TTYL, AIM: How we used AOL Instant Messenger, for better or worse

AIM logo walking through door

In one month, AOL Instant Messenger will sign off for good.

For the better part of 20 years, AIM was the primary way people chatted with each other online, signaled where they were (if not online), and tested the waters of curating an online identity, said Meryl Alper, assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern.

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We asked a few faculty and students about how they used AIM. Scroll through to experience Instant Messaging through their eyes.

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The technology was novel for the time. Initially built into the AOL desktop then peeled off as a standalone service in 1997, AIM allowed users to connect to friends (using a “Buddy List”), send messages back and forth in real time, create a public profile reflective of their personality (a “Buddy Profile”), and post an “Away Message” when they were logged on but not actively on their computer.

In a statement, AOL and its parent company, Oath, wrote that while they wouldn’t be creating a replacement for the messaging service, they’re “more excited than ever to focus on building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products.”

portrait of Laura Dudley
Laura Dudley
Assistant clinical professor and program director for the Applied Behavior Analysis programs, Bouvé College of Health Science
LAgirl4life – Instant Message
News@Northeastern1898:Hi! How did u use AIM?
LAgirl4life: I used AIM during its early years, in the early nineties. I had just graduated from college and was living away from home for the first time. Whereas others probably used AIM to communicate with friends without the watchful eye of a parent, I used it to actually communicate with my parents.
News@Northeastern1898: Lol. It’s hard living away from home for the first time!
LAgirl4life: At the time, I was living on the East coast while the rest of my family was on the West coast, so we all thought it was pretty amazing to be able to chat with one another in real-time. However, our early chats hadn’t yet evolved into the fast-paced exchanges they are today, and often we grew frustrated with each other’s slow typing and the time spent waiting around for a response, so we would give up and just pick up the phone to talk.
LAgirl4life signed off at 12:30:15 AM.
LAgirl4life is typing . . .

To consider their products “life-changing” is certainly ambitious, but at least in the case of AIM, perhaps not too far off. Those Away Messages, something of a precursor to tweets and Facebook statuses, were among the first hints of the ubiquitous communication and online profiles we have now, Alper said.

“There was really this sense of something pervasive about you on the computer, even if you weren’t there,” she said. “With AIM Away Messages, you had a semi-permanent place to represent yourself online.”

Away Messages—more often than not consisting of moody song lyrics for angsty teens—were a foray into a new way of thinking about one’s identity, Alper said. Their flexibility (being able to change them on a whim) as well as their economy (being able to save a few oft-used messages for recall at a moment’s notice) made them especially apt at breaking down the inside/outside way many characterize their identities.

That was its key breakthrough.

To understand AIM’s import in identity formation, though, first consider sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of identity.

portrait of Thomas Vicino
Thomas Vicino
Associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Humanities
tomm4mts – Instant Message
News@Northeastern1898:Hey! Quick question – When did u start using AOL and AIM?
tomm4mts: I think I was one of the first users of AIM, first using it through AOL in 1991, and later, AIM in 1997.
tomm4mts: I have fond memories of “dialing up” on my 2,400-bit modem to connect to AOL. Back then, I did not have a cell phone or a laptop.
News@Northeastern1898: Ah yes. Fond memories of that dial-up tone. How did you use AIM?
tomm4mts: I used AOL, and later AIM, to reconnect with my extended family in Brazil. Our families, both immigrant families from Italy, had been separated for almost 80 years, and I was able to find my distant cousins in São Paulo online.
News@Northeastern1898:That’s cool.
News@Northeastern1898: What’s the story behind ur screen name?
tomm4mts: the name comes from the fact that I am the fourth Tom in my family, and “mts” was short for mountains, a place where I spent a lot of time with my father and grandfather growing up.
tomm4mts signed off at 12:30:15 AM.
tomm4mts is typing . . .

