How AIM Changed the Internet 4ever

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S1: You’ve got mail. Hi, I’m Madison Malone Kircher

S2: and I’m Rachel Hampton and you’re listening to I say, Why am I

S1: in case you missed it?

S2: Slate’s podcast about internet culture.

S1: Can you believe 25 years ago, AOL launched the now defunct A.I.M. or AOL Instant Messenger?

S2: I feel so old when you say that I also cannot believe that at launch the year after I was born, I don’t know why, but I felt like it felt like aim was my thing. But I’m realizing that it is, in fact, a lot of people’s names.

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S1: Yeah, it was it was my thing for a time.

S2: You have to say more,

S1: I have to say my friends and I were huge dorks and so we were very enjoy Gee Gee. Shut up. Did Gee chat very early, but basically my memory of any sort of platform with an away message like I am, I have a distinct memory. Not to brag, but my parents have an above ground hot tub, which is just a height of luxury. And I have a just date memory of setting some status about being in this hot tub in the hope that, like my crush would picture me in this hot tub, in my like bikini. This was insane. Like with no part of this ever came to reality for me, leaving a status that is like swimming in bubbles.

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S2: Madison, that’s genius. I don’t know what you’re talking about. That is simply the height of one away messages for you. Understood the assignment.

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S1: Yeah. How about you?

S2: Well, I do have a less genius experience on on air. Also, there’s a little micro generational thing between AM and AIM because we definitely called it aim. But I’m going to save my aim experience for a bit later because on the show today, that’s literally all we’re talking about are early online experiences, the phenomena of writing away messages and how Ames shaped the ways we still interact online today.

S1: Coming up, we’ve got an interview with Caroline Moss, host of the podcast. Gee, thanks just bought it, and an author and writer who has fashioned herself as something as an AOL Instant Messenger expert.

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S2: We’re going to be talking to her about the early years of the platform before Madison or I had the ability to type book crazy but harmless things she did on there, and maybe even getting into a bit of our own nonsense that we got up to.

S1: All right. That means it’s time to set an away message. So be right back with Caroline after a short break.

S2: Oh, we can do better than that.

S1: We are. Be swimming in bubbles. Welcome. All right, we are back with Caroline Moss, author, editor and host of the podcast Gee, Thanks. Just bought it. She also infamously ran the Twitter account at your away message.

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S2: We’re so excited you’re here.

S3: Thanks for having me. I’m very happy to be here.

S1: Can you believe it’s been 25 years since I am AOL Instant Messenger launched?

S3: No, but I honestly remember it very vividly.

S1: When did you join? What inspired you to join?

S3: OK, well, of course you get the AOL CD rom in the mail. We had a desktop computer, of course, in the basement. And I remember my dad put the CD-ROM in and it was like three hours. And I can’t even get my mind wrapped around a time where we were like paying hourly to use the internet. But OK,

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S1: I feel like here is where we insert the dial up modem. Yeah, in post.

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S3: And then it would take like 20 minutes to get on. I know I do a great impression. It’s phenomenal that I didn’t even I don’t know where that came from, somewhere deep within. It would take 20 minutes to log on, and I remember my dad sitting me down and being like, You know, do not give your personal information to like a stranger in a chat room. And then he proceeded to make my screen name Caroline Moss like full name.

S1: Oh, cool. And then he sent you down to the basement unsupervised.

S3: Yeah. And then he’s through the internet, unsupervised to the internet. Yeah. So I remember, you know, just sitting downstairs in the basement in like fourth or fifth grade and being like, yeah, like this rules. And then every time you go to someone’s house for like a playdate, they would like one you would like, sit on the computer together. It was like a whole thing.

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S2: Do you remember interacting? I mean, for me, AOL aim was for friends, but also I remember talking to crushes a lot on it and the kind of like excitement of it. And you have to have the same thing, right?

S3: Yeah. I mean, that was like where I learned to talk to boys was like on AOL. It sort of started at the same time. I was like developing my own personality and my own like friendships and relationships with people that weren’t necessarily formed by my mom, like knowing some other kids mom and being like, And now we’re going to play together because like, I know the mom. And so I feel like the crash thing was just sort of this natural evolution of learning how to communicate in like a social environment without an authority figure standing over you sort of monitoring you. So, yeah, I mean, I had all of my most important conversations with every boy I ever liked on the computer. None of it ever in person. I had like full out full relationships and not just like, Oh, this person’s mind, like just the relationship of talking to another person and interacting with them without ever really talking to them in real life. And that was because of, you know, the internet.

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S1: I feel like that was very wholesome, but I definitely have some more sinister memories of of aim. I’m curious if you were ever the bully or the bullied.

