The Gateway Drug of Social Media: AIM

AOL instant messenger. You remember the buddy lists, the BFFs, the angsty pop-song-lyric away messages, and best of all—the screen names. Even if you were an MSN or Yahoo! messenger user, you know what I’m talking about. Despite all that late 90s nonsense, AIM was a brilliantly addicting platform, and it played an integral role in shaping the communication habits of an entire generation.

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Can you remember the very first time you interacted with “social media”? For me, I guess it would be passing love notes on pieces of ripped paper at recess in first grade. But the first time you accessed the Web for social media?

I think I can speak for quite a few millennials when I say that my first experience with social  media was instant messaging on AIM. (You may recognize me by my other names: puppykdd, or—in my much more mature years—pinklassie32).

In my prime, I was IM-ing for hours after school each day—always leaving a quick “brb” break for dinner, of course. I used AIM to chat with friends, ask for homework help, plan parties, flirt with the cute crush of the month…it was THE hub for communication, and we couldn’t get enough. We became a generation of IMers, texters, abbreviators, and constant communicators, and we haven’t changed much since.

Since the early 2000s, AIM has more or less disappeared from the social media scene; we all got cellphones. And smartphones. And Facebook chat. Technology grew up, and so did we. The list of replacements goes on, but AIM is actually still alive. Check out their new slogan: “OMG since 1997” …lol.

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(You’re probably feeling some serious nostalgia for dial-up Internet right about now…here’s that familiar sound of pure horror, in case it wasn’t brutally burned into your brain).

AIM may be outdated now, but would we have developed such an obsession with constant communication had it not been for such early exposure to this kind of platform? Maybe. Would we have adopted other social media networks and platforms as quickly (and addictively) as we do without AIM as that gateway to lure us in? Probably not.

To try to prove this point, I did the unthinkable. I went to AOL.com to see if I could still login to my old account…and wouldn’t you know…

Welcome. I’ve got mail. (995 new emails, actually).

Interestingly enough, thirteen-year-old me thought it would be smart to keep a folder of saved AIM conversations during my most active years (2004-2008), so while sifting through my pile of precious pre-teen chats, I was lucky enough to find this gem from October 15, 2005:

Pinklassie32:  so what are u up to?

Didge288 haha

Didge288 um

Didge288 myspace

Pinklassie32: yea, lisa keeps telling me i should make one

Didge288 you should

Pinklassie32: i didn’t know u had one

Didge288 yep

Pinklassie32:  ok, if i do it ill be one of ur friends

Didge288:  ok

Fast forward one week, and I’ve officially made a MySpace profile, just in time for Halloween. Unfortunately, I couldn’t dig up any screenshots of what I’m sure would’ve been a highly embarrassing page set to the tune of an obscure Nickelback song, but you can imagine what it was like.

My point is not to reveal my gross grammatical errors, but to show a real example of how AIM literally launched us directly into other social media platforms, and we were pretty much hooked going forward.

It’s been almost a decade since most of us started using AIM. A lot has changed in the social media scene, but what’s changed about our social media habits? I know I still use messaging platforms (iMessage, WhatsApp, GroupMe, Facebook chat, Skype…) to keep in touch with friends constantly. I download/sign-up for new social platforms as soon as my friends recommend them (Spotify, Pinterest, Tumblr, Tinder…), and let’s be honest, I still use the occasional abbrev.

How have your social media habits changed in the past ten years? How have they stayed the same?

And most importantly…what was your screen name back in the day?

Comments encouraged :)

Pinklassie32 has signed off at 11:34 pm.

13 comments

  1. Embarrassing topic! I didn’t have AIM, but in Italy MSN Messenger, Windows Live Messenger’s ancestor, was very popular. It has been my first contact with the social media and, as I have read, it was almost the same thing. Nonetheless I’m not going to tell my name on that social, too embarrassing!
    However, I think that my social media habits have deeply changed during the last years. At that time, I spend lots of hours in front of my PC (with a terrible internet connection) just to talk with my friends and to “flirt with the cute crush of the month” (love this quote!). Today I don’t need to spend hours in front of a screen anymore, the shift to mobile devices has simplified the access to social media and we can always be connected. Furthermore new app allowed us to share different contents: text, video, photo, audio… Better than the simple test and the awkward emoticons I used on MSN.
    But something hasn’t changed so far, I always want to be connected with my friends and to share my moods with them. Hopefully in a more sober way.

