It’s October, 2005 and I’m a freshman in high school. The clock reads 2:30 PM and I’ve just arrived home from school. After throwing my backpack down and grabbing my usual snack of three Double- Stuf Oreos (it would be years before I equated these with those extra inches around my hips), I take a seat at my family’s desktop computer. Once the Start screen loads I double-click my favorite icon: the familiar, friendly-looking little yellow man who looks like he’s in a serious rush to go somewhere. Instantly I’m transported into the land of screennames and away messages, with everyone I’ve ever been in contact with residing on my buddy list. I spend the next few hours on my favorite (and, let’s be honest, only) communication tool. When my mom comes home she asks me how I can spend so much time talking to my friends online after spending a whole day in school with them, and I give a disgruntled sigh and mutter that she “just doesn’t get it.” Because, even today, I can see she didn’t get it, and kids today don’t either.
AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM as it is known by anyone who has ever used it, was much more than a communication tool. It was a place to hang, to be imaginative, to see what everyone you knew was up to. AIM was the precursor to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—any social network that kids use today. When I think of my childhood and especially my adolescence, I can’t help but miss it. But I think the people missing out more than me are those kids today who have never heard of AIM, and this is why:
1. Your screenname helped shaped your identity (and was your original alias).
Ah, the AIM screenname. In the early days of the internet, everyone was nervous about disclosing any personal information online, and even the most reckless of us knew enough to obey the cardinal internet rule: never tell anyone your real name. Only problem was, to have an AIM account, you had to have a screenname, or a name that you used to instant message (IM… who remembers the lingo?) other users. You likely made your first screenname when you were around eleven years old (possibly even on AOL before AIM), and it was an important decision. You probably never or rarely changed it because you didn’t want to retype all of your buddies onto a new buddy list (was there a way to do this? I never knew). Your screenname told the world something about yourself, whether it was your favorite hobby, TV show, or anything that you valued, and was most often combined with alternating capital letters and a string of numbers. Looking back, it’s also something that you probably find embarrassing. Case in point: my screenname from when I was in fifth grade to when I was a senior in high school was Beachprincess673. Guess I was a spoiled bitch who loved the beach? Other screennames I remember, in no particular order of embarrassment, were ShortyMan83, Fa$hiOnBaBy35, Charmedrocks500, MadeInItaly947, and icecreamlover11.
Now, kids use their real names for everything, which I think is kind of boring, and definitely not as fun. Your screenname could have been inventive, goofy, or “deep” (let’s be real), but, most importantly, it was you, just in different words. You didn’t have any control over the name your parents gave you, but you sure as hell did when it came to your screenname. Kids now don’t have the chance to be this creative when describing themselves.
2. You could express yourself on your profile.
Your profile was the place where you listed everything that mattered to you. This could include, but was not limited to, inside jokes you had with your best friends (“OMG sixth period science class! BFFL!”), song lyrics you found meaningful (“Whatever tomorrow brings I’ll be there”), and pretty much anything else that was significant to you at the time (“Diet Peach Snapple <3”). Artistically, your profile was where you experimented with different fonts and colors (Comic Sans, pink font, black background… come at me!) It was a two inch box that you had to make sure was perfect because anyone could see it. You probably edited it at least once a week to reflect your current moods and feelings. If your screenname was your name, your profile was your personality, and you had to make sure you got it just right. I don’t even know what kids use today that we could equate to the AIM profile. Facebook, maybe, but I’m pretty sure high-schoolers now aren’t even on that. I checked out people’s profiles all the time to see who was dating whom, who was (or wasn’t) friends with whom, and what was new in my friends’ lives. No platform today is as current as the AIM profile was (when was the last time you changed your Facebook “About Me” section?). It gave you a real up-to-date glimpse into someone’s life and helped you chronicle your own.
3. It let you categorize everyone in your life.
I had over 200 buddies on my buddy list by the time I was in high school. Of these 200, I probably only chatted with 8-10 of them on a regular basis. Although having 200 buddies might sound like it could become confusing, it wasn’t because AIM let you make different sections on your buddy list where each of those people belonged.
For example, a typical buddy list might have been comprised of categories resembling the following: BFFS, GuRlz, GuYz, Family, and Robots (we’ll get to that later). You might have even had a “hOttiEs” or “l0sErz” section depending on how overt or vindictive you were. (“LosErz” might have been substituted with “n00bs” if you were a computer geek who played StarCraft all the time). This really benefitted those with Type A personalities. Some of my friends used to have over ten categories on their buddy lists with subtle distinctions between “best friends,” “friends,” “softball chicks,” “youth group kids,” etc. I wonder how they feel now, since they’ve “upgraded” to Facebook and Instagram, when they see all of their friends listed in a jumbled mess? I know it’s in alphabetical order, but when I’m searching for someone in particular I think it would be easier to go right to his/her category and find the person from there.
AIM was a physical way for me to organize all the people I knew into what they meant to me. It required me to examine my social relationships, reflect on them, and determine how significant each one was to my life. This introspection forced me to figure out how exactly I valued each connection I had. Today people constantly try to define their relationships with one another. Are we dating or “together”? Are we friends or coworkers? AIM didn’t leave any room for these questions. No other feature on a social network—not even the Myspace Top 8— allowed you to rank your friends in such a way.