S3: Well, I mean both. I was absolutely bullied on aim. I did bullying on him. I I don’t feel like I spent a lot of time bullying my friends or like other girls. I think what I used it for was a thing that my friends and I used to do, which we thought was so funny. And honestly, to this day, I still think it’s very funny. You know how you could like make new screen names like at the drop of a hat? You could just like register a new screen name. And what we would do is we would take boys screen names. I think they were usually boys we liked and we would. Copy them and change like one little thing. So if your screen name was like, you know, Lizard 40, we would make the eye and lizard a capital, a lowercase L. And so it would look like a lizard 40, but it wouldn’t be Lizard 40. And then we would message them and be like, I’m your name. Why did you seal my skin? And we really thought that was like the funniest thing in the whole entire world. And it honestly was kind of funny because you’re not speaking to, like, evolved, you know, beings. On the other hand, your species are 14 year old boys. No, I’m Alexander. And this went on for eight hours. I definitely was definitely a big part of, I think, that experience of being online without, you know, a parent looking over your shoulder or whatever was this idea of, like, you know, a friend would message you and be like, What do you think of this friend? And you wouldn’t know that that friend was sitting with them, and that was like a whole thing. I definitely remember a lot of that, and I hated that at the time, but I feel like it was very ubiquitous. I feel like everyone was experiencing something of that nature.

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S1: Honestly, I think the Lizard 40 name changed. Prank is very wholesome in retrospect, not where I thought it was going. That took a really wholesome turn.

S2: I was going to say this doesn’t count as any kind of nefarious thing. You’re just messing with the 14 year old boy, which like they’d have to serve it.

S3: I agree. That doesn’t count as bullying. Yeah. And I also think this was kind of around the time when. There is a real have have nots with cell phones. So if you could write, like, hit the cell as an away message and then people knew you had a cell phone, like that’s crazy to me. I didn’t have a cell phone until I could drive a car. And I was so jealous, and sometimes I would like put my mom’s phone, my mom’s cell phone number in my away message and be like, Hit the cell. But like, only ever so briefly. Because then what was I? You know what? Then you can call my mom. I didn’t think that one through anything, though. I’m getting random calls and I like why. She’s like someone named Alexander is on the phone and he said, you stole his screen name.

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S2: I got to say all your stories about AIM. Very wholesome, and my main stories about AIM are not

S1: with Tell us, tell us.

S2: Do you remember the the website omega

S1: just penises on parade?

S3: How old are you? What are you talking about? What do

S1: you do? Chatroulette, Caroline?

S3: Yeah, I know Chatroulette.

S1: It’s yeah, it’s a cousin.

S2: It’s basically like that. So I never use the video function, but there was a video function. But basically, you log on to omega omega and it’s just a blank chat screen and you’re put into a random chat with some stranger. And so you just talk to strangers, basically. And if there was a video function where you would also end up on video, but I was always doing it at a friend’s house. And so we were like, we’re not going to do video. We’re just going to do the chat function and we will spend hours on

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S3: just this isn’t going

S2: in and out of chats with strangers. But this this this goes to aim because there was this one, dude. Me and my me and my old best friend met on Omega, who his name was Eric. And I swear to God I had an entire like a 13 year old relationship with this dude that I never met in my entire life. And we switched from Omega to our aim like relationship and spent hours talking to each other. And I am just like, why was I doing? He was in an entirely different state. Never met him in my entire life. Still never met him. And it was. It was. It was. If my mother knew about this, she would have murdered me. She would have killed me. I did confirm he was actually the same age as me, so I

S3: wanted to get first of all, how did you confirm

S2: that? He gave me his Facebook profile. We eventually did move to Facebook Messenger.

S3: So there was no, you’re right. No one has ever lied in their face. No one ever. You’re right. That’s it. That would be impossible.

S2: Ever lied on Facebook?

S3: I think I just OK. I have so many questions about this. What was it about talking to strangers that was, like, interesting to you? I only wanted to talk to boys that I could potentially pass in the hallway the next day. You know, that was like my main goal.

S2: I think the kind of draw of it was just the fact that it was someone that you would theoretically never meet and also that it was just this complete random. And so you and I would always be with my friend. We would do it together like I rarely ever did it by myself. And so sometimes you would just troll people. And so the first thing that they always ask was like ASL. And so we would be like, Oh, forty mail Florida and see who, but

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S3: they like they were telling the truth. But you verify that they are telling you were a 40 year old man living in Florida, but you’re OK. But don’t worry, the guy you were talking to is your age and you saw that on Facebook. OK, I’m OK. I’m just making your picture out

S2: of holes in my my 14 year old relationship, and I don’t

S1: appreciate it.

