Long before writer Jeremy Gordon covered music and pop culture for the New York Times and The Outline, he was an elementary schooler who logged onto AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) for the very first time.
“My AIM screen name was JeremyG495, which I set up with the help of my father in either 1998 or 1999,” says Gordon in an email. He quickly acquired a second screen name, which synced with the handle he used on video game forums. “I will not share that one here, I'm sorry to say, because some of those message board posts are still active,” Gordon adds. “Nobody is allowed to see what I was posting about Pokemon when I was 11.”
Unexpectedly, AIM popped up again in Gordon’s life more than a decade later, and he appreciated the simplicity of his original screen name. “When I started working at Pitchfork in 2014, the internal office communications system was, somehow, AIM,” Gordon says. “It turned out my old handle was still functional, and I was happy to use this slightly more professional option.”
Gordon’s experiences with AIM as both a nostalgic childhood chat space for talking about video games with friends and a platform for professional communication demonstrate just how deeply AIM shaped the way people communicate online. At its peak, AOL was responsible for up to half of all CD-ROMs produced, giving users unlimited internet access for $20 a month.
But unlike AOL’s core services—which were only available for a fee—AIM was available as a free standalone app and open source code. Users could log on and instantly ping messages back and forth, remotely chatting with friends, colleagues and loved ones. Today, instant messaging has remained virtually unchanged. Slack, Facebook Messenger, Discord and countless other direct messaging features built into social media apps use the same basic structure that AIM first proposed.
The 2000s brought soaring popularity that drove AIM’s user base up to more than 61 million and its staff up to 100. As Americans embraced instant messaging at the office and at home, AIM was the site of everything from mundane work chats to teenagers’ daring romantic confessions. But those highs were followed by a dot com crash that caused years of repeated layoffs until only a skeleton crew of support staff remained. AIM finally shut down in December 2017, when the cost of running its messaging protocol for just a few million remaining users became too costly to justify.
On the 25th anniversary of AIM’s initial launch in May 1997, some aspects of AIM seem like relics of a different version of the internet—a time pre-smartphone when posting an “Away” status meant users were actually unavailable. Yet traces of AIM remain deeply embedded in the internet, as precursors to current and future features of the social media landscape ranging from chatbots and news tickers to voice messaging and status updates. Today, the patent for AOL’s iconic Buddy List, a list of instant messenger contacts users can build within their accounts, is held by Meta, Facebook’s parent company.
It’s an impressive legacy for an instant messaging platform that, had AOL executives realized what their staff was creating, would never have existed at all.
The Cockroach of Cyberspace
Before AOL was a legendary dot com company whose value peaked at $224 billion in 2000, it was “a dinky computer games service aimed at teenage boys,” according to a New York Times story penned by Kara Swisher in 1998.
In 1983, a recent Williams College graduate named Steve Case lost his job at Control Video Corporation (CVC). He’d only recently started working at the company, which sold Atari video games, before it collapsed from unchecked spending and a shaky business foundation. Adrift but inspired by CVC’s founder, Bill Von Meister, Case created an online bulletin board for fellow Commodore 64 users. It was a niche idea, but one that steadily gained traction, eventually attracting more than 100,000 users. Case dubbed the venture Quantum Computer Services, a rather stodgy name that was rebranded as America Online in 1991.
Despite AOL’s success, it too was shrouded by a constant cloud of doubt. In Swisher’s profile, she chronicles AOL’s many ups and downs throughout the 1990s—a series of glitches, competition from other tech giants such as Microsoft and CompuServe, and corporate blunders. Yet AOL always managed to come out on top: “the cockroach of cyberspace, the digital Dracula, the Lazarus of the online world,” Swisher wrote. In September 1998, AOL acquired CompuServe—the U.S.’s oldest online service, which created the first GIF and boasted 2.6 million users.
Within AOL, the company’s sprawling, free-wheeling start-up culture bred chaos and creativity in equal measure. In fact, executives had little insight into AOL’s skunkworks—unofficial, experimental working groups where engineers tinkered with features beyond the fringes of AOL’s officially sanctioned research divisions.
It was in this corporate underground that developers Barry Appelman, Eric Bosco and Jerry Harris began to discuss the limitations and possibilities of AOL’s popular social networking features.
In 1994, AOL didn’t readily display all of its user data. When you logged on, you’d be able to see that other users were also online, but the service wouldn’t display who they were. Users created scripts to manually search for friends by their exact screen names to check whether they were online. The servers that supported this function were so flooded by users that they regularly crashed. In response, Unix engineer Barry Appelman created the Buddy List, which allowed AOL users to curate lists of friends and immediately see whether those buddies were online or not.
"Buddy List was done without telling anybody, because we didn't have any product management then,” Appelman told Mashable in 2014. “So I just decided to do it." Appelman’s initial prototype was dubbed the Buggy List for its persistent errors, but by 1997 he’d worked out the kinks and applied for an U.S. patent.
As users embraced the Buddy List, Appelman, along with fellow engineers Eric Bosco and Jerry Harris, went on to work on a new (and unsanctioned) instant messaging feature, which eventually became AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM for short. Like the Buddy List and other skunkworks projects, AIM was developed on the sly. “During the day I was writing code and at night I was configuring the servers," Bosco told Inside Design in a 2019 interview. Between building AIM, fixing the Buddy List’s persistent bugs, and keeping up with their full-time roles, Bosco and other engineers worked around the clock and kept sleeping bags at the office.
