Saying goodbye to the proto-social network of AOL Instant Messenger
If you really wanted to get creative with your online persona, though, you had to dive into your AIM profile. This was where you could post text and links that were a little more permanent than an Away Message and available whenever the account was online (which was more-or-less all the time, thanks the brave new world of the campus’ broadband network). Seeing a user’s profile took a little more work than seeing an Away Message, though; you had to right-click on the username and choose “View Profile” to bring them up one by one (this menu option also let you view the details of an Away Message without having to send an actual message).
While some people kept their profiles unedited for years, many used it as a Twitter-like running diary. One of my friends kept a constantly updated “Thought of the Day” with one-liners picked from overheard quotes and remembered readings. Some used it to post shout-outs to best friends or throw passive-aggressive shade against some unnamed member of the group (but you knew who they were talking about). I often used the space to link to recent photos taken with my first digital camera or game reviews and stories I had published in the student newspaper. Overuse of fancy fonts, colors, and emoticons turned plenty of AIM profiles into crimes against graphic design.
For much of college, the first thing I would do when I sat down at the computer was go down my AIM friends list and check the profiles and Away Messages to see what was new with everyone. Scanning through profile pages became an easy way to procrastinate when writing a dull paper late at night, presaging the compulsion of scanning Twitter to distract from any sort of boredom (though there was no easy way to quickly figure out which AIM profiles had been updated, meaning you re-read plenty of “old” updates).
Well before Facebook-stalking was a thing, “profile stalking” became slang in my group of friends for any Instant Messenger contact that you didn’t talk to but checked up on through the “View Profile” menu. My parents eventually used my frequent profile updates as a sign that I was alive when I hadn’t bothered to call home in a few days. At least one of my fellow dorm residents set up a second AIM account just for his friends after his parents started asking him about the risqué content he shared on his profile.
The most striking thing about the profile page, though, was how ephemeral it all was. With limited space to work with, posting something new in your profile usually meant deleting something old (there was even a brief trend of people using “SubProfile” software to slightly expand their profile posting space). AOL Instant Messenger didn’t have any built-in way to store old profiles, either. Like Snapchat images, old profiles were not meant to be cherished and archived online but to be thrown to the digital abyss after a while. Today, people who use automated tools to delete old tweets know that there were some benefits to this design.
It seems quaint now, in a world where the US president broadcasts his every thought to millions via social media. After I graduated college, tools like Facebook and Twitter quickly replaced the functions that used to be filled by AIM profile stalking, and programs like Google Chat and text messaging replaced the direct communication portion (especially as more mobile phone providers started offering unlimited SMS plans). Though I still have my AIM account online and connected via Trillian, very few people use it to contact me these days.
Looking back years later, though, it’s funny to think how AOL almost certainly didn’t intend for Instant Messenger to be used the way me and my friends used it. As the name implies, the program was created as a way for users to send short, “instant” text messages to each other. That was useful, of course, but it was the secondary features—the Away Messages and profiles—that let AIM evolve into much more for a group of early 2000s college kids learning to use an always-on Internet connection for the first time.
As the world says goodbye to AIM over the next few months, I’ll remember it for my first taste of how the Internet could enable asynchronous self-expression and personal broadcasting amid a tight-knit social group.