AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) is about to say “G2G”—for good. Michael Albers, VP of Communications Product at Oath (which owns AOL) wrote that December 15th will be the original instant messaging service’s last day on the web.
“Our yellow running man is ready to retire,” Albers wrote, referencing AIM’s iconic logo of a tiny yellow man running a never-ending marathon—a logo that, for many of us, serves as the mascot of our earliest time spent online.
As to why the early instant messaging service will close its virtual doors forever, Albers wrote that while “AIM tapped into new digital technologies and ignited a cultural shift,” the way we “communicate with each other has profoundly changed.” That might be another way of saying that the digital successors AIM has inspired, like Facebook Messenger and iChat, have made the original service obsolete. (Honestly, raise your hand if you’re still using AIM.)
Many people have expressed their distress over the news, mostly on Twitter, as BuzzFeed reports. They’re not upset about the loss of the service as a tool (at least most of them aren’t), but about what it means to lose a hallmark of the early internet. (Not to mention the fact that things “leaving” the web permanently in an internet-age is very, very rare.)
AIM was first released in 1997. I was introduced to it through my older sister. (Her screenname: OrangeKimGirl.) I remember the day she chose that profound screenname because it felt like everything was changing in a confusing, hard-to-process way (much like the overwhelming anxiety and confusion I felt about Y2K, for comparison).
Suddenly, there was more to do on our family’s shared desktop than play Minesweeper and fail at using KidPix. There was a whole world of school online after school, and with it, the introduction of the now pervasive notion that the digital identities we craft could be different than the versions of ourselves we paraded through the halls of eighth grade. When I finally got my own screen name (SugarPlumFairyy—note the double Y’s), using AIM felt like attending a debutante ball where I was suddenly welcomed into digital society, with all of its strange social etiquettes and hierarchies included. I would spend hours after school AIMing with my friends about our Neopets (I was a very cool kid) and took it upon myself to invite the new kid at our school (who happened to be Robert Downey Jr.’s son) to my bat mitzvah after-party over AIM.
Two decades later and memories of AIM still rattle through our cultural consciousness. Our first screennames were a way to proudly declare who you were, which of course, matters a lot when you’re a different person every day during middle school. AIM normalized and introduced us to now-ubiquitous internet-era oddities like FOMO and the strange way typing “k” seems hostile while “okay” is perfectly fine. It forced us to be creative with our away messages and helped us become familiar with artificial intelligence. (Thank you for your services, SmarterChild. Sorry for relentlessly trolling you before trolling was a thing. You were always there for us and we treated you poorly.)
It’s easy to romanticize AIM seeing as we don’t use it anymore and its main role today is mainly as nostalgia-fodder. But if you really think back to your days of using AIM, you’ll probably remember it wasn’t all rainbows and emo away messages. Other people’s away messages were early drivers of FOMO, where you could see what other people were doing, and more importantly, who they were doing it with that didn’t include you.
And of course, the ease of talking to someone without seeing their face could—and in my experience, often did—allow kids to be very, very mean to each other. For example, one particularly sad time, I got Regina George’d by a girl named Juliet. Juliet and my friend Maya were together in real life, but Juliet messaged me to say Maya had left the chat room and asked me to detail what I “really thought about her.” Too pure for the evils of the internet , I candidly answered that I liked her but then proceeded to detail all the ways Maya bothered me. Only then did she reveal that Maya had been there the whole time.
Yes, AIM was the perfect vessel for all of the good and bad that already comes with being a teen or tween. But it’s not AIMs fault for exacerbating the strange digital social norms that we’re more-or-less used to today. Such unwritten rules of the internet would have happened regardless of what service was being used to help us gossip after school and agonize over how to make an away message seem funny yet carefree.
Today, such digital-social complexities seem to multiply by the minute, with words being invented or repurposed to mark them separate from our offline behaviors—FOMO, ghosting, fubbing, “finstagram,” etc. In comparison, AIM was a bastion of purity, so it makes sense that the internet is upset that the original messenger is leaving. But perhaps people are more upset about what the internet has become, not outraged that AIM is leaving us. The version of the internet that AIM existed in was easy. Today’s is decidedly not.
And more so, it’s getting harder for us to get away from it all. As Jacob Kastrenakes writes for The Verge, “with the proliferation of smartphones, everything has changed.” We no longer have a need for away messages or even saying “BRB” to our friends because with our devices in our pockets, we’re never truly away.
This is all to say that, while AIM wasn’t perfect (who is, right?) it was good. It was simple. It was beautiful. And even though I haven’t used it in over a decade, I’ll mourn its disappearance. Rest easy, little yellow running man.