S3: Look, I’m just here as an investigator. You know, I just I don’t want you to be tarnishing the reputation of my beloved aim and AOL.

S2: We’re having so much fun talking to you. Caroline, but we have to take a quick, short break, hit the sell and then we’ll be back with more aim after the break. Do you love our show, but I hate getting all those ads? Well, I have a deal for you. Subscribe to see plus it’s only a dollar for the first month and you won’t get any ads on any Slate podcast, including this one. You’ll get unlimited reading on the slate website, access to every single article and advice column on Slate, and you will never, ever hit a paywall. You’re most importantly, be supporting me and Madison and all the work that goes into making this show possible. You’ll also get bonus segments or episodes of incredible slate shows like Slow Burn or Political Gap. As Mom and dad are fighting their big move, little mood sounds like a pretty great deal to me. To subscribe to See Plus, go to Slate.com Slash AC. Why am I? Plus that Slate.com flash. I see why my plus?

S1: And we’re back. Caroline, Uvea, you’ve finished college, you’re on to Gee chat, but at some point in that that Gee chat era you create at your away message on Twitter. Talk to us about creating that Twitter account, which is one of, I think, one of the first accounts I followed when I joined Twitter. And I remember thinking, This

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S3: is so funny. This is the thing that’s amazing as amazing. You know, it’s weird because like to me in 2012, coming up with the way message parody account on Twitter, which was, by the way, like the absolute heyday of Twitter parody accounts. You know, this was before Twitter became like a horrible place and very pessimistic. This was when we were still having fun online, and so I was writing the AM 79 bus from the Upper East Side to Upper West, and I was listening. I had my phone in my pocket on shuffle, and the Dave Matthews Band song came on and it reminded. It was the first time I had heard that song since high school, and it reminded me of the away message that just that I used to leave in hopes again, that boys would think that I was very mature and deep, and I just thought, this is, you know, here’s something relatable. So I made a Twitter account and just started tweeting like, I think at first, like Dave Matthews, band lyrics are like watching Laguna Beach like b r b. What was interesting about this timeline is that it was 2012, and what I was referencing was like 2005. And to me, that seven year difference felt extremely huge and like, insurmountable, whereas like, it would be very weird today in 20 22 if I was like, I have a 2015 like nostalgia account, like it would allow me to say,

S1: Oh, party rock anthem. Yeah, yeah, exactly.

S3: Exactly. So. And it just sort of took off from there. I remember I told one friend because I was like, Can you retweet me? She had like three hundred followers, right? So we weren’t I wasn’t dealing with like big accounts, but it went it was like really watching something go organically viral. Like, I didn’t have any Twitter followers, so I retweeted it to like my 75 followers or whatever. And then within seven days it was in New York magazine. It was wow, I wasn’t working in media then. I didn’t have any like I didn’t. It didn’t matter if it was like, Oh, this is this person who is like, I don’t know who she is. It doesn’t really matter. So I was so excited. I tell people that it was me, but it went on. I kept it up for like a year. It’s still up. I just don’t use it anymore. But yeah, it was really fun.

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S1: When did you unmask yourself as the voice behind Buddy?

S3: Literally seven days. Once it was in New York magazine, I was like, I’m not going to miss out on this opportunity. It was. It was honestly the biggest thing, the biggest, the most life-changing thing I’ve ever done because I feel like after that it was very it was like a business card of sorts, you know, like, I could be like, OK, like, look, I made something go viral on the internet. And that was when sort of all of that, you know, the first waves of people reporting on what was happening on the internet was actually becoming a real job. And I feel like it really helped me.

S2: For people who missed the heyday of your away message, what are some classic tweets?

S3: I think like anything that was there’s like categories, right? You have your song lyrics and your Dave Matthews band lyrics. You, you know, even I just had dinner with a friend the other night, and every time he sees me, he always goes, Caroline, celebrate. We will, because life is short but sweet for certain. Will. Which is obviously Dave Matthews, actually, I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the Dave Matthews band repertoire, but that was the thing that like if you were in high school in 2005, you like like literally wrote that in gel pen on your binder and you were like, I’m very deep

S1: and I have a lot of feelings. Yeah, I’m familiar with Dave Matthews Band. I love that one song they did for Lady Bird.