“He theorized that people don’t have just one, single, static identity, but rather a set of tensions,” Alper said. “It’s a set of ‘who we are’ being based on how we imagine the audience we’re in front of.”

She explained: “If you imagine life as a theater, we have backstage versions of ourselves, we have onstage versions of ourselves—each one is shaped by who is watching.”

Stored Away Messages, then, offered a backstage purpose, similar to how teenagers today might carefully choose which images to share on Instagram or Snapchat. Everything that goes unseen—every dormant Away Message, unflattering selfie, and drafted tweet—makes up that backstage personality. What is shared becomes one’s onstage personality.

“On AIM, an adolescent could play with literary quotes, share song lyrics, and signal their membership in different peer or friendship groups,” Alper said. “One important thing though that is very different now from the early days of AIM is how that information is stored, processed, and shared with third parties. Even personal data that we may think of as being ‘backstage’ can be front and center when it comes to how algorithms continually process human behavior online.”

portrait of Laura Dudley
Maura Radigan
rock&rollxoxo – Instant Message
News@Northeastern1898: hey! I am surprised you remember AIM!
rock&rollxoxo: Wow, of course I remember AIM! My friends and I used it a lot from probably 4th to 7th grade.
News@Northeastern1898: Whoa, so young! What would you talk about?
rock&rollxoxo: There was so much drama. A lot of people would list their best friends in their profiles or their Away Messages, but then that caused issues when people felt left out.
rock&rollxoxo: I do remember that’s where everything went down, though. You’d come home from school and log onto AIM.
rock&rollxoxo signed off at 12:30:15 AM.
rock&rollxoxo is typing . . .

Although AIM changed the online game in certain fundamental ways, Alper emphasized that it’s important to consider its place in history within the context of communications technology that came before and after it.

For example, she said, the shorthand way many communicated on Instant Messenger—“LOL” for “laughing out loud,” “g2g” for “got to go,” “ttyl” for “talk to you later”—has its origins in the text confines of pagers and beepers.

The Gmail iteration of instant messaging, Google Hangouts (formerly Google Chat), came immediately after AIM, and improved upon its accessibility by situating it within a web browser rather than a software requiring download.

“It’s hard to understand the AOL software and the social uses of it outside the financial and economic model in which it existed,” Alper said.

Signing on to AIM once meant having a personal computer and an internet connection, both of which came with financial constraints. “Your experience of AIM was very different if you were someone who could keep a computer on all day at home,” Alper said.

Still, at the time, AIM was a much less expensive endeavor than sending text messages, which were subject to monthly caps and costly cellular plans. In that way, then, it emerged as a cheaper, faster option to stay in touch with classmates or long-distance friends and family. Alper herself said she used it primarily in college to connect with far-flung friends.

portrait of Dan Urman
Dan Urman
Director of Hybrid and Online Programs, School of Law
durmanucla – Instant Message
News@Northeastern1898: Hey! Do you remember using AIM?
durmanucla: Oh yes. My now-wife and I used AOL to chat all the time. Her screenname was swampsma, because she’s from Swampscott, Massachusetts.
durmanucla: AOL Instant Messenger reminds me of trying to use my wit and charm over instant message. In a way, it was a precursor to texting. And I’m old enough to remember my roommates picking up the phone and bumping me off the connection.
News@Northeastern1898: Lol. The worst!
News@Northeastern1898: So your wife’s sn comes from her hometown. How about yours?
durmanucla: It’s a version of my name: Dan Urman, and where I went to college: UCLA.
durmanucla signed off at 12:30:15 AM.
durmanucla is typing . . .

Though there’s no shortage of anecdotal data about how and why AIM was used, it’s difficult to know, quantitatively, what Instant Messenger’s impact on the spectrum of communication is because so little of it was archived.

“That makes it very challenging for any researcher to study the cultural impact of AIM directly—archives exist in memory only,” Alper said.

What fond memories they are, though. TTYL, AIM.