A fond farewell to the primal magic of AOL Instant Messenger

October 09, 2017

Last week saw the announcement of a final shutdown for AOL Instant Messenger, the aged-out-of-practice yet inexplicably resilient chat platform, and I think I speak for all us Internet people when I say, “Sweet mother of Kazaa, there was still an AOL Instant Messenger?” I understand the World Wide Web flings itself through time at boffo speeds and nine social media startups have been funded since I started typing this sentence, but Jeezum H. Crow I thought IM was in the cold cold digital ground at least 12 years ago. It’s like popping into the coffee shop and seeing that the guy next to you is opening Netscape, or downloading some hot fresh Papa Roach with Limewire, wandering into a weirdly preserved lab of NeXT computers.

Like all stories that involve the loss of something which made a significant impact in my formative history but haven’t touched in 15 years, its deletion leaves a measurable emotional impact, for some reason. It signifies a passage of time, the closing of something, a quiet reminder, buried deep in the New York Times headlines, that life is finite and time is fleeting and everything always changes. It’s a lot to deal with regarding an app I downloaded onto a Micron computer in my one-bedroom South Bend apartment in in the mid-‘90s, but here we are. (I had a lot of problems when they shut down AudioGalaxy, partly from the nostalgia, partly from worrying about all the lawsuits.)


And without being too weepy and hyperbolic, I feel like the death of IM packs an extra punch though, because for many of us it represented a first tenuous step into the world of online communication and all that term includes: maintaining contact with friends you’d otherwise never call or visit, digital flirting, the instinctive hormone injection of seeing a new chat window ping open, networking, inventing jokes. In my case it was a to allow a guy who was always better with typed words than real ones be able to think of something clever to say without being in the heat of a moment, a slammed bar swimming in loud classic rock, an anxious and probably sweaty conversation.

I don’t know if you remember, but the first few years of online communications were insane, with everyone thrilling to the primal glee of the new technology while also, simultaneously, trying to figure out how to use it to get girls. My first post-college apartment was pretty well entirely furnished with a TV, my Dad’s VCR and a desktop computer the approximate size of 1969 Camaro, so when I got home from my newsroom job at midnight, my primary entertainment consisted entirely of jumping online to see if anyone was around to message. (My secondary was watching the two syndicated “Simpsons” episodes I’d taped while eating pizza rolls. But I couldn’t do these things at the same time, because my computer was in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT ROOM from the television, which, for you delightful millennials, used to be an actual problem.)

I used it to keep in touch with friends with whom I’d have never gone to call, or see. On the morning of 9/11, the only word I got from my New York friends came in a quick succession of chat messages. I learned to write better. The timing was such that IM represented the start of a lifetime that could have involved hiking and sailing and distance running but pretty much devolved into years and years of staring at little word boxes. (You make your choices.) But outside of all that nonsense, it’s pretty simple: It is a thing that existed previously, and it’s gone, and that always pops you with a little sting. To help ease the pain, I am totally emotionally eating some pizza rolls.