7 Things We Owe To AOL Instant Messenger
If you were a user of the World Wide Web between the late 1990s and early 2000s, there’s a good chance you used AOL Instant Messenger, otherwise known as AIM. From picking out a username that was unique and hip enough to capture your personality (mine was melmusic10012) to choosing the perfect lyrics as your away message (songs by Avril Lavigne, Blink-182 and Eminem were all valid options), AIM is a true icon of the internet.
AIM was launched by AOL in May 1997 after employees Barry Appleman, Eric Bosco and Jerry Harris set out to design and code a standalone messaging app with a Buddy List.
You automatically hear the sounds, don't you?
It gained popularity throughout the early 2000s thanks in part to then-high tech features like innovative chat robots (StudyBuddy, anyone?) and the ability to customize the Buddy List in order of one’s BFFs. For many of us, though, it was the first time we could talk to our friends, crush or cool cousins without the embarrassing prospect of our mom accidentally picking up the other phone downstairs. Virtual instant messaging that occurred outside of your email inbox? Yeah, that was a completely different beast.
Although it was officially discontinued in December 2017, AIM’s 25-year reign made a lasting impression on the way virtual communication works today. Instagram and Twitter may not be half as fun — oh, how I wish there was the sound of a door closing every time I logged off — but there are myriad things we owe to this classic and innovative online messaging platform.
1. IM was the original DM
Before poking around on Facebook or sliding into someone’s Instagram DMs, AIM was the main platform for online messaging. Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger were two of its main competitors, so you may have some flashbacks of logging onto those platforms, but nothing could quite beat AIM.
Depending on how old you were at the height of AIM’s popularity, you may have rushed home after school to chat with your middle or high school crush, or to bug your classmate about that homework you forgot to write down. Millennials and Gen-Z cusps likely have vivid memories of IMing their BFF on a school night or changing their status to an inside joke.
soccerdude101: i rly liked holding ur hand @ lunch 2day
Nowadays, that job is mostly done by texting. Otherwise, you may be guilty of forwarding memes to your best friend on Instagram with the caption, “lol us.” But no longer do you have to play the waiting game of someone logging into AIM. Technology and social media have made us all incredibly accessible to one another, with some platforms like Instagram and Facebook even signifying when someone’s active — another fun feature attributed to AIM.
2. LOL OMG, TTYL!
Not 2 get totally deep on u, but language and communication track with technology. The origins of internet shorthand, also known as cyber-slang or netspeak, trace all the way back to 1979’s Usenet, a very early iteration of the web.
But since AIM was one of the first chat platforms tons of people were actively using, it popularized a slew of internet slang abbreviations and words we still use today, like TTFN (“ta-ta for now”) and A/S/L? (“age/sex/location),” a question typically asked when chatting with strangers — not that that ever happened, mom).
These days, digital language is more keen on expressions like LOL and LMAO, but it seems that TikTok’s Gen-Z users are keeping the practice alive by introducing new terms like BFFR (be f**king for real).
3. Instagram Notes? Yeah, that’s just an AIM status
In late 2022, Instagram introduced a new feature that seemed eerily familiar to AIM users. Dubbed Instagram Notes, these short messages can be posted to your Instagram account to appear in small speech bubbles in the Direct Message hub. Each one has to be 60 characters or less and is deleted in 24 hours, and you can also reply to other people’s Notes by clicking on them.
Immediately upon Notes’ release, Instagramers began treating the feature like an AIM status. People I follow flooded the new Notes feature with pop punk lyrics from 2007 (“ur luv for me was bulletproof but ur the 1 tht shot me”), early 2000s cliches we all used (“~DoNT crY bc its OvEr….sMiLe bcUz iT hAppeNed~”) and downright nostalgic expressions (“**out rn!!** ~hit the cell!~”).
~*~ cL0SiNG TiME ~*~ u d0NT hAvE 2 G0 H0ME bUT u CaNT...StAY...hERE.
— your away message (@YourAwayMessage) October 16, 2013
I mean, we can’t blame Mark Zuckerberg for trying to emulate the magic of an AIM status.
4. Instant virtual access to people
For many of us, AIM signified more than just the ability to craft an online persona and flirt with a crush. Beyond texting, it was one of the first platforms that provided us instant virtual access with other people. The closest thing we had before the AIM era was email, which didn’t always warrant or prompt an immediate response from anyone else.
It didn’t matter if you’d never talked to that kid from your chemistry class before or your friend’s hot older brother was totally unreachable in real life. If you had their AIM screen name, anything was possible.
Whether or not this is a good thing is a personal opinion, but one thing is sure: Our near-immediate and unrestricted access to others on AIM is a lasting and seemingly permanent feature of the internet. It seems as though everyone is online in some way or another, from your 80-year-old grandma with a Facebook profile to your 13-year-old cousin who won’t stop requesting to follow you on Instagram.
Emoticons — you know, those little yellow smileys that predated emojis — didn’t originate with AIM (they debuted in 1982, 15 years prior), but they were certainly popularized on the platform. A precursor to Apple’s iOS emojis, you may remember some of your old favorites, like “lips are sealed,” “kissing” and “money mouth.”
It goes without saying that emoticons were used to amplify the emotions of your message, punctuating that ~totally cringe thing~ you did in school with the embarrassed face, or a flirty IM to your crush with the innocent one.
As it happens with technology, similar platforms and social media sites came out with their own versions of emoticon’s after AIM’s took flight. In 2008, Apple released its first-ever emoji keyboard, and the rest is history.
6. Shaping an online personality
Signing up for an email account meant personally choosing your address, but the customization options available on AIM were unprecedented. (Seriously: AIM launched in 1997, and MySpace didn’t show up until 2003). Not only could you pick a screen name that totally represented your personality — or what you wanted your personality to be — but you could add a picture of yourself, change your status and diversify your buddies by different lists, such as friends, family members, and so on.
While today’s social media platforms allow for way more customization, AIM nudged many of its users in the direction of shaping an online persona for the first time. You didn’t always have to be who you were in real life, giving people a sudden rush of freedom.
I once had the AOL instant messenger screen name “myfairpunktress” so yeah I’ve always been pretty cultured.
— chair (@miserycake) August 14, 2019
Like most things on the Internet, this quickly became a double-edged sword with the spread of catfishing, misinformation and trolling. Being whoever you wanted online created a virtual wild west. Take cyberbullying, for instance, which commonly occurs amongst kids and teenagers: A 2018 study found that 59% of teens in the U.S. have been harassed online. With a screen acting as a barrier, some people felt emboldened enough to leave hateful comments and messages.
7. It kind of made the internet a friendly place
The web hasn’t ever been all fun and games, but when an uptick of young people began venturing online in the 1990s, parents, teachers and guidance counselors alike were fearful. In a lot of ways, AIM showed that the internet didn’t have to be scary — it wasn’t only full of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape content.
Thanks to AIM, the internet became a means of communicating, playing games and virtually hanging out. For many of us, tween and teenage socialization took place on AIM. While it wasn’t always safe, it created a foundational trust for the web. Without it, we may not have accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, feel comfortable commenting on strangers’ posts, or sliding into someone’s DMs.