S3: Oh my god. Madison, I know you’re joking, but it hurts my soul. So there were that right there with the song lyrics. Then there was like that. I pay attention to me kind of genre, which was like in a bad mood. Nobody understands, like leave a message if you care. Like, that was big. You know, it’s all these people going through puberty and having like access to this like machine where it was kind of crazy. It was just kind of crazy. You know, everyone loved watching like The O.C. and Laguna Beach and like calling back to those. Yeah. And a lot of it is like The Fonz, right? It’s like the up and down letters. And this was up and down the letters before it became the SpongeBob condescending voice, right? Like yes, writing in lower caps, upper caps, lower caps. I perhaps meant something before 2017 or whenever that was. But it really it just was. It was a time when. People in a certain age demographic really could remember a life where. You had to log on to the internet and you had to log off of the internet and you weren’t carrying the internet around with you wherever you went, and there was like language around that and there was ritual around that and there was, you know, tradition around that and even thinking about AOL announcing every time you got an email, imagine if your computer played a sound. Every time you got an email today, you’ve got mail. I would throw my computer out the window. I don’t want. I don’t want to know. And now email is like the farthest space you can get in terms of like online communication, like the email is what you send. If it’s like I want to be polite and non-invasive. So I really think like AIM was so was so important for a very specific age group. And that’s not to discount anyone younger than me, and it’s not to discount anyone older than me. It was just important for anyone born in the exact same time I. But but like, you know, PEN15, the writers are exactly my age. So everything that happens in that show is relatable to anyone and like a certain age group.

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S1: And PEN15 is the series on Hulu, about two middle school girls from the year 2000 that spend one five. You know, so screen names.

S4: So I have three options here for me Stardust Forever s Club seven, which might be taken already. And Baby Spice six six six six six six. Like the devil’s number, no sex is my favorite number and my lucky number.

S1: So oh my god. Good job I got mine.

S3: So every scene where they’re online and like talking, I mean, it just really I had to watch that show in chunks because it was just it felt it was like too much. It was like too much. You know, you need some distance from that, but I miss it. I wish. I wish we could still use it. I just think it’d be nice to go back to a time where, like, you had to make a conscious choice to be like, I’m here and I’m available to talk, and now I’m not here and not available to talk. We are too reachable now. I think we like flew too close to the Sun in that way. You know, I don’t think we should have evolved as much as we did.

S2: Honestly, yeah. Take us back to that. I mean, embrace, whether there anything from AME that still stick with you in your daily life, besides the kind of constant wish that you can be unreachable.

S3: You know, I think what I always think about is like the profile and it was like your first, you know, aim and AOL was like the first sort of like opportunity we had to do some sort of personal branding. I know that that sounds weird, but you had her. I know. But it’s true. I mean, look, you pick your font, you know, within the confines of what you could do online, which is choose your screen name. She’s your font, she’s your profile colors and what you were going to put in your profile you crafted. You know what, you wanted people to see you as, and of course, that always lines up with the trends like people were using comic sans names like in like blue, like in like Yankees colors, and my people are like, That’s sick, you know, it’s different now. But I think like I think that what I take with me in a day to day is that the internet is actually really important and the important that the importance that we placed on aim as kids. I think maybe our parents would have looked at us like superfluous or silly or unimportant, but I think it was sort of our first lesson in like perception is reality. And maybe it wasn’t even maybe it wasn’t true in the 90s, but it certainly is true now. It’s like whatever you put out there as the idea of who you are, is who you are to all of the people who don’t know you off the internet, which in this world is so many people. I mean, you can look at AME fonts and profile quotes and the away messages and all that stuff and literally draw a direct line to like an Instagram feed aesthetic. Or, you know, the highlight reels that people post on Tik Tok like it is the first kind of experience we had at curating who we were and putting it on a screen and just showing people what we wanted to show. And a lot of it is in both eras of internet usage performance.

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S1: I went on that note we’re going to log off once again. You can find Caroline Moss over at the podcast. Gee, thanks just bought it. They also have a great Instagram account. Highly rec. Goodbye.

S2: But all right, that is the show will be back in your feed on Saturday, so definitely subscribe. It’s still free and it’s still the best way to never miss an episode. Please leave a five star rating review at Apple Podcasts and tell your friends about us. You can also follow us on Twitter. I see why am I the score pod, which is also rekindles your aim, screen names and your favorite away messages? Please, please do this because we have embarrassed ourselves. Please embarrassed yourselves. And you can also embarrass yourselves in our email inbox. I see. Why am I on Slate.com?

S1: I see Why Am I is produced by Daniel Schroeder, our supervising producer is Derek John. We’re edited by Forrest Wickman and Allegra Frank. Amber Smith is senior manager of podcast Audience Development and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate Podcasts. See you online

S2: or in a hot tub.

S1: I think we’ve landed in a hot tub on more than one episode. Well, yeah, we have quite a pool of virgins, honestly still still still holds.

S2: I was like, why are we in a hot tub before?