If you were a user of the World Wide Web between the late 1990s and early 2000s, chances are you used AOL Instant Messenger, also known as AIM. From choosing a username that was unique and hip enough to capture your personality (mine was melmusic10012) to choosing the perfect lyrics as your away message (Avril Lavigne, Blink-182, and Eminem songs were all valid options) , AIM is a true icon of the internet.
AIM was launched by AOL in May 1997 after employees Barry Appleman, Eric Bosco, and Jerry Harris began designing and coding a standalone messaging app with a Buddy List.
You automatically hear the sounds, don’t you?
It gained popularity in the early 2000s, thanks in part to high-tech features at the time such as innovative chat robots (StudyBuddy, anyone?) and the ability to customize the Buddy List by order of one’s BFFs. However, for many of us, it was the first time we could talk to our friends, crushes, or cool cousins without the embarrassing prospect of our mom accidentally answering the other phone downstairs. Virtual instant messaging that took place outside of your email inbox? Yeah, that was a whole different beast.
although officially discontinued in December 2017, AIM’s 25-year reign made a lasting impression on the way virtual communications work today. Instagram and Twitter may not be half as fun – oh, how I wish there was the sound of a door closing every time I logged out – but there are countless things we owe to this classic and innovative online messaging platform.
1. IM was the original DM
Before you poked around Facebook or slipped into someone’s Instagram DMs, AIM was the premier platform for online messaging. Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger were two of its main competitors, so you might have some flashbacks of logging into those platforms, but nothing beat AIM.
Depending on how old you were at the height of AIM’s popularity, you may have been rushing home after school to chat with your middle or high school crush, or to bother your classmate with that homework you forgot to write down. Millennials and Gen-Z cusps probably have vivid memories of chatting with their BFF on a school night or changing their status to an inside joke.
soccerdude101: i really enjoyed holding your hand @ lunch 2day
Today, that work is mostly done by texting. Otherwise, you might be guilty of forwarding memes to your best friend on Instagram with the caption “lol us.” But you no longer have to play the waiting game of someone signing up with AIM. Technology and social media have made us all incredibly accessible to each other, with some platforms like Instagram and Facebook even indicating when someone is active – another cool feature attributed to AIM.
2. LOL OMG TTYL!
Not 2 go completely into you, but follow language and communication with technology. The origins of internet shorthand, also known as cyber jargon or netspeak, date all the way back to 1979’s Usenet, a very early iteration of the web.
But since AIM was one of the first chat platforms actively used by masses of people, it popularized a slew of Internet slang abbreviations and words we still use today, such as TTFN (“ta-ta for now”) and A/S/L? (“Age/sex/location),’ a question usually asked when chatting with strangers – not that it ever happened, mom).
Digital language is more enamored of phrases like LOL and LMAO these days, but it seems that way TikTok’s Gen-Z users are keeping the practice alive by introducing new terms like BFFR (be f**king for real).
3. Instagram Notes? Yes, that’s just an AIM status
In late 2022, Instagram introduced a new feature that seemed eerily familiar to AIM users. Dubbed Instagram Notes, these short messages can be posted to your Instagram account to appear in small speech bubbles in the Direct Message hub. Each must be 60 characters or less and will be deleted within 24 hours. You can also reply to other people’s notes by clicking on them.
Immediately after the release of Notes, Instagramers started treating the feature like an AIM status. People I follow flooded the new Notes feature with pop punk lyrics from 2007 (“ur luv for me was bulletproof but ur the 1 tht shot me”), early 2000s clichés we all used (“~ DonNT cry bc its Over…sMiLe bcUz iT hAppeNed~”) and downright nostalgic expressions (“**out rn!!** ~hit the cell!~”).
I mean, we can’t blame Mark Zuckerberg for trying to recreate the magic of an AIM status.
4. Instant virtual access to people
For many of us, AIM meant more than just the ability to create an online persona and flirt with a crush. Besides texting, it was one of the first platforms to give us instant virtual access with other people. Before the AIM era, the closest we got was email, which didn’t always warrant or elicit an immediate response from someone else.
It didn’t matter if you had never talked to that kid from your chemistry class or if your friend’s hot older brother was totally unattainable in real life. If you had their AIM screen name, anything was possible.
Whether this is a good thing or not a personal opinion, but one thing is certain: our near-instantaneous and unrestricted access to others on AIM is an enduring and seemingly permanent property of the internet. It seems like everyone is online in some way, from your 80-year-old grandmother with a Facebook profile to your 13-year-old cousin who won’t stop asking to follow you on Instagram.
Emoticons — you know, those little yellow smileys that predate emojis — didn’t come from AIM (they debuted in 1982, 15 years earlier), but they sure were popular on the platform. A precursor to Apple’s iOS emojis, you might remember some of your old favorites like “lips are sealed,” “kiss,” and “money mouth.”
It goes without saying that emoticons were used to amplify the emotions of your message, to underscore that ~completely cringe-worthy thing~ you did at school with the embarrassed face, or a flirtatious IM to your crush on the innocent.
As it goes with technology, similar platforms and social media sites came up with their own versions of emoticons after AIMs took off. In 2008, Apple released its very first emoji keyboard, and tThe rest is history.
6. Shaping an online personality
Signing up for an email account meant personally choosing your address, but the customization options available on AIM were unprecedented. (Seriously: AIM launched in 1997 and MySpace didn’t appear until 2003). Not only can you choose a screen name that is completely representativedetermined your personality – or what you wanted your personality to be – but you could add a photo of yourself, change your status, and diversify your friends through different lists, such as friends, relatives, and so on.
While today’s social media platforms allow for much more customization, AIM pushed many of its users toward shaping an online persona for the first time. You didn’t always have to be who you were in real life, giving people a sudden kick of freedom.
Like most things on the internet, this quickly became a double-edged sword with the spreading catfishing, disinformation and trolling. Being online whoever you wanted created a virtual wild west. Take cyberbullying, for example, which is common among children and teens, according to a 2018 study 59% of teens in the US have been harassed online. With a screen as a barrier, some people felt encouraged enough to leave hateful comments and messages.
7. It kind of made the internet a friendly place
The web has never been all fun, but when a resurgence of young people began venturing online in the 1990s, parents, teachers and guidance counselors alike were frightened. AIM has shown in many ways that the internet doesn’t have to be scary – it wasn’t only full of sex tape content from Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.
Thanks to AIM, the Internet became a means to communicate, play games and hang out virtually. For many of us, socialization between tween and teens took place on AIM. While it wasn’t always secure, it created a fundamental trust for the web. Without us maybe not have accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, comfortably respond to messages from strangers, or slip into someone’s DMs.