AOL Instant Messenger Turns 20!

Internet users of a certain age may feel surprised—and old—to learn of a certain anniversary that recently passed: AOL’s Instant Messaging service (AIM) just turned twenty, meaning that it’s been a full two decades since we used to chat to our friends from embarrassing screen names that were the hallmark of early internet culture.

This may not seem like a big deal beyond an occasion for simple nostalgia. After all, today we have so many ways to carry out the kinds of chats we did on AIM that it’s hardly a service that seems notable. However, what many people don’t give AIM credit for is that it was one of the first online programs that connected you with friends, via a curated “buddy list”. At the time, internet chatting tended to be on message boards and chat rooms, where people would enjoy the novelty of conversion with people who were mostly strangers to them.

But, as a writer for Mashable put it, AIM was quite ahead of its time—even if people don’t give it credit for that. “In the heady days of 1997, when AOL Instant Messenger came into the world, there was nothing else like it. This was when email was still new to most people. Text messaging was years away. Hell, cell phones were still a newfangled thing and Google was a year away from being founded.”

Technically, AIM still exists, but it’s largely dormant and the company has not been putting resources into developing the once-popular feature since 2012. The fact that AOL stopped seeing AIM as something to invest in—despite its once massive popularity—is seen by some as a symptom of the “innovator’s dilemma.” A piece in Mashable from 2014 interviewed the early engineers of AIM, saying: “Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen coined the term innovator’s dilemma. The concept is simple — companies concerned with its current products, profits and customers often fail to recognize and adapt to change even from within. Whatsapp is not far from [the engineer’s] minds. That comes up a couple times as well. The app, which Facebook bought for $16 billion, is essentially what they worked on in the mid 90s — messaging over the Internet.”

The fact that AIM has essentially been largely shuttered, though, doesn’t discount the significant contribution it made to the messaging apps we use today—including WhatsApp as well as Gchat, Facebook messenger, iMessage and Viber—and to the idea of social broadcasting in general. Remember, back in 1997, having an “online presence” wasn’t really a thing. AIM was one of the first places online where you could talk to people from real life, done behind the veneer of a screen name and profile with the help of emoticons to express yourself. It also rolled out a lot of ambitious features we now recognize today as standard but were, at the time, quite at advanced—even if they were a bit wonky. These included voice chats, file transfers, and an early text-based service designed for mobile phones (way before smart phones).

But perhaps AIM’s most lasting legacy was the custom Away message, which was really the first concept of publicly broadcasting something online when you weren’t physically there to type it (which today we do all the time with a Tweet, Instagram story, or Facebook status). As Mashable put it, “Outside of the phone book, the average person in the late ’90s didn’t have much of a searchable presence, but away messages and profiles on AIM changed that overnight. Suddenly, everyone could know your favorite Our Lady Peace lyric, which served as a great stand-in when you weren’t physically available to respond to a friend. But spiritually, you were always there.

It’s likely we’ll never start using AIM en masse again, but in a sense, we’re using its legacy every day—even if that’s not what the company intended.