But the covert AIM team was energized by their shared vision. Appelman’s goal was for five million users to simultaneously connect in AIM—nearly 30 times more than the 180,000 simultaneous connections AOL handled at the time. “‘Trust me,’” Bosco recalls Appelman saying, “‘this is going to be big.’”
Because they worked in secret, AIM’s creators were unrestrained by AOL’s larger corporate guidelines. But the covert nature of the project came with drawbacks, too. Notably, launching the program on AOL’s main servers would have immediately attracted executives’ attention.
Instead, Appelman made an unofficial request to the head of AOL’s data centers. Were there any servers the AIM team could use? The employee was preparing to ship Hewlett-Packard servers back to the manufacturer, but agreed to “lose” them for a few days—just enough time for the AIM team to launch their instant messenger.
Despite the fact that AIM was never formally announced, avid AOL users immediately noticed its presence. Its first night drew 900 simultaneous users—fewer than the five million Appelman dreamed of, but far more than anyone expected.
AOL executives were also surprised, and not in a good way. For the entirety of its existence, AOL had charged for its services. “It was a walled garden you were paying to get access to,” says Avery Dame-Griff, primary curator of the the Queer Digital History Project and author of the forthcoming book The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet. “The web existed, but it didn't really seem accessible.” AIM changed that—and infuriated executives, who would never have approved a free product.
"They wanted to kill it and at some point they wanted to fire me for doing this stunt," Appelman told Mashable.
Perhaps planning for this eventuality, AIM’s creators had made the program intentionally difficult to remove. As AIM spread through other corporations, IT departments realized that it was programmed to automatically reconnect when its primary port was blocked. “The admins had no clue how to block us,” Bosco told Mashable. “We were like malware from their point of view."
AIM’s persistent presence soon made it a fixture in offices. In fact, Wall Street workers became so dependent on instant messaging that six firms—Lehman Brothers, J.P. Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, UBS and Deutsche Bank — convended an Instant Messaging Standards Board, whose purpose was partially to beg tech giants to make their various messaging platforms compatible, so messages could be pinged between platforms the same way emails could be sent across providers.
How Teens Made the Away Message Iconic
Alongside the bankers and media workers who used AIM during the work day, teenagers quickly became a core part of AIM’s user base. One element of the platform—the Away message—became a crucial way to mold AIM into a space where teens could explore and express their developing identities.
The Away message was originally born from corporate necessity. Within AOL’s sprawling offices in Dulles, Virginia, workers used their Away messages to let colleagues know that they had stepped out for lunch or into a meeting. The social etiquette of instant messaging demanded these kinds of explanations, or users would risk giving the impression they were simply ignoring incoming messages.
Along with custom text, AIM users could customize their Away messages’ fonts and colors—an opportunity teen users relished. Dame-Griff remembers purchasing a book at a Scholastic Book Fair that provided instructions for accomplishing these simple acts of coding. “This is going to make me sound like the world’s biggest nerd,” Dame-Griff jokes. His love of Robin Hood inspired him to craft an Away message that featured silvery medieval text on a forest green background. “I was like man, this is cool.”
As for the Away messages themselves, many read like subtweets or early Facebook statuses. For nearly a decade, a Twitter account called @YourAwayMessage tweeted quintessential examples of these messages to nearly 200,000 followers. “so much drama,” one status bemoans. “ugh Sundays!!!!!,” another typical Away message proclaims. “Lol (inside joke w my friends sorry if u don't get it).”
These kinds of Away messages were posted publicly, but intended for a smaller or more specific audience, such as a smaller friend group or a crush. “Essentially, you’re using it to do emotional signaling,” Dame-Griff says.
Crucially, this self-expression occurred beyond parents’ surveillance. Most teenagers accessed AIM through a centrally located family computer, but the platform provided a layer of privacy many teens craved. When AOL shut AIM down in 2017, retrospectives frequently referenced its unique sense of intimacy. “AIM was a domain parents didn’t understand, giving it a feeling of clandestine cool—akin to getting one’s first car but for the internet generation,” technology reporter Josh Constine wrote for TechCrunch in 2017. In the New Yorker, staff writer Alexandra Schwartz remembered AIM as “the cafeteria and the clubhouse, the place where everyone I knew went to meet up and joke around and gossip and fight and flirt.”
For some teens, the impact was even more profound. “You don't really get trans youth without these platforms where they can explore identity—in particular, explore identity with others in their same sort of age bracket, and be in communication with them,” Dame-Griff says. In a 2021 piece for The Conversation, he traced the history of trans communities online, noting that the number of trans youth who came out grew exponentially in the early 2000s.
Dame-Griff cites Secret Little Haven, an indie video game created by Victoria Dominowski, as exemplifying the important role AIM played for teens who were actively figuring out their identities. In a positive review, video game website Kotaku praised the game’s natural dialogue and familiar sense of multitasking as Alex, its main character, pings between chat windows. “She is split between two worlds: the seemingly limitless, expressive world of online anonymity and the expectation-heavy reality of school friends and parents,” the review notes.
The game also exemplifies what remains most compelling about AIM: Not its profitability or its user base or the corporate intrigue behind its creation, but its ability to connect people to one another. From the privacy and safety of a home computer, users could search community forums and trade instant messages that provided support, encouragement and guidance. That, more than anything else, explains why AIM remains so relevant, more than two decades after it first appeared online.