I was saddened this week to learn of the passing of a technological titan: the great AOL Instant Messenger. I knew it simply as Aim and I owe it a debt of gratitude, for it helped to make me the strapping, confident young man I am today, with decently fast typing skills.
To some misguided souls, like my father, Aim might have appeared a technological step backwards. After all, as my father pointed out, Alexander Graham Bell developed an improvement on this system long before it was invented. But my dad was missing something important.
For me, as a 14-year-old, Aim was a revelation. Here was a way I could communicate with my peers – including those who were objectively cooler than me – without stammering or panicking. Aim provided a level playing field for socializing: there was no barrier to saying hi to MusclesBro19, even though he was a star athlete, or PixieDancer123, even though I had a huge crush on her (screen names, as you’ll recall, were oddly gender-focused in those days). I could barely summon the courage to speak two words to PixieD in class – she was so cool that she wore a car seatbelt as a belt. But we typed out great conversations after school.
That’s because, behind the wall of the computer screen, we had the time and distance to craft much wittier banter – in today’s language, to be our best selves. A conversation launched with a question about tonight’s homework could blossom into an eloquent, existential examination of teenage life, like this one, based on several true stories (names have been edited for privacy):
Badboy15: hi what was the homework for french
Gurlywurly84: exercises on page 2
Badboy15: thanks also did u c mike rosenberg puke at lunch today?
Gurlywurly84: lol yes
This could go on for hours, each conversant waiting breathlessly for the other’s reply. The burgeoning romance practically lights up the screen; Badboy and Gurlywurly are probably married now.
As I think back, I see that the protection offered by the screen hinted at what was to come: the horrific remarks we see in today’s online comment sections. The computer made us more willing to take risks, but this was before things turned ugly. This was a time when, after summer camp, I told a friend I’d had a crush on her the whole time but had been too scared to say it out loud.
“You should have done something about it,” she wrote. I am still kicking myself.
There was a particular magic in Aim because our parents would never see these messages nor hear us talking: Aim was an ecosystem dominated entirely by friends and lovers. Parents struggled to comprehend just how it all worked, as in this genuine conversation discovered in my archives:
Mom: are you typing to someone else also?
Mom: why does it say you’re typing and then stops for a long period of time and nothing shows up? do you know?
Me: because I was trying to figure out how to word what i was saying, i’m guessing
Me: so i stopped typing
Mom: oh, okay
Long before Facebook arrived to offer us the opportunity for boundless personal creativity, Aim offered a means of expression hidden from the family’s gaze. There were buddy icons – an early opportunity to create avatars for ourselves. And there were the all-important away messages, featuring Dashboard Confessional or Smashmouth lyrics we felt approached some eternal truth, emphasized in bright blue letters on a bright red background.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity for self-expression came in the form of screen names. Mine was aspirational: inflightco, named for the film production company my teenage self believed I would one day run. Other names reflected character traits: my sister was Sweety, her modest way of proclaiming that she was likeable; another friend’s screen name prominently featured the word Toast, because he liked drugs.
With this ease of communication – all my friends and acquaintances available at the click of a button – I was certain our generation would have a cohesiveness like no previous generation, for decades to come. If, when I was bored in the nursing home, I felt like saying hi to my casual high school acquaintance Pete Veloski, I’d simply click his screen name, which would of course remain the same throughout our lives. Why would you ever not want to be known as sk8rbeest55?
This was not to be. Aim is shutting down at the end of this year and, of course, no one has used it in eons. Perhaps what doomed it was its lack of a figurehead: AOL never had a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg. It just had a disembodied voice telling you files were done and a little bald orange mascot who was into running.
In the end, it shows how the mighty can fall. Who knows what’s next to go – Twitter? Instagram? Human contact? Only time will tell.
Until then, ttyl, Aim. Nntr.