Pour one out for a pioneer. AOL Instant Messenger, better known as AIM, will be shut down on December 15 of this year. Getting its start in 1997, AIM wasn’t the first instant messenger, but it was probably the first instant messenger for millions of internet newbies back in the ’90s. It’s fallen out of use since then, but it leaves a rich and complicated legacy.
The announcement was made today by Oath Vice President of Communications Product Michael Albers in a post to Tumblr. If you’re wondering what Oath is, that’s the name of the new company that Verizon made by combining AOL and Yahoo, which they acquired in separate deals. The Yahoo side has seen its share of loss, too — the old Yahoo Messenger was shut down last August (a new one has since popped up in its place). In the post, Albers tips his cap to the old standard, but acknowledges that times have changed and AIM isn’t part of today’s communications landscape. He says the company will be looking to the future, and is “more excited than ever to continue building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products for users around the world.”
Life-changing? AIM will be a tough act to follow. After all, AIM didn’t just popularize instant messaging with ’90s kids — its slate of features birthed the internet’s most social and anti-social tendencies. By adding the ability to leave bios and away messages on your user name, AIM gave us a primordial social network that was expanded upon by Myspace and perfected, for better or worse, by Facebook.
AIM gave us ghosting, too. As AIM expanded and started to connect high schoolers around the nation, lots of kids discovered that there were many other kids with whom they really didn’t want to chat every single day. The solution was going invisible — logging on while appearing offline. Users could chat with whoever they wanted to chat with, effectively hiding from the too-enthusiastic users (I’ve been on both sides, but who among us?).
Going invisible taught us how to avoid people online, which saved a lot of people’s sanity — and funny enough, one of the chief problems with today’s social networks is that going invisible isn’t an option anymore! Ghosting today is mostly limited to ignoring text and instant messages by deftly avoiding the activation of read receipts, and if you were a ’90s kid, AIM probably taught you that concept.
In fact, discomfort suffused AIM. The service gave millions of us our first taste of creating user names that we were embarrassed by two years after the fact! And, that might really capture the legacy of AIM — it was an awkward laboratory in which we figured out how to be social on the internet for the first time. Despite two decades of experimentation, we’re still researching.