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.
We asked a few faculty and students about how they used AIM. Scroll through to experience Instant Messaging through their eyes.
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.”
Assistant clinical professor and program director for the Applied Behavior Analysis programs, Bouvé College of Health Science
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.
Associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Humanities
“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.”
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.
Director of Hybrid and Online Programs, School of Law
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.