On December 17, 2017, a software engineer by the name of Justin Tan published an article about his having sent the last message on the former AOL Instant Messanger – more commonly known as AIM. In addition to covering Mr. Tan’s charming anecdote, I will discuss my own memories of AIM and my thoughts on how, for all its flaws, there is something to glean from AIM’s peak for the future of social media.
For those not in the know (especially the young ones), AIM was a once-popular instant messaging service run by AOL. It was launched in May 1997 and discontinued in December 2017, only months shy of its twentieth anniversary.
Using AIM as a Student in the 2000s
AIM reached its apex in the first decade of the 2000s and declined significantly in the second. Up until 2005, my only computer was an old desktop running Windows 95 with no internet connection. In late 2005, I obtained a modern desktop with internet, and in 2006 I installed AIM because that was the messaging service used by my classmates. Many classmates did not use Facebook yet, others used Myspace, but AIM was comparatively ubiquitous. My experience was not uncommon. Mr. Tan wrote:
In the early 2000s social media sites like Facebook and Twitter weren’t commonplace yet. Even text messages, at ten cents each, were something to be rationed. For many teenagers the primary means of communication outside school was AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).
What Mr. Tan described applies largely to my experiences with AIM in high school in the latter half of the 2000s as well. Unlimited texting plans were still not the norm – nor were phones with full keyboards or touchscreens. AIM was, to the best of my recollection, the most-used means of communication among the students at my school – and certainly among those I talked to. Nevertheless, by the time I graduated high school use of Myspace was not uncommon and many of my classmates had started using Facebook.
Ms. Katherine Timpf explained in her eulogy for AIM, published on National Review Online:
See, if you’re a Millennial, then AIM was life to you at a certain point. You have a lot of memories, especially the ones that you’d die to forget, all centered around that little yellow man attached to a dial-up connection.
I try to avoid the millennial identification as much as possible, but I suppose it is true. Unlike Ms. Timpf, I did not have AIM in my dial-up connection days, but its impression on me was nevertheless strong.
I never particularly liked the official AIM client, but it nevertheless left an impression. I remember the creative status messages that people come up with and the door-opening and closing sound effects that accompanied people logging on and logging off.
Despite the solid sound effects, I preferred Windows Live Messenger to AIM. Unfortunately, my efforts to convince other people to adopt MSN were largely unsuccessful. I kept using AIM all the way through its discontinuation in 2017 – but through the Trillian IM client instead of the official AIM client.
Although I used AIM straight through the end of 2017, it had likely been several years since I had used the official client. But still remembering the charming sound effects, I loaded it up one last time on the scheduled day of AIM’s official end.
In late 2020 , nearly three years after AIM’s quiet demise, I came across Mr. Tan’s article on his determination to send the last message on AIM. . I heard the AIM’s door opening and closing sound effects as I read. Mr. Tan created an automated script to send messages at one-second internals as AIM’s official discontinuation time – 12:00 AM EST on December 15, 2017 – approached. His final message went through at 1:21 AM EST (it seems AIM had an extra hour and change).
While we cannot say for sure – I agree with Mr. Tan’s confident headline that he almost certainly sent the final message on AIM. That final message was borrowed from Leonard Nimroy’s final message on Twitter: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP”
Well done by Mr. Tan.
While I used AIM up to the day of its discontinuation, its loss did not have a dramatic effect on my communications. I initially shifted from AIM to Slack and straight SMS before I moved my own communications to a combination of clients based on Matrix and Jabber over the past year. All these messaging service and clients, without exception, are technically superior to AIM on a multitude of levels.
AIM’s demise in 2017 was neither premature nor an injustice. But separate from its technical merits and demerits, it played a large role in the lives of millions in the 2000s – especially teenaged users. For some the memories were mostly good, and for the others the memories were largely poor – but I will venture that the majority of people who used AIM extensively in those days would still remember the sound effects upon being prompted.
There was something lost with the broader decline of AIM, and that something was broader than the decline of AIM itself. While any AIM account could communicate with another AIM account, AIM was, at its base, fundamentally local. It prioritized one-on-one online interactions, granting that it also allowed for group chats and chatrooms. Gradually, people moved their communications to social media and to giant platforms that were less local.
It is my view – to be elaborated upon in this humble online magazine in future posts – that the ideal future of social media (if there must be one at all) is local first. Communities based on connections between people who actually know and like each other – and only then extending outward from that base. That is, a social media that facilitates connections between people who have relationships in real life. Furthermore, these sorts of direct communications, stripped of other nonsense, put the user in control of his or her online social environment. AIM, and other similar services and protocols, were and are far more amenable to being used in this way than our contemporary social media giants. Those who remember the good times on AIM can draw from that to promote a better and healthier social media ecosystem for the present and future.