  2. Ahh the good old days of AIM. Awesome post- really funny and got my thinking about so many things. AIM truly was the hub for communication, and it has significantly impacted the way our generation communicates. Even without AIM, we still interact in SO many similar ways. I totally agree with your point that our social media habits haven’t really changed.

    Although I can’t remember exactly when I stopped using AIM, I’d argue that I stopped in place of a new platform (possibly Facebook chat, or maybe something released earlier like MySpace). I kept my instant message account pretty active for a while, until I found other ways to communicate. Your post, highlighting both AIM and MySpace, made me think: if insanely popular platforms, such as instant messaging, are no longer relevant, what does this mean for the sites we use today (such as Facebook or Instagram)? Will these platforms one day be the AIM of our middle school days? WIll different platforms come out in the future, targeted at older generations? It’s clear that while our habits don’t really change, the forums for communication do. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what tomorrow’s AIM is.

  3. This post cracked me up! I can totally relate (especially to the embarrassing screen name and bad grammar) and I was shocked to see that AIM still exists. When I think back to my social media habits, I think that I also started with AIM and have increased my social media use exponentially since then. My AIM/Myspace usage was pretty simultaneous and both fell by the wayside when I joined Facebook at the beginning of high school. I think that a huge factor in social media is the popularity of smart phones – there’s an app for every social media platform and we’re always glued to our phones, making it that much easier to engage with other people. I find myself check Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and texts whenever I take out my phone between classes or whenever I’m killing time. I’m interest to see what new platforms pop up!

    I also loved how strongly your voice comes through in this post – so funny! Great work!

  4. Megan Johnson · ·

    This was hilarious and painfully true. I cringe at the memory of the way I used to talk and spell and put up a different emotional away message every five seconds. I basically used AIM the way I used Twitter with how frequently I put up away messages.

    Katie brings up a good point. How do we know that our current social media won’t be outgrown in the next decade? I used to love AIM, now this is the first time in ages that I’ve thought of it. I was so obsessed with it, used to spend hours on it every day and now the way I see it is I use it on my phone and if I use it on my computer, it’s not for hours. So I guess my habits have changed a little, but not significantly…we all still are after the next big thing in social media.

  5. kathrynkavner · ·

    I was just thinking about this the other day while I was using Facebook chat. We all make fun of our old selves for the hours and hours we spent daily on AIM, but sometimes I feel like our generation is continuing to do the same thing – we’ve just progressed to the next medium. While there are no away messages or embarrassing screen names (what’s up sofftballgurl326), I know a lot of us spend plenty of time procrastinating on Facebook chat. Old habits die hard.

    Also, hilarious that you saved some of your chats! I wish I had mine, but I know they would probably look pretty similar to yours.

    Great topic, thanks for sharing!

  6. Kristie – I’m incredibly impressed that you were intuitive enough back then to save your AIM conversations, though I’m not sure that I’d want to see mine. This post got me to think back to my screen names, and how, like current social media platforms, they portrayed something about myself that I wanted others to know about me. AIM screen names were the twitter profiles of 90’s kids in a way.

    My screen name matured from jdsoftballgirl5 to redsoxrok34, simply because I wanted people (my 6th grade crush in particular) to know that I liked the Red Sox. Funny enough, until recently, I kept my Skype screen name the same as my AIM screen name. I finally realized, mid-professional Skype call, that redsoxrok34 probably wasn’t the best choice for calls with potential employers. At least Big Papi is still going strong, right?

    I think you really hit home with the idea that AIM was the gateway drug for our generation to social media, whereas I agree with Professor Kane in that email acted in the same way for the generation before us.

