03.17.12

Saying Goodbye to AOL Instant Messenger

The Web 1.0 giant’s outdated instant-messaging software may be on its last legs, but it profoundly shaped the communication habits of millions of 20-somethings. Jesse Singal takes a look back.

Call me madcat457. I did, anyway, for many years.

I am speaking, of course, of my old AOL Instant Messenger handle. And while it’s embarrassing to admit, after more than a decade, after an endless procession of new computers and graduations and job changes and moves up and down the I-95 corridor, my old AIM chat logs are still there, socked away in a random folder deep in the recesses of my hard drive.

I went back to visit them because of the recent announcement that AIM is on its last legs. The New York Times reported earlier this week that AOL had eviscerated its instant-messaging unit, laying off all of its developers, leaving behind only support staff. The company is claiming that the 15-year-old chat service isn’t going anywhere, but the tech blogs know better.

You might ask, so what? Granted, AIM is a bit of a relic. Most of today’s popular chat programs—Facebook Messenger and Google Chat—are seamlessly integrated into bigger and more useful services. AIM just doesn’t have much of a niche anymore.

It’s been years since I last signed in. I can’t even remember my password, but I’m experiencing some serious nostalgia at the idea of AIM going the way of Pets.com. For people my age, this was the single program that introduced us to the experience of having intensely personal conversations online, of commiserating with a friend via the glow of a computer screen at 2 a.m., of trying to woo someone with text rather than, you know, oneself.

My earliest online-chat experiences were in elementary school, in the O.K. Corrals that were AOL’s chat rooms. I’d sit at my keyboard or look over a friend’s shoulder while we made stupid jokes in the Kid’s Zone or whatever it was called, trying to convince “girls” (i.e., men in windowless vans) to join us in a private IM chat session. We were too young for anything untoward to happen at that point, but there was a powerful thrill to the idea that, at the end of the other line, there was a Girl We Didn’t Know.

There was a powerful thrill to the idea that, at the end of the other line, there was a Girl We Didn’t Know.

By the time I was 12, we all had AIM, and we mostly used it to talk with real-life friends. Instant messaging was no longer a novelty, but a daily activity. You could gossip or flirt or make plans to see a movie.

You could also sulk. When I think about AIM, most of my memories have to do with early-adolescent growing pains, with exclusion and belonging. In middle school, when I didn’t have a lot of friends, I was tempted to create fake friends with fake initials and reference the crazy nights we’d never had: “HEY AzK RAR and EL AMB GOC BWP AND JMA AHE BMF GCE and the rest of the TANGERINE CREW!!!! REMEMBER: DON’T EAT ALL THE CHOCOLATE!!!!! IF WE GET SEPERATED MEET AT THE TENTACLES!!! AND DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES MESS WITH JADE’S MOM’S WASHING MACHINE!!!!!!!!!! LOL”

Later, when I did have friends, we had conversations that are, of course, wincingly embarrassing a decade-plus later. They don’t exactly make me swell with pride, but they do at least highlight the comforting persistence of immaturity. Here’s the start of a group chat with a couple of my best friends:

JFSKI15 (11:15:23 PM): hi there friend
madcat457 (11:15:26 PM): hello Super Friends!
Senor AB84 (11:15:32 PM): who invited feinberg
madcat457 (11:15:37 PM): f--k you dude, he's with me
Senor AB84 (11:15:48 PM): I specifically said no nerds
JFSKI15 (11:16:13 PM): f--k you jerks

That was around 2001. We still talk like that.

There’s also girl stuff in the logs. Lots and lots of girl stuff. Here, for example, is a conversation I had with a college classmate just a few hours before we were both going to leave for the summer.

Girl (3:45:00 AM): and not to be weird, but i totally would've hooked up with you two weekends ago
Girl (3:45:05 AM): and it's ok that i say taht cuz i'm drunk
Girl (3:45:06 AM): i mean, right
Girl (3:45:08 AM): eeeeeeeeeeeep
Girl (3:45:12 AM): whatever
madcat457 (3:45:14 AM): wait
madcat457 (3:45:15 AM): what?
madcat457 (3:45:27 AM): really?
Girl (3:45:31 AM): hm
Girl (3:45:31 AM): yeah
madcat457 (3:46:20 AM): oh my god
madcat457 (3:46:22 AM): asdfl;kasdfl;jkjkl;sdf

That was me playing it cool. (Shockingly, nothing ever happened between her and me.)

I can’t be the only one who saved these logs, who realized every time AIM’s friend-signing-off alert played (door closing!) that I might want to look back at the conversation I had just had years down the road.

That’s what makes this such a weird age, and that’s what made the AIM era so profound: For a very high percentage of communication in 2012, the ambiguity and visceralness of spoken language and body language and sighs and eye rolls are gone, replaced by the stark objective reality of text. I said what I said, and I can’t take it back. It’s right there on the screen.