4. You could have ten + conversations at one time.
One of the best features about AIM was that you could have basically an unlimited number of instant messages going on at a time, as long as they fit into your computer screen. Who didn’t feel cool when they had so many IM boxes happening simultaneously that they filled up the entire desktop? I can’t think of any social network that offers the ease of chatting with more than one person than AIM did. Sure, you can text multiple people at once, but you have to go in and out of each text message separately. You can try to go on Facebook chat, but good luck finding someone who stays online for that! The thing about AIM was that if you were on it, you wanted to chat, because that was the only purpose it served. No one logged into his buddy list without the intention to IM someone or at least see if anyone would IM him. Anyone who has used AIM can attest to the sheer user friendliness of it.
5. You could make connections with people you otherwise would not have.
And no, I’m not talking about creepy people you never met in real life (although there were chatrooms for that… I never braved those)! I mean that with AIM, you could strike up a conversation with someone that maybe you were only acquaintances with at school. Maybe you met someone in English class and thought she was pretty cool, but due to shyness or conflicting schedules or running in different social circles, you never hung out outside of school. AIM gave you the opportunity to get to know that person better.
This happened to me in eighth grade. I made friends with a girl with whom I shared a bunch of classes. We lived in different parts of town and had different groups of friends, so we rarely saw each other outside of school. We somehow knew each other’s screennames (I don’t remember ever actually exchanging my screenname with anyone. It seemed that, for some reason, everyone in your grade ended up getting on your buddy list somehow) and started chatting. I don’t remember who initiated that first instant message, but it didn’t matter. I’m sure those first few conversations were nothing more than “hey, what’s up?/ nm u?”, but over time they grew both in substance and in length. We talked about school, our weekends, people we knew, rumors we’d heard, and, eventually, the conversations became more personal. We discussed our families, “crushes,” and hopes for the future. We used to spend hours chatting with each other and, to this day, she is one of my closest friends. I think I have AIM to thank for this friendship because I really don’t know when else we would have had the opportunity to get to know one another.
This was years before we could drive and no one had a cell phone, so AIM was how we kept in touch. Do kids now just text when they want to converse with someone individually? Somehow that seems more personal than AIM. When I was younger (once I finally got a cell phone), I would never have texted someone out of the blue if it was not already established that we were friends. But instant message someone? Sure, why not? That’s what everyone did, and worst came to worst, I could always quickly type “Oops, wrong IM,” if that person didn’t respond.
Talking to someone on AIM was kind of like running into that person at the mall—you’re here, I’m here, might as well stop and chat. It was way more casual than texting because it’s not like you signed on to only talk to one person and even if you did, he/she would never know that. There was less risk in starting a conversation with someone on AIM than in any other medium. I can’t help but wonder how many friendships were formed over AIM, which makes me sad that kids today don’t use it.
6. It made you vulnerable.
Nothing like sitting at your computer, staring at your buddy list, waiting for SoccerStar45 to instant message you! Ugh, it’s been three minutes, why hasn’t he started a conversation yet? He must want to talk, right? It can’t be that he doesn’t want to chat. I know— maybe, he didn’t notice I was on! Better try signing off and signing back on so he hears the door slam shut and open again. That’ll alert him, and he’ll see my screenname disappear and reappear too. Darn, why didn’t that work? Better make a sweet away message so he gets jealous. “Out with the crew! Love my bests!” There, now he’ll think I’m having so much fun when I’m really just sitting here staring at his screenname, willing him to double-click my name and FREAKING IM ME! Oh wait, his screenname just turned gray. He’s been idle for twelve minutes. Ugh.
7. You could talk to robots and almost feel like you were having a real conversation.
Come on, you know you’re guilty of it. Who didn’t instant message SmarterChild at least once in a while?
Basically there were a few screennames anyone could instant message that were computer programs that would message you back. You could ask these robots anything, or just screw around with them if you were bored. My friends and I could not have been the only kids who would spend time cursing out SmarterChild and cracking up because its replies would always be something like, “That’s not very nice. Why do you feel this way?” This had to have been the pastime of immature twelve-year-olds everywhere. On the flip-side, I used SmarterChild when I had legitimate questions about my homework with which it seemed genuinely happy to help me.
Sample conversation between me and SmarterChild:
Me: Yo bitch who was the second president?
SmarterChild: John Adams! Did you know he was also a teacher and a lawyer?
Yes, I know robots don’t feel emotions, but this shows you how good the program was! I also chatted with SmarterChild occasionally when I was bored. If none of your friends were online, you always had a built-in buddy to talk to. I’m sure kids today experience the same degrees of occasional boredom and loneliness that we did, but they don’t have SmarterChild to keep them company.
It’s later on that night in October 2005, and I’m back on my family’s desktop (did I ever leave?) As I reorganize my buddy list, moving SoftballChick34 to my “BFF” category and demoting GreeNeYeZ77 to the mere “GuRlZ” section, I have no idea that my days of doing this are numbered. Soon the time will come where everyone on my buddy list moves on to bigger and better social networks, and I’m forced to do the same. But just because AIM was basic, doesn’t mean it was the worst. Far from it—AIM was where I got to know other people and myself better. AIM was simple, but its simplicity is exactly what made it so popular. Icons were the original Emojis, away messages were the original status updates, and SmarterChild was the original Siri. AIM offered people in their twenties now their first real experience with the internet, and helped them grow up in the process.