AOL Instant Messenger will cease to exist in December, after a decade of dominance as a communication tool and a further decade of nostalgia and decline. I forgot my password long ago; in two months, it will be joined in the internet graveyard by my Buddy List and whatever archives of chat histories, away messages, and profiles that AOL maintained as AIM users moved on to newer, hotter social networks. A screen name, though, is forever. The girls I knew in high school still call me by my first AIM screenname, “henbod,” whose origin story is, I assure you, even more embarrassing than it sounds.
Nowadays, the trend is to lament the sliding of face-to-face conversation into digital messaging: mom texting instead of yelling up the stairs, my editor sternly typing to me from a neighboring desk in our open-plan office. But for a middle-schooler, nothing was better than escaping the pressures of the school hallway for an afternoon on the computer screen. AIM was an early giveaway that the most interesting thing on the internet, whatever its infinite bounty of video, history, and science, would be the same thing that interested us most in the real world: each other.
The reason people still remember my screen name has nothing to do with my particular online charm, though as a bookish 13-year-old with braces and acne, I certainly did feel more at ease shuffling through chat windows than talking to girls in person. The conventions here had not been dictated by older siblings or high school movies; they were ours to write. A crush logged on with a creaking door noise, as thrilling, in its way, as a screen door porch slam. Long before we were playing spin the bottle in the library, we were exchanging AIM’s fat-lipped kissy emoticon and greeting each other with “hey sexy.” Mercifully, I don’t have access to those archives to tell you more. I know they’d never match my sweet imagination.
It wasn’t all “No you sign off first.” One virtual flirtation that never blossomed into real-life romance concluded with a girl telling me her feelings were best expressed by Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 smash “Go Your Own Way.” The title said it all, but it took a 15-minute dial-up Kazaa download to get the full message. One door closed that day, but another one—a door to the delectable cocaine-rock of Rumours—opened.
It wasn’t just me: AIM was the language of all adolescent socializing circa 2000. Thanks to AOL Instant Messenger, which first launched in 1997, those of us who came of age in the late ’90s and early aughts were the pioneers of digital epistolary culture. And more so than the telephone era of our parents or the anxiously camera-ready world of our younger siblings, AIM felt designed to give awkward kids a secret weapon. Before AOL Instant Messenger there was its more rudimentary ancestor ICQ, which debuted in 1996 and was acquired by AOL two years later, but AIM was the first chat program that seemed to rewire the way an entire generation communicated. Millennials’ sense of textual irony was fine-tuned on AIM long before there were Sunday Styles pieces about using periods in text messages, Atlantic stories about “Sent from my iPhone” substitutes, or New Yorker essays about email style. In the days before texting, iMessage, Gchat, Facebook Messenger, and Slack became standard, cross-generational communication modes, AIM was a place for teens to figure out who they were.
Was this all a crash-course for real-world high school socializing, the kind where you had to be funny in conversation, learn how to join a group of people talking, and have older friends invite you to parties? I used to think so. But more accurately, it was a way to burnish real-world relationships that didn’t require the use of skills you lacked in the real world, like holding eye contact. The stresses and finer points of internet decorum—the agonizing wait for a crush to send a message, the acceptable hesitation for a witty riposte, the ways in which neediness and desire and cool could be telegraphed through 26 characters—had no good analogy in homeroom conversation or drunken party banter. No, AIM was just an early digital life we led, practice for the text chats that now provide the most fundamental record of our emotional lives. Those afternoons I spent flirting on AIM with the pretty older girls in math class weren’t exactly supplying me with moves I could use on a date. But since behind every great real-life date is the great text that proposed it, they might have helped me get one.