Saying goodbye to the proto-social network of AOL Instant Messenger

 In Technology

Many people remember specific, weird things about September 11, 2001. For me, it was a headline about stamps tucked into the chaos.

As I started to absorb the horror of the day through TV and online news sources that Tuesday morning, I noticed an odd inflection point highlighted on the Washington Post’s list of “Top News” links. While the first three stories were blaring headlines about the terrorist attacks, I remember clearly that the fourth was a news brief about the threat of postal stamp rate increase, the last trivial story published before all other news got pushed aside indefinitely.

I wanted to quickly share this lighthearted observation with my circle of friends, and in 2001 I only had one easy, surefire way to do that online. I brought up AOL Instant Messenger, opened the menu, and chose “Edit Profile.” That’s where I shared links to the Post’s top four stories at the time and warned my friends not to miss the important postal news amid the other stuff going on (I also included a semi-apologetic note that I hoped the lighthearted joke would be a welcome distraction on such a dark day).

Looking back now, I realize that AIM profile was my first ephemeral blog. Going to college in the years before ubiquitous mobile text messaging and social media profiles, AIM’s Away Messages and profile pages became a proto-social network for me and a group of peers looking for ways to keep easy tabs on each other. Friday’s announcement that AIM would finally shut down after 20 years got me thinking about how we used it to share our status updates years before the online world would be dominated by Twitter, Facebook, and the constant newsfeed.

Nice to meet you, what’s your screen name?

My family got our first AOL account in 1996, when I was a freshman in high school. I don’t recall using Instant Messaging for much in those days, aside from occasional consulting with colleagues working on my Super Mario Bros. fan site. My high school friends actually gravitated to ICQ and the school’s Unix cluster to type messages to each other over dial-up modems.

A sample AIM Buddy List. The yellow sticky notes indicate away messages. To see profiles, you had to click on each screen name one by one.

A sample AIM Buddy List. The yellow sticky notes indicate away messages. To see profiles, you had to click on each screen name one by one.

When I started college in late 2000, though, everyone I met seemed to have an AOL “screen name,” which by that point didn’t require a paid AOL account. Sharing that screen name became more common than sharing a phone number when meeting someone new, and AIM quickly became the default way to talk to people when you didn’t want to pick up the phone (which, for me, was most of the time).

It’s hard to remember now just how freeing it was to be able to communicate instantly without the formality of an actual phone call. Carrying on multiple conversations at once, multitasking between chatting and “surfing the web,” and pausing long enough to compose well-thought replies (but not so long that the recipient began to worry) were all brave new frontiers in communication through a much-too-heavy CRT monitor.

Using AIM also meant mastering the etiquette of the Away Message. In the days before we were all tethered to an Internet-enabled device 24/7, we used Away Messages to let others know that we couldn’t respond to an Instant Message, while still leaving the computer online in order to receive messages that could be viewed later.

Users with Away Messages up appeared with a little yellow sticky note next to their screen names on AIM’s “Buddy List,” showing that they were online but not actually around. If you sent a message to someone with an Away Message up, you’d get an instant response notifying you of that fact. You could also set up an Away Message to go up automatically if your computer was idle for too long, in case you stepped away from the computer without thinking.

Getting creative

I'd like to say my friends and I used better song lyrics than this in our Away Messages, but that's probably a lie.
Enlarge / I’d like to say my friends and I used better song lyrics than this in our Away Messages, but that’s probably a lie.

Away Messages could be customized for the situation and saved for later use. A lot of the early Away Message use in my group of friends was merely functional: “Away at class,” or “I’m asleep,” or “I’m hanging out down the hall, come join us!” People soon began using their Away Messages as a form of creative self-expression. “Sleeping the sleep of the just (plain exhausted)” was a favorite, as was “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to class I go.” People would also throw up song lyrics, poem quotes, or complete non-sequiturs in lieu of actual information about their whereabouts. I’m sure I had a few Space Ghost: Coast to Coast Away Messages that confused a good deal of my friends.

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