You kids don’t understand. You could never understand.
You walk around in habitats of text, pop-up cathedrals of social language whose cornerstone is the rectangle in your pocket. The words and the alert sounds swirl around you and you know how to read them and hear them because our culture—that we made—taught you how. We were the first generation to spend two hours typing at our closest friends instead of finishing our homework, parsing and analyzing and worrying over “u were so funny in class today” or “nah lol youre pretty cool.”
That thing you know how to do, that cerebellum-wracking attentiveness to every character of the text message and what it might mean—we invented that. But when we invented it, we didn’t have text messages, we didn’t have Snapchat, we didn’t have group chats or Instagram DMs or school-provided Gmail accounts. We had AIM. We had AOL Instant Messenger.
“How did AIM work?” you ask. It was like Gchat or iMessage, but you could only do it from a desktop computer. (Since we didn’t have smartphones back then, its desktop-delimited-ness was self-explanatory.) You could set lengthy status messages with animated icons in them. And iconic alert noises played at certain actions: the door-opening squeak when someone logged on, the door-closing click when they logged off, the boodleoop for every new message.
“Those status messages,” you say. “What were they like?” As thunderous piano-accompanied art songs were to the sad young men of Romantic Germany, so were status messages to us. They might have a succinct description of our emotional state. Often they consisted of the quotation of vitally important song lyrics: from The Postal Service, from Dashboard Confessional, from blink-182, from Green Day, from The Beatles (only after Across the Universe came out), from RENT and Spring Awakening and The Last Five Years. (We didn’t have Hamilton back then—I shudder to imagine what 2008 would’ve been like if we had.) From Brand New or Taking Back Sunday if you were pissed at your crush.
And then there were, sometimes concurrently with the song lyrics, the pained, cryptic, and egocentric recountings of the emotional trials of the day. Our parents wronged us. Our best friend wronged us. Our chemistry teacher wronged us. But we never actually said that outright; instead, we hinted at their sins and petty slights through suggestion and understatement. That’s right: AIM was so fertile and life-giving that we invented subtweeting to use it. (Gen X-ers: Don’t @ me about how you all proto-subtweeted on CompuServe or Usenet or ENIAC or whatever.)
But status messages were just the golden filigree of the gorgeous AIM tapestry. AIM was everything to us. I really mean that: As 9/11-jittered American parents were restricting access to the places where we could meet in public—the sociologist danah boyd writes about this in her book, It’s Complicated—we had to turn to AIM. So AIM became the original public-private space. AIM was the mall. AIM was the study carrel. AIM was our best friend’s finished basement. AIM was the side of the library where everyone smoked. AIM was the club (see, Hobbes, Calvin and) and da club (see Cent, Fifty). AIM was the original dark social.
We didn’t ask for someone’s number, at least not then—an errant month of texting in 2005 could still cost $45, an exorbitant figure to the teenage mind—so we asked for their AIM. Or we got their AIM from someone else. (We usually had to tread carefully around the ask.) And over a couple months, we assembled buddy lists of our friends and teammates and crushes and classmates. Their away lights twinkled in a constellation of teenage social possibility.
“What did you even talk about?” All the same stuff you text about now. We asked if they had copied down the math problem sets. We asked how far you were supposed to read tonight in Gatsby. (Then we didn’t do the reading.) We complained about how Mr. O’Brien was mean to freshmen. We talked about the high-school musical, about the ending of Donnie Darko, about God and religion. We used lol to stand in not only for laughter or humor, but for any inarticulable mass of any emotion at all. We talked about who had sex with who. We talked a lot about love. We felt the world shiver and transform when our crush logged on and—boodleoop—started messaging us.
We made our first attempts, on AIM, of transfiguring our mysterious and unpredictable thoughts into lively and personable textual performances. We were witty and dramatic. We invented our online selves—we invented ourselves.
We got bored. Myspace and Xanga helped us set up temporary and ramshackle museums of our tastes. Then Facebook came along, with all the frisson of “only college students use it,” and we drifted there. Its pseudo-maturity and time-delayed interactions allured us. Our AIM status messages went to Facebook instead: It was where we mourned the end of the field-hockey season or the final showing of the winter musical. We posted photos of each other on Facebook and liked them and commented on them—but sometimes still chatted about them on AIM. We asked homework questions via each other’s walls. We wrote subtweety openings as our Facebook status, hoping our crush would comment there instead. Eventually Facebook had its own chat product too, and it made more sense to use that, or Gchat, or to just text.
And then we graduated from high school, and some of us moved far away, and as mobile semi-adults spread across campus, AIM didn’t make logistical sense anymore. Our usernames, laden with Harry Potter and Hot Topic references, were kind of embarrassing anyway. We got bored with the sweet and secret internet of our youth, and we began the hard adult work of building our personal brands, watching prestige television, and purchasing different forms of financial insurance (renter’s, medical, dental, life).
But for years AIM was still there—simply, silently, warmly beckoning for anyone to return. You didn’t hear it. You texted instead, or made Instagram stories. We texted instead, too. It’s how we navigate our lives now.
So now, on December 15, AIM will leave us forever. “AIM is signing off for the last time,” said the product team in a tweet on Friday. “Thanks to our buddies for making chat history with us!”
AIM showed us how to live online, for good and for ill. We all live our whole lives in text chains and group threads now. We plan every hangout, we send every news article, we proclaim every relationship in the river of text it taught us to sail. Honestly, that river has been a little scary lately. Instant messaging, once a special thrill, now sets the texture of our common life. But AIM taught us how to live online first. So AIM, my old buddy, don’t feel bad if you see us shedding a tear. We know what you have to do. For we’ll see you waving from such great heights—
“Come down now,” we’ll say.
But everything looks perfect from far away.
“Come down now,” but you’ll stay.