Day 258: Goodbye, Old Friend

AOL Instant Messenger is closing down on December 15th.

As a person who downloaded AIM in beta, it’s hard to explain what this means, particularly when my audience here consists of a few of my peers who know exactly what I mean, people just-older-enough that they didn’t get AIM, and people so much younger that they can’t see what AIM was/meant.

I started my experience chatting with people using the UNIX app “talk” and then through IRC. I used ICQ. But things really started to hum when AOL offered their messenger service to people outside AOL.

Most of my generation first saw the internet through AOL or CompuServe, but that wasn’t a place where any of us stayed very long because in those days, services like AOL charged by the hour. We instead found our ways to university internet access, which I first secured through dial-in to the IU East campus while taking a single course and never looked back.

In that era, it was hard to chat with people solo. Most one-to-one conversations were emailed, or were embedded in other parts of larger chat programs that didn’t work so well. AIM, though, let us chat one-on-one. It was the precursor to the txt messages that are now ubiquitous in our world. The conventions of using that space came from our generation and how we used AIM.

One of my longest friendships started and ended on AIM. As I deleted the app the other day from the last machine I had it on, I realized there’ll be no more talking to Paddock. Not now, not ever. The last tie I had to that friend, and to almost twenty-years of friendship, is now vaporware. We met talking about the band REM. We parted ways over a bad night of World of Warcraft. I will never understand.

In some small way, I owe my marriage to AIM. We didn’t meet there. Julie and I met on campus at MSU. But it was the two of us chatting into the late hours of the night in a tiny window next to my homework where I got to know her, where we managed to build a bond strong enough for me to kind-of ask her out. As I remember, we never formally started dating. It just sort of happened. Which makes sense. We just belong together,  and I think we both knew it typing in that little AIM box next to the PDFs of Latour and Derrida.

I also ran my first major fandom “businesses” from AIM. There was my fanzine, Backspace Media. There was my e-wrestling federation, Backspace World Organization (the BsWo). There was Alexander HTML. There were years of flipping on eBay as Ph1ll. There was PhillIU for my IU students to ask questions. MuOPHill for my Miami students to ask questions (as a grad student). PhillMSU for my Michigan State Students. There was phillalexander, all one word, for my friends. There was ever-so-briefly a DrPhill just because I wanted to maintain my branding. There was my evil twin AIM box that I kept to send secret messages to friends at work (not going to share the name here :P).

It’s all over now.

It’s good that things move forward. We’re all quite happy with iMessage, though I hate having to look down at my phone when I’m on my PC (which I am now– Apple, make a deal with Windows and bring me a client for iMessage). But sometimes I think these moments hold a bit of sadness, too. Remember HoTMaiL? Yeah, neither do my students. Remember using MUDs? Again, neither do my students.

I think that people from my generation and those who were a bit older who stayed engaged were part of a particularly interesting technological moment. This is likely to be true for the students I teach now, too. When they’re getting brain-band subliminal DMs from their friends they’ll think back with an odd fondness for when they still used their thumbs to chat. But my generation Kermitted into BBS sites. We used to have to telnet. We used IRC and Usenet the way that people now use Facebook, Reddit, Instagram. We never dreamed we’d send real-time video when we started. We were jazzed when a picture loaded slowly, line-by-line.

I will miss being able to show some of these things to younger people. Not because it matters so much that they understand. I don’t think the new generation is having any trouble grasping the way that technology evolves. I just think it’s sad to lose the nostalgia.

Bye, little orange running man who carried me to my friends when I lived in the middle of nowhere. Happy trails. Stop by sometime. We’ll have coffee and chat. My door is always open, and you know exactly what sound it’ll make if you show up.


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