  7. Kristie, my favorite line of your blog was “technology grew up, and so did we.” This is just so true. While we’ve grown over the years, so has the way we communicate. But I agree with your statements, has anything about how we communicate really changed? That aol dial-up noise, has been replaced with the ding of a new Facebook message. With technology changing what will be next? I think more and more communication will become face to face (Like Skype and FaceTime). But I think this could be better, might encourage more “social” interactions rather than hiding behind a computer screen.

    Oh and of course my aol screen name was marlor15 (because I was totally copying my dads business name and wanted to graduate from architecture school in 2015… now in CSOM, how times have changed!) Probably way more dorky than the average fourth graders AIM screen name.

  8. Kristie, great post! I can totally relate to everything that you are saying here. On my screen name cwick36 I used to wait all day to get home to talk to my friends. I think that AIM made us obsessed with being connected to one another. Having to fight for computer time with my brothers just made me yearn for the connection even more. Now we are connected more than ever and I think you make a great point saying that AIM was the creator of it all!

  9. This is a painfully true article. I would have never expected to be using all sorts of social media, and even relying on social media, when I first joined AIM. My first account was created when I was 8 years old (I was rather young), and I used it to talk to my sisters who were sitting at a different computer in our house. It’s quite shocking to think of how much social media has transformed and adapted old technologies to improve the way we communicate with others.

    I remember when I got my first iPod Touch and I downloaded AIM for it. Though not many were using the app and instead were posting on their friends Facebook walls, I still felt a use for the application. Soon after, Facebook released the chat feature and incorporated it into it’s application. Once the company did this, I felt as though AIM seemed dated without the power to communicate with all sorts of people and needing to know a person’s unique username to have a simple conversation. Facebook was able to take a useful technology and enhance it’s features for users.

    Today, I, like many people, rely on not only Facebook, but also What’sapp, Skype, GroupMe, and even Google+. All these platforms have unique features that allow me to communicate with friends around the world and stay up-to-date with their lives from half way around the world. After seeing how AIM has fallen into the wasteland for Facebook chat, I believe these technologies have the ability to improve combine the most useful features in order to provide the best customer experience.

  10. I’ve got you beat. If you really want to see what social media was like “back in the day”, here’s a commercial. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjgH27p-FAM

    It’s a service called Quantum Link…which eventually changed its name to AOL. I was on in 1986.

  11. michaeladoyle0 · ·

    Great post Kristie! I was also an avid AIM user back in the middle-school years. As I described in my post about my initial thoughts on social media, AIM was the number one way to communicate before cell phones. I would sit at my computer screen watching people sign on and off, scrolling through my buddy list looking at everyones away messages and always updating my buddy profile with this weeks latest inside jokes. I think its funny and also interesting to see how our original introduction to social media was through AIM has transformed into the various mediums we use today… the instant message aspect is the most prominent that has transformed to the numerous chat applications we have today. But also the buddy profile and away message functions have become our modern day Facebook profiles or Tweets. I love your description of your use of AIM because even though most people are ashamed, everyone can relate and has experienced the original method of social interaction through the days of AIM.

  12. That sign in image definitely gave me some nostalgia. I actually still use AIM, actually AIM Express, almost daily to talk to my brother since we are not Facebook friends. I remember watching my brother talk on AIM a lot when I was really young and thought it was such a stupid concept; you see your friends at school and talk to them, and then you go home and talk to them some more even though you’re seeing them the next day. Apparently I saw the light eventually and started to do the same thing as you and him as I got older. AIM really isn’t a program that is embarrassing to have used, it was just the way we typed as pre-teens that is embarrassing. It really is almost no different than other 1 on 1 or group chats we use today on socially acceptable social media.

  13. Oh how I remember the day when my seventh grade “boyfriend” sneakily made me an AIM profile because my parent’s wouldn’t allow me to have one. Hit me up everyone at OliviaRocks78! Maybe that should have been my mi621 screen name. As I was reading your chat it made me realize that our need for that type of technology hasn’t disappeared it has just been satisfied with Facebook chat and texting. If you never need a good laugh check out @YourAwayMessage on Twitter. Cringeworthy laughs await you.

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