Take AIM! My Look Back at AOL Instant Messenger.

Brandon Petersen
5 min readJan 14, 2021

My life starts at a unique point in digital history. There were home computers, but they weren’t very common. There were video-games, but you played with a friend sitting on the same couch. There were phones, but they were attached to the wall….and you had to take turns. The use of technology in our daily lives was really just beginning to progress from the hypothetical phase to where adopters were integrating it in experimental niches of their world. I remember moving in the third grade and having to write letters to keep in touch with far away friends. When I was in 8th grade, my school had an Integrated Technology class, and the teacher showed us how to use America Online. It blew my mind the first time I sent an email. I can instantly send and receive correspondence from others?! No postage? No wondering if my letter got lost? What could possibly be better than that? Little did I know that in May of 1997, America Online would create an instant messaging app that would forever change the digital communication landscape (Panko, 2017).

In memory of AOL Instant Messenger — YouTube

(CNN Business, 2017)

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, AOL Instant Messenger, otherwise known as AIM, was the first killer app (Campbell-Dollaghan, 2019). AIM provided a free messaging service that would allow users to send, receive, and immediately reply to messages. This wasn’t replying to an email the next day. This was having a real-time conversation over the screen. With early cell phones being expensive, or not having a convenient way to text messages, AIM gave people of my generation the first experience of texting back and forth (Bowman, 2017). The craziest part…..it’s FREE?! This meant no more phone cards! It was more convenient than calling and talking for an hour. I could have a conversation throughout the same day at my leisure with anyone no matter how far apart we were. I could ask someone across the country a quick question as it came up, without having to think of chit-chat topics just to make the call worth the while. Having access to a list of contacts, that could be sorted by friends, family, co-workers, etc. and seeing who was online was the beginning of the notion that you are always connected (Campbell-Dollaghan, 2019). AIM made it possible to quickly see if your buddy wants to grab some dinner, or have those important to you still be a part of your day while being separated by great distances. I can remember clearly the morning of September 11th 2001 as I was in my dorm room getting ready for classes when I received a message from a friend on AIM that the US was under attack. Several families were able to notify if they were safe as phone lines were down in affected areas and it would have been harder to communicate otherwise (Nansell, 2011).

(AIM 4.7 screenshot.png, 2019)

Think of all the ways we can message each-other today. Text messages, direct messages on Twitter, Facebook, chatting while gaming with Xbox Live, and so much more are available to us because of the trailblazing done by AIM. As with many great innovative ideas, more companies would find ways to adopt the technology, and adapt it to their services. AIM would soon have to face competitors in the likes of ICQ, Yahoo, Microsoft Messenger and other messaging services (Panko, 2017). Eventually the creation of Facebook, the affordability and advancements in mobile devices with texting capabilities offered the same messaging options, but were not tied to a desktop computer and could be accessed anywhere (Panko, 2017). AIM would suffer from a decline in popularity as there wasn’t really a need for a separate stand-alone messaging service. It is ironic how the influences of the original can sometimes dethrone a once proud king. A shrinking loyal fan-base of users stayed with AIM until December 15th, 2017 when AIM pulled the plug and said goodbye after 20 years of faithful service (Brown, 2018).

(@AIM, 2017)

In 2018, a non-profit gaming development team named “Wildman Productions” brought back AIM in the form of AIM Phoenix. The group has no affiliation with AOL, but offers the same nostalgic experience for interested users on their AIM Phoenix Website (Brown, 2018). Aside from the ultra-loyal cult following that endures, the rest of us are well to remember the contributions that AIM has given to our digital selves. Probably the most profound impact of AIM is that before it’s time, what a mystifying experience it was to connect to the digital world, and now it’s even stranger to disconnect (Campbell-Dollaghan, 2019).

References

@AIM. (2017, October 6). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://twitter.com/aim

AIM 4.7 screenshot.png. (2019, January 30). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AIM_4.7_screenshot.png

Bowman, N. (2017, December 11). AOL Messenger Taught Us How To Communicate in the Modern World. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/aol-instant-messenger-taught-us-how-to-communicate-in-modern-world-180967484/

Brown, D. (2018, June 26). AOL’s Instant Messenger is Back: Meet AIM Phoenix. USA Today. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2018/06/26/aols-instant-messenger-back-aim-phoenix/736383002/

Campbell-Dollaghan, K. (2019, December 10). AIM was the Killer App of 1997. It’s Still Shaping the Internet Today. Fast Company. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.fastcompany.com/90436682/inside-the-design-of-aim-the-original-killer-app

CNN Business. (2017, December 14). In Memory of AOL Instant Messenger. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QNt8dls6P4

Nansell, S. (2011, September 9). When America Chatted about 9/11 Online. The Huffington Post. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-america-chatted-abou_n_955504

Panko, B. (2017, October 6). The Shart Rise and Steep Descent of AOL Instant Messenger. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/pioneering-aol-instant-messenger-end-180965152/

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Brandon Petersen

Communication Specialist, Teacher, Adjunct Professor, Digital Design Enthusiast, and Life-Long-Learner. UFCJC Student