Volume 26: An Elegy for AIM

Welcome to the twenty-sixth installment of Open Book. If it’s your first time, click here for a little background.

My parents will be happy to know that AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM — the messaging service that nearly tore our relationship apart back in my teenage years — is scheduled to die today. AOL announced back in October that it was shutting down the service for good on December 15, 2017. That day also happens to be my 27th birthday.

The timing feels poetic: I move another year closer to fully-formed adulthood, while a relic of my adolescence withers in my wake.

AIM reached its height of popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But I don’t remember exactly when I started to use it.

One of my biggest gripes with my younger self ls is that I rarely took the time to introduce major life developments in my journals. Like learning to play the saxophone when I was 10 or so. I didn’t write about my early, faltering attempts to hack through “Clare de Lune.” My saxophone just appears in the text of my diaries as if I’d spontaneously figured out how to play music .

The same is true of AIM. There are no entries in my diaries that say, “Hey, started using this cool new instant messaging software! I can use it to talk to my friends while I pretend to do homework on the computer! Hope this lasts until I turn 27!”

Instead, when AIM first showed up, it had already been fully integrated into my life.

The very first time the acronym AIM appears in my journals is in an entry dated April 2, 2006. I was 15.  That night, my then-boyfriend came over to my house for one of those unbearable, parent-sanctioned hangouts. I brought said boyfriend into my bedroom. We sat on my bed. We were alone. Then I showed him a scrapbook that I had made about my childhood, which should give you a good idea of the amount of sex appeal I was working with at the time.

Okay, we kissed briefly, too. But when my dad walked in on us, it was during scrapbook part.

Still — as many dads would — he flipped. I’d violated one of the cardinal house rules, which was that no boys were allowed into my room. When my dad crafted a punishment, he decided to hit me where he knew it’d hurt. Here’s what I wrote in my journal that night:

Rocco, for reference, is my younger brother.

Dad was pretty tech-savvy, and even though he didn’t know how to uninstall programs from the computer, he knew enough to force my older brother to do it for him. Also, don’t be fooled by my casual “OK with that.” I remember how angry I was when I wrote those words. The subtext is something like, “OK with that, because thank god I can still use AIM at my friends’ houses, and also, this sucks hard.”

It is probably not that hyperbolic to say that taking AIM away from a 15-year-old in 2006 was akin to amputating a limb. When you missed out on AIM, you missed out on a lot.

Back then, socialization didn’t end when the final bell rang at school. It continued online, before dinner and then again once the dishes were washed, sometimes late into the night. Now there was not just what happened during classes. There was a nightly saga of flirtations and fights and snubs to dissect, word for word and emoticon for emoticon. Especially the emoticons, because back then, a kissy face from the right or wrong person could upend your whole week.   

This was before every teenager had a cell phone. Even the ones who did have cell phones were limited to a paltry allowance of text messages per month. But on AIM, conversations were limitless. It was like a secret clubhouse — a place where we practiced breaking up, falling in love, making friendships and fixing broken ones, safe from the prying eyes of teachers and parents. 

One of my earlier cell phones. AIM was way more fun than texting on this.

I think AIM was more than just tool for socialization, though. This week, as AIM’s demise approaches, I’ve been thinking about the opportunities it provided for self discovery.

In a world before Facebook, and even before Myspace, AIM let us teens take a crack at forging our very first public-facing identities, separate from our family units. And, oh, what missteps we made.

First, there were screen names. Some people changed theirs regularly; others picked one and stuck with it. I was one of the latter types: I chose “scissor second” — a nickname for a dance move I was good at — thinking it might intrigue or confound potential crushes. It did not. That’s how screen names functioned, though: They were a chance to say something about yourself, even if you flubbed the message. 

Years ago, I saved this AIM conversation between me and my friend Kim.

Then there were profiles — the bits of customizable text that many of us filled with song lyrics and inspirational quotes. I don’t remember much about my profile, but I’d wager that it often contained “RENT” lyrics I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to understand. Maybe a couple inside jokes to prove that I did, in fact, have friends.

You could also craft away messages. These were auto replies sent to anyone who messaged you when you were away from your computer — or when you were pretending to be away from your computer as a ploy to get attention. Some were functional: “doing some hw…hit up the cell if u need me!” Others were vague — attempts to cloak the fact that you weren’t doing anything interesting.  

That’s how I explain these two away messages that I used during high school. The first is Spanish for “I am going to find myself.” Deep! The second is a quote from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which was on brand for 17-year-old me.

Finally, there was your conversation style. Were you a LOL person or a haha person? Did you write your emoticons like :), =), or :]? Did you sElEcTiVeLy CaPiTaLiZe WoRdS? And aside from all those little bits of flair: How did you really speak to others? As a teen I preserved a number of my AIM conversations. Some I copied and pasted into word documents, others I transcribed by hand into my journals. As I review these conversations I’m struck by how direct I often was. And how sassy. While I worked toward feeling that confident in person, I could practice it online. 

“I’m saying it anyway.” So bold!

There were bad things about AIM, too. It offered anonymity if you wanted it, and we all know what happens when people are allowed to say mean things anonymously on the internet. It had a way of sucking up all your attention. There was a running joke in my family that when I was deep in an AIM conversation you had to call my name at least three times before I’d turn my head to look at the source of the noise. It also got many of us millennials hooked on that addictive, instant gratification that comes from behind a computer screen. Even now, I’d bet my brain is conditioned to light up at the sound of AIM’s new message notification — audible, intoxicating proof that someone out there in the void had been thinking about you.  

And in my family, it was the first thing your parents took away from you when you broke the rules. Hi, Mom and Dad. Sorry I was such a brat.

Eventually, months after the Boyfriend-in-Bedroom Debacle of 2006, AIM usage was restored to me. Years passed, and as texting proliferated, AIM fell out of favor. It’s hardly mentioned at all in the journal I kept during my senior year of high school.

Today, as I turn 27, my general stance on adolescence is that you couldn’t pay me enough money to go back and relive it. But if you’ve read this blog before you know that I get sentimental about pretty much everything, and AIM is no exception. I still think fondly of all those hours I spent using it, deepening or complicating or blowing up my relationships like only a teenager can, trying on new identities like they were pairs of rhinestoned low-rise jeans. 

AIM, RIP. Here’s one last kissy face, direct from scissor second. :-*.