How AIM Became A Secular Confessional Box For A Generation Of Teens

We were kids, and we were having a lot of hormonal feelings, and we knew we needed to talk about it. AIM just made it easy.

If you looked back at my AIM chat logs from before 2010, you’d find approximately a million chats that began exactly this way:

Me: hiii
Friend: hiiiiii
Me: how’s it going?
Friend: gooooood
Friend: you
Me: okayyyy

Not that I didn’t mix it up. Sometimes there was this: 

Friend: hiii
Me: hi
Friend: what’s wrong?

Or this:

Friend: hiii
Me: hey
Friend: how are you?
Me: ok
Friend: just ok?

There was nothing, on AIM, more important than whether I was doing better than okay, and you were doing better than okay. Signs that we weren’t doing better than okay: out-of-character punctuation, saying we were “ok,” setting a lyric from the Goo Goo Dolls as the away message. It was secular confessional booth, each of us waiting for permission from the other to bare our emotional wounds. 

As my colleague Elise Foley put it:

On today’s Internet, we no longer need AIM to talk to each other ― we have Twitter, Facebook, Slack, text, Whatsapp, Tinder, (probably). AIM will finally go offline in December, an announcement met with equal parts nostalgia and touching bafflement, among many, that it still existed at all.

AIM isn’t irreplaceable or unique, and many of the ways we communicate now are better, or at least equally good. But when I think back on the chat client, I’m specifically grateful for, and unsettled by, how it shaped me and others in my cohort. It offered us myriad secluded, empty spaces into which to pour our traumas, trivial grievances, heartbreaks and hopes; it gave us the opportunity and the safety to build emotional bonds with each other and learn how to hear each other. AIM was a place where you could open up for office hours, the subject being yourself.

Or at least it was for me. When I was a young teenager, my brother helped me set up an AIM account. Not having gotten in on the wave of AOL chatroom trolling many of my peers enjoyed in their tweens, I had reached roughly high school age without grasping the thrill of having a digital alter-ego to chat with strangers. I wasn’t a popular kid, but had friends. I saw them at school and on weekends. Wasn’t that enough?

The answer, of course, turned out to be “no.”

Once that first account had been set up (periwinkle1492; a few years later I switched it to jammiriffic during a Lonely Island obsession), AIM consumed me. My family still had dial-up in those days, so I’d work through my 30-pound backpack of Algebra II and World History homework and wait for my dad and brothers to go to bed.

When I finally signed on, it was only to leave my AIM open and continue working; often I just wanted to experience that heart-in-mouth moment as my buddy list unfurled and I saw who was online. And then I was there, available, if perhaps my crush wanted to exchange soulful thoughts about Taking Back Sunday. Other nights I was swelling with hurt or irritation or self-doubt that needed to be lanced and drained into a friend’s chatbox, someone who would tell me how dumb my crush was to ignore me all day or how much everyone enjoyed my political rants.

Instead of rushed, restrained venting at our lockers, AIM helped us to debrief on the day of high school hell with luxurious privacy and expansive time. Instead of long phone calls, we could double and triple up on our personal conversations. AIM had a multiplying effect on intimacy. I could, and often did, have a long conversation with the guy I liked while simultaneously deconstructing it with a friend and chatting with another about her own drama.

AIM’s simultaneous private chats, incidentally, made three-way-calling obsolete. How simple, how foolproof to copy-paste chats from a crush into a chat with your friend. (Until, of course, you accidentally pasted it right back into that crush’s chat.) And then, oh, the hours of feverish analysis. He chatted you first! He typed “lol” when you made a joke! 

There was an availability to someone’s AIM chatbox that both opened up paths to intimacy and called for a careful etiquette. In a chat box, I might flirt with a guy I would be embarrassed to smile at in front of our classmates for fear of humiliating rejection. I might chat someone whom I’d never cold-call on the phone to shoot the breeze or send a long letter about my feelings, but if we sent each other the right signals ― “ok.” “just ok?” ― the next step was catharsis. The drive-by pleasantry of “how are you” meant something on AIM. What were we there for, if not to find out whether or not we were all doing okay? We were kids, and we were having a lot of hormonal feelings, and we knew we needed to talk about it. AIM just made it easy.

I met the first person who I’d ever term, however briefly, my “boyfriend” on AIM, through mutual friends. He lived an hour away and we only hung out in person a few times, but we knew a vast sea of things about each other, the kind of secret and painful things too hard to share outside of a private little box. I also fell in love with my first real boyfriend on AIM; we developed a shorthand of spelling and punctuation tells so precise that a single period could immediately make it clear whether we were upset, and with whom. (We were learning how to be emotionally literate and supportive, but also, it turned out, emotionally reactive basketcases who could go into a tailspin over a typo.)

Once, in the midst of a break-up argument, we stopped talking. Tortured by the silence, I set a subtweet-y away message, then a series of them, all intended only for his comprehension. Somehow it never occurred to me that other people would also see them, and probably figure out what I was doing. In the world of AIM, even the self-evidently public felt private.

AIM has been dying for a number of reasons, including the increasingly tragic uncoolness of my generation as we become corporate drone adults. For the AIM generation, chatting online has become deeply enmeshed with our work lives; we gossip in a Gchat window while anxiously keeping an eye on our email, and we list our employers in our Twitter bios.

But we also don’t need it in the same way. The duties of AIM have been diffused out through the landscape of communications technology. There are texts, group and non-group, for one-on-one cheerleading and emotional check-ins. There’s Twitter, or even Facebook, for the public or semi-public post meant to vaguely hint at angst or signal intellectual depth (or both). Twitter cofounder Biz Stone cited the AIM away message as a direct inspiration for his own startup. There’s Gchat and, increasingly, chat clients like Slack for professional and professional-adjacent conversation. By the time I found myself working for AOL, as a HuffPost editor and writer in my early 20s, I already found AIM embarrassingly passé. 

All of the ways we talk to each other online now have been subject to tortured debate about whether they’re good for us or bad for us, and the answer is always both. Can a platform connect us to people who will listen to, encourage and support us? Well, it can also connect us to people who will mock, harass and torment us. Emotional power tends to work in both directions. (This, to be clear, does not excuse companies such as Twitter and Facebook from finding remedies for abuse on their sites.) AIM, too, offered access to secret friendships and secretive bullying ― though perpetrators could be blocked, at the very least.

Even the fondest memories I have of AIM give me pause, in retrospect. I was a socially awkward girl, and my mother’s sudden death when I was 11 had left me in profound, suppressed grief. Those cozy, sheltered chat boxes offered me refuge and human closeness when I needed it. But they also offered me a crutch. I never had to be alone with my feelings, and one day, as an adult, I woke to realize that I didn’t know how. AIM had somehow convinced me that I’d always be surrounded by people asking me “how r u?” and carefully noting that I’d said, tellingly, “ok.” The conversation of adults IRL, I found, did not operate with such sympathetic detail; they don’t have the time or the will. The day finally came when no one was hanging around for hours each day to do nothing but engage with all my feelings about unemployment or the economy or even my new crush.

That’s adolescence, after all. It’s a time for solipsism, for staring tirelessly at our own psyches and saying “what is that?” For millennials, AIM was the tangible embodiment of that coming-of-age phrase, and for that purpose, it was everything it needed to be ― and it also needed, eventually, to come to its end.