheme that was incredibly effective.) But this was before everyone had cellphones, let alone smartphones, or they could connect to the web from just a browser, so the only other ways to talk to people was to either call them on the phone, or go walk to their house like some kind of athlete.

Instant Messenger changed all of that in 1997. Suddenly you could talk to all of your friends at once. You could make plans for the weekend, discuss what happened at school, and awkwardly flirt with your crush, simultaneously, all from the comfort of your desk. It’s impossible to overstate how ubiquitous AIM was in the lives of teenagers and college students from the late ’90s to the early ’00s, but having a heart-to-heart talk from seven p.m. until four in the morning with someone you only kind of knew was a common occurrence.

But even on a practical level it was a total game changer. Think about how you would try to organize a last second, big group dinner with all of your friends right now, if you didn’t have email or a smartphone. Would you try to pull it off, or just curl up into the fetal position instead?

That convenience was first introduced by AIM (private chat rooms at least). No longer did you have to stress about making plans by 6 on a Friday, because you could still connect with your friends on AIM, or find out what was going on that night thanks to their away messages. And even if you did end up home alone, your AIM friends list, or some stranger you randomly started chatting with, meant you could virtually hang out with them.

There was an art to using Instant Messenger too. First you had to create a good username (too many numbers at the end was always a killer), and then you had to constantly worry about making sure you put up a good away message, lest you get lazy and put up the trite “out and about.” These things were really important, and getting them wrong meant public shaming.

But like everything else about your social life during your teenage years, there were pitfalls. You never knew if anyone else was sitting on the other side of the conversation with your “friend,” reading all of your messages and laughing at you. And why was someone not responding immediately to your message? They weren’t gray (a.k.a idle), so they must be there. Plus, was your friend’s vague, angry away message directed at you? Even if it wasn’t, you worried all night it was. (Oh, what? You millennials thought you invented subtweeting? Please, we were taking passive-aggressive potshots at each other on the internet as soon as we got the internet.)

Our social lives weren’t augmented by Instant Messenger, they were fully intertwined with it in every possible way. It made being a teenager both easier and more complicated, and took on an importance that was definitely out-of-proportion. But when you’re a teenager, most everything seems more important than it really is, so it wasn’t any different than how much kids (over)use sites like Twitter or Instagram today.

And then it was just gone. We grew up, Facebook took over the social media game, and AIM wasn’t needed to talk to people, or coordinate plans, or share our thoughts. People never had to be “away” because they always had a phone with them, and you could talk for hours through email or text messages. Instead of trying to talk to a stranger by cold-messaging them with the classic “a/s/l” (which we didn’t fully comprehend at the time was super creepy), you just send them a DM on Twitter now. Everything AIM did was co-opted my easier to use sites you carried in your pocket instead of storing on your PC.

I don’t know who has been using AIM for the last decade, but I know who was using it at the turn of the century: every teenager. But its time was fleeting, a brief period the next generation will never be able to understand, and one our parents never imagined.

But in some ways it was like a rock star who died young and never had a chance to disappoint his fans. It’s how even though it might have helped kill AIM, at least our parents never had a chance to ruin it like they have Facebook.

That’s why even though it will shut down for good this December, it will forever be important to a very small group of us who were just the right age at just the right time.

And that’s a pretty good away message to go out on.

What are your memories of AIM? Chat with us about them in the comments section below.

Featured Image: AOL

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