It’s a sad day for US kids who grew up in the 1990s. Oath, the Verizon subsidiary that owns the remnants of AOL, announced that on Dec. 15, it will be shutting down AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), a little over 20 years after it launched.
AIM was one of the first instant-messaging services the general public experienced. For many who went through school in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was a first taste of the always-connected lifestyle we now live. It was a fight to get hold of the family computer so you could log in to AIM and chat with the same friends you probably just left after school. It was a fight with the rest of the family to stay on the computer, hogging up the phone line, at a time before broadband internet connections.
Services like AIM, and others, such as MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and ICQ, laid the groundwork for the messaging apps and social networks we now all use. There would have been no inspiration for services like WhatsApp, Twitter, or Facebook without these predecessors: The people that built these networks grew up when AIM was the primary method of internet communication for the first generation that had connected computers from a young age.
AIM had started out as a built-in chat function in the AOL Desktop, the combined web browser/media player for dial-up customers of America Online (of which there are still 2 million customers in 2017, somehow). It was released as a standalone chat program that any Windows user could download in 1997, and AIM took off. Users could chat with friends privately or in public chatrooms, which was probably the first experience many had interacting with strangers on the internet. Users could set away messages—perhaps when they finally relinquished the computer to someone else in the family—which became a whole separate way of communicating on the app. Some put up facts (mom needs the computer), others put up song lyrics they identified with, and others put up messages to alert friends about the actions of other friends. It was like Twitter before Twitter.
AIM’s popularity started to decline when Gmail and others offered built-in chatting functions—and plummeted when smartphones took off. That the program has existed so long after its heyday is surprising in and of itself. Then again, AOL went from being one of the largest tech companies in the world, with a market value of $224 billion and annual revenue of $9.5 billion in 2000, to a being a company that was sold for parts to a telephone company in 2015 for $4.4 billion.