The news this week that AOL would be ending its Instant Messaging service after a 20-year run deserves a comment or two on its cultural impact during its heyday in the late 90s and early aughts.
In a post on Tumblr this week, Michael Albers, VP of communications product at Oath, presumably speaking on behalf of AOL, wrote that the service would cease on Dec. 15th of this year:
AIM tapped into new digital technologies and ignited a cultural shift, but the way in which we communicate with each other has profoundly changed.
He didn’t really go into whys or wherefores of how we communicate today that has doomed AIM now. After all, another AIM-like platform, Google hangouts is, well, hanging in and it still rides on an IM platform. In my view, AIM is ceasing because its parent company AOL never really figured out how to reinvent itself beyond its early years as a dial-up internet service provider.
No doubt Albers is referring to the fact that, when AIM was all the rage back then, mobile networks and devices were in their infancy. The iPhone’s debut was years away, the Palm Treo, running on a low-bandwidth dial-up connection, was considered a cutting edge device, and watching videos online was still a herky jerky experience of dropped packets and lousy codecs, if I may get in touch with my inner geek for a joyful memory or two, while digging up some of our old stories from InternetNews.com about the struggles of AOL in the broadband era.
Albers picks up on some of AIM’s cultural influences:
If you were a 90’s kid, chances are there was a point in time when AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was a huge part of your life. You likely remember the CD, your first screenname, your carefully curated away messages, and how you organized your buddy lists…You might also remember how characters throughout pop culture from “You’ve Got Mail” to “Sex and the City” used AIM to help navigate their relationships. In the late 1990’s, the world had never seen anything like it. And it captivated all of us.
We used AIM all the time as online journalists in the aughts covering all things internet and web businesses. But we also saw it for what it was: a communications platform that would soon be replaced by something else if it didn’t innovate. Because that’s what online companies do — they innovate “up the stack” or something else will come along and wipe it out with fickle web users without any loyalty to their tools.
But that didn’t stop AOL and the brainiacs at its parent company from its doomed merger in 2000 with Time Warner (the sorriest marriage there ever was in the print-digital world of Mergers and Acquisitions) of trying to “monetize” AIM for a while, when everyone could see that IM would soon be just one more feature integrated into the web platforms of the day.
For example, Wall Street firms, realizing that everyone was downloading AIM and using it to communicate with clients — especially about timely trades and the like, quickly ginned up their own IM service, blocked the use of AIM and rolled out their own versions of IM so they could track and archive messages and stay out of the unwelcome eye of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and legal.
We used it so much at InternetNews.com that it essentially became a requirement that every staffer use it so we could all keep up on our real-time news operations.
No one questioned the policy. But I’m reminded of a story that I think reflects not only the online cultural shifts underway but cultural attitudes about the web at the time as we welcomed a new employee to the parent company I was with at the time, albeit writing for a different coverage vertical. Since we all collaborated at some point to leverage our reporting resources, we looked forward to adding his handle to our list and sending him welcome messages so he could get our handles.
Having just arrived from the world of print and only print, he politely declined to use the IM application. He preferred not to.
His editor (he wasn’t on our side of the house) persisted that he needed to download the IM app. Again, he refused.
So his editor told him that using IM was not only the policy, but a condition of employment. He finally signed up, but treated the exercise as though he was under duress.
He didn’t last in the online world of internet news. It wasn’t his thing. But he was a lovely and very funny person when our lines of work crossed paths. And we always enjoyed his chosen handle: AngryIM.
In hindsight, I think his problem was a common attitude about online journalism that we saw in many print-only journalists at the time.
Call it a mix of skepticism and a bit of disdain for web publishing, at a time when many big print mags were barely touching a toe in the web world and had no idea what was about to hit the print model.
AIM was fun. And for my money, it changed our attitudes about assuming the web would be our dominant communications and information portal. AIM messages rode in to our computers and workstations and mobile devices on the good ole internet running under the web — and in a way, disintermediated the web.
So, in a way, AIM was a harbinger of the world of texting that would soon arrive, and a harbinger of the app-fueled world we now inhabit. It has earned its place in the cultural history of the web and our times.
AIM may be over, but the fun times with online communications and apps? Oh, those are still on. Not going away.