AOL Instant Messenger is ending its two-decade run on Dec. 15, the Wall Street Journal reports.
AIM, as it is known, laid the foundation for the abrupt, instantaneous, chat-centric communication people now take for granted. It was also the coolest thing AOL ever did.
The late 1990s was a period of technological growing pains. Cellphones weren’t smart. People dialed up the internet through beige boxes with squawking 56K modems. The only glimmer of an always-on future came from shiny “America Online” discs that arrived in the mail. It wasn’t cool, but it was the Facebook of its time. Family and friends signed up, mostly because loved ones were there.
One AOL feature did induce envy: a window where you could type anything you wanted, and your “buddy” could reply immediately. This was instant messaging. AOL may not be the inventor—it actually acquired IM pioneer ICQ in 1998—but by adopting it, the company changed the world.
Email was too much like regular mail: You needed a purpose for writing. You started each missive with “Dear So and So” and closed with “Sincerely Yours, etc. etc.” Clicking Send meant, eventually, contacts would receive your notes—later on, that is, when they sat down to check their email.
With instant messaging, you and your buddies could type as little as you wanted. Formality fell away. “Are you there?” quickly became “u there”—and, for better or worse, a whole now-all-too-familiar shorthand was born.
You started thinking of lifelong friends by their new handles. (Why shouldn’t Fred go by tacoking4000?) Curating your “buddy list” was a chore akin to arranging seating at a wedding reception. Heaven forbid having to scroll to reach someone you really cared about.
AOL clearly saw a breakaway feature. In 1997, it broke AIM off through stand-alone software that allowed people to get a screen name even if they weren’t on AOL. You could chat with people from other countries without a US$1,000 phone bill. You could keep a constant line to your beloved open through the day.
At work, things actually quieted down—once you learned to mute the ding ding ding of your messenger software. You could be sitting 3 feet from a colleague, but if your boss was in earshot, it was better to keep the chatter—especially about said boss—in the chat window.
New features made Instant Messenger even more addictive. It would tell you when someone was replying, so there you’d sit, with bated breath, until the message appeared. You could set clever away messages that meant one thing to your boss, another thing to your friends.
Overnight, millions of people began to funnel their planning, conniving, flirting and even actual work through this tiny, low-bandwidth communications platform, with the fervor of religion.
It didn’t take long for schisms to form. AOL may have been big, but Yahoo and Microsoft’s MSN were giant “portals” in their own right and wanted in on the chat action.
People started losing friends to other platforms. An arms race of cartoon faces, web links and other “advanced” features ensued. Pleas to AOL to open up chat, like a phone network, didn’t amount to much. (Funky third-party software aimed to bring long lost friends together in the same chats, but back then, it hardly worked as billed.)
While AIM remained in the mainstream for a decade, AOL itself lost out to the big telecoms in the competition for broadband internet service, and cellphone adoption reached a saturation point.
A new set of internet titans emerged. Apple, Facebook and Google rolled out communications platforms and spawned a multibillion-dollar chat-app industry that owes more than a little debt of gratitude to AIM.
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