AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), the chat app that was the go-to communication platform for Internet users in the 90s and early 2000s is officially shutting down on Friday.
AIM’s closure means users will have to say goodbye to their screen name and buddy lists that helped them navigate the early years on the web. There is no way to save or export your buddy list. The company says the users can save all their chat logs but it must be done by Friday. All personal data associated with AIM will be deleted after December 15, 2017.
While AIM has been a shadow of its former self in the last decade, its death marks the end of an important cultural touchstone for the web.
But in the two decades since its launch, AIM’s popularity has dwindled in favour of mobile-focused platforms for communicating, like Facebook, Whatsapp, and Slack. At its peak in 2001, AIM had 36 million active users; as of this summer, it had just 500,000 unique visitors a month.
The platform’s closure was announced in early October, by Verizon-owned Oath (which is made up of AOL and Yahoo).
The proto-social network
Many see AIM as an early prototype of modern social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
A post on MIT Technology Review by Julia Sklar highlights some of the innovations and influences of AIM.
Sklar mentions how the Buddy List wasn’t an AIM feature from the start; at first, users had to request information about their contacts’ online status one at a time, and they even had to know the person’s username to do it. But these requests became so frequent that they were crashing AOL’s servers, so AIM engineers decided to just show users all their friends’ information up front instead.
This tiny feature and many others pioneered by AIM still impact how we interact with people online today. Even Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook’s original chat feature as a reaction to the way AIM was designed. Zuckerberg’s version, now known as Facebook Messenger, has a few improvements, but the basics are all there: a buddy list, online activity statuses, and the ability to chat one on one, or in a group. You see this same basic design in Apple’s now-dead iChat, and in Google Hangouts and Slack, the post adds.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, reminisced recently about the service in a personal Facebook post.
“AOL Instant Messenger was a defining part of my childhood,” he wrote. “It helped me understand internet communication intuitively and emotionally in a way that people just a few years older may have only considered intellectually.”
Kyle Orland on Ars Technica, writes about how Away messages were turned into a creative outlet, “A lot of the early Away Message use in my group of friends was merely functional: ‘Away at class,’ or ‘I’m asleep’… People soon began using their Away Messages as a form of creative self-expression. “Sleeping the sleep of the just (plain exhausted)” was a favourite, as was “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to class I go.” People would also throw up song lyrics, poem quotes, or complete non-sequiturs in lieu of actual information about their whereabouts.”
The end is here
In October, Oath sent notices to past and current users of the service and posted a message on the AIM help page explaining why it’s shutting down the service.
“As we move forward, all of us at AOL (now Oath) are excited to continue bringing you new, iconic products and experiences,” read a post on the help page.
There are still plenty of real-time messaging applications that have grown in popularity and have a massive user base. Slack and Yammer have become essential tools for businesses, as have Google Chat and Hangouts, Microsoft’s Skype, Twitter’s direct message feature, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and even LinkedIn. AIM’s influence and legacy continues in all of them.