After 20 years, the sun has finally set on the messaging app that groomed an entire generation of extremely online semi-adults. On Friday, AOL’s iconic messaging service, AIM, shuts down for good.
“We know there are so many loyal fans who have used AIM for decades, and we loved working and building the first chat app of its kind since 1997,” AOL writes on its help page. “Our focus will always be on providing the kind of innovative experiences consumers want. We’re more excited than ever to focus on building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products.”
In a crowded market of messaging services, AOL has struggled to maintain relevancy. Services like Slack, Hipchat, and more are basically AIM but optimized for capitalist ideas of efficiency rather than hormonally charged away messages. Still, these communication tools and more — including, arguably, Twitter — wouldn’t be where they are today without their quirky and clunky progenitor. Whether Slack wants to admit it or not, AIM will always be its emo grandparent, kicking and screaming into the void.
But for those who came of age in the early-to-mid 2000s, AOL Instant Messenger was more than some way to talk to our friends after school or work. It was the canvas on which we painted with our incredibly misguided melodrama, fueled by energy drinks and ennui; at times, it was a much-needed respite from a world seemingly on fire.
AIM gave us a sense of “community” before that became new media buzzword. It inspired users to channel their adolescent thirst into carefully-crafted away messages in the hopes that some wandering voyeur on the buddy list would notice. For this reason, an entire generation memorized the lyrics to Something Corporate songs — including the Ulysses-length classic, “My Konstantine” — purely for the purpose of AIM away messages. Those years of incessant, indefatigable angst were part of what made AIM special for so many of us.
“AIM is in many ways a predecessor to how I behave online today, even as an adult,” Inverse’s pop culture writer Eric Francisco says. “We got to be weird and irreverent, or so what we thought weird and irreverent was at 13. I also got to embrace my ‘emo’ identity whenever I felt emotional, which was all the time. My profile had Toby McGuire’s “This is my gift, my curse” speech from ‘Spider-Man’ and my pre-set away messages were almost always Alkaline Trio lyrics (‘Stupid Kid,’ ‘Armageddon,’ ‘Mercy Me,’ the most early ‘00s emo songs of all time”). And we all set ourselves to ‘Away’ to look cool and busy even though we were still online stalking our crushes.”
Looking back on AIM’s heyday, it’s easy to feel enraptured with embarrassment, probably because we were all deeply embarrassing human beings. But at the very least, AIM emboldened an entire generation to be extremely themselves online, for better of worse. That ethos lives on in every nook and cranny of the internet, inspiring all the greatest takes of our time. AIM taught people to never stop being ourselves — no matter how great or terrible their personalities — and most importantly, to never stop posting.
Ad astra, AOL Instant Messenger. Rest easy.