This is the first in an occasional series about abandoned Internet icons.
It was spring of 1997. "Mmmbop" was the pop song of the moment and unlimited access to AOL cost $19.95 a month. Dial-up Internet had finally tipped mainstream. People were talking about Buddy Lists and instant messaging the way Twitter followers and instagramming come up today.
This was, AOL declared, a turning point in communications history. The company had decided to expand access to its AIM chat client to anyone online, not just paying members, promising to "revolutionize Internet communications worldwide." Here's how the company explained the service 17 years ago:
The Instant Message™ feature lets users send and respond to messages immediately while the Buddy List™ feature lets users know instantly when friends are online... AOL Instant Messenger™ makes it easy to send and receive private text messages using personalized AOL Instant Messenger™ "screen names."
As part of the branding effort for the platform—still in limited beta at the time—AOL unveiled a sunny icon that Internet users would come to associate with the service for years to come: the running man.
He popped up on the screen people saw when they were waiting for their modems to stop screeching. He was perched atop the Buddy List. He was splashed across the seemingly infinite supply of software CDs that AOL sent to homes across the United States. He appeared in a bizarre ad with Sharon Stone at the turn of the century and eventually made mascot-like appearances at offline events.
AOL quietly discontinued the bulbous-headed icon with a rebranding effort in 2011 after years of phasing it out. And like so many once-familiar visual representations of early Internet culture, he has faded from popular view. But you can still see him—mid-dash, leaping toward the future!—in these Wayback Machine screenshots of AOL's 1997 homepage.
[UPDATE Dec. 14, 2014: The running man is, it turns out, again featured on the AIM site. AOL announced the little yellow guy's return in an August 2013 update to the chat client's app, ReadWrite editor Owen Thomas pointed out.]