AIM (AOL Messenger): 22 Things To Remember

While many people were using MSN Messenger in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was another messenger app that was capturing the imaginations of millions worldwide. AIM – which stood for AOL Instant Messenger – may have closed down back in 2017, but it got its start a lot earlier than that, and there are almost certainly millions of 90s kids who still remember using it on their old, basic PCs. Here are 22 things to remember about AIM, so pull up a chair and join us in basking in glorious nostalgia for this bygone era of computing.

1. AIM debuted in 1997

Predating MSN Messenger by two years, AIM got its debut back in 1997. There wasn’t much fanfare around the original AIM; it was an app for Windows that was pretty much dropped onto the internet. Nevertheless, it quickly set about establishing a dominant position in the market, beating out competitors like ICQ and iChat to become the premier instant messaging service (until MSN, of course).

2. The AIM logo isn’t actually called “Running Man”

Originally, the AIM logo didn’t actually have a name. It was created by JoRoan Lazaro in 1997, accompanying the initial release of AIM. It was quickly called the “Running Man” by fans of the software and became irrevocably associated with AIM itself. The logo was ditched in 2011, but returned in 2013 after an outcry. Let it never be said people don’t love the Running Man!

3. Coming up with an AIM username was hard

Remember staring at that username screen for minutes on end, trying to work out what you wanted your username to be? It was important to pick the right one, because this would represent who you were to your AIM friends. If you picked the wrong username, you’d be cursed with looking at it every time you logged on, and still, there were many “RockChick12182” or “CoolDude9082309” names.

4. You could categorise your friends

Long before MySpace introduced the Top 8, AIM allowed you to organise your friends into categories. The app clearly intended you to sort into “work colleagues”, “friends”, “family members”, and other similar categories, but many people simply used it to organise their besties and differentiate them from the randoms they’d added over the years.

5. You could give your friends icons

Brilliantly, the AIM Buddy Icon system allowed you to assign icons to your friends. You could assign icons like “Smash Pumpkins”, “Triplets”, “The Worm”, and, hilariously, “Vibrator Buddy”. Try not to think about that too hard; this was a more innocent era, when concerns around internet safety were a glint in the eye of companies like Microsoft and AOL.

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6. You could change your font in AIM

It was possible to change your font in AIM, just like it was in MSN Messenger. You could express your unique personality by choosing to type in bright pink Comic Sans MS, or – if you were us – in dark green Trebuchet MS to show how smooth and serious you were. Fonts were a huge part of your self-expression, alongside your username and your away message. Speaking of which…

7. Away messages were everything

You could set an away message in AIM so that anyone who tried to talk to you while you were away would receive an automated message. More often than not, these messages would indicate that your family members were using the computer (because the internet connection was shared with the phone in those days), but they could also be edgy emo song lyrics or personal messages.

8. The SmarterChild chat bot was on AIM

Did you ever have a conversation with the SmarterChild bot? It was initially available on AIM, before its success meant that it also became available on MSN. It was a sort of prototype of modern assistants like Google Assistant, Alexa, or Cortana; you could use it to look up news stories, ask it the weather, or even ask it to play games for you. SmarterChild was discontinued in 2007, but we remember it.

9. AIM had chat rooms

Unlike MSN Messenger, there were public chat rooms available in AIM. You could simply join a chatroom and be chatting to strangers in minutes; it probably wasn’t particularly safe, but it was a thrill nonetheless. AIM clearly wasn’t targeted simply at people who wanted to talk to their friends, but also to people who wanted to make new friends and meet new people.

10. AIM had emoticons too

MSN and AIM both pioneered the use of “emoticons”, which were precursors to emojis. You could use these emoticons to tell your friends how you were feeling; each of them had a keyboard shortcut that resembled the emoticon’s face, which is still true to some extent in modern chat programs. Emoticons may have died a death, but emojis are carrying on their legacy.

11. AIM icons included bands, shows, and more

It wasn’t just the aforementioned “Vibrator Buddy” that made up the ranks of AIM icons. There were also icons for shows like SpongeBob SquarePants, as well as icons for bands like Sum 41 and movie figures like Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil. Nowadays, you’d probably equate this system to custom Twitch emotes, which can be changed depending on the channel you’re watching.

12. The AOL homepage was an information haven

This isn’t technically part of AIM, but everyone who used the app probably visited the AOL homepage at some point. There was news to read, new music and other media to discover, and even a “pet of the day” feature so you could see someone’s adorable animal every single day. Again, the AOL homepage was a precursor to the modern obsession with pets on the internet.

13. Dollz icons were a privilege

If a friend managed to get themselves assigned to a Dollz icon – or, indeed, if you were offered the prestigious opportunity to become a Dollz yourself – then you knew things were serious. We reserved the Dollz icons for our nearest and dearest; everyone we liked got an icon, but only those we truly loved and respected got Dollz icons, because they were special somehow.

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14. The AIM login sound was a creaking door

Unlike MSN, which went for a more abstract sound library, AIM tried to keep things realistic. That’s why the sound of someone logging in was represented by a creaking door; the app wanted to give you the impression that someone had just physically entered the room.

15. “ASL” got its start on apps like AIM

If you ever got asked “ASL” when you were a kid (it may also have been formatted as “a/s/l”), then you’ll know how creepy and off-putting it can feel. Apps like AIM, as well as online chat rooms on the internet, were where people first started asking this question, with a view to forming romantic attachments to the people they were asking. 

16. AIM made us type “POS”, and it doesn’t mean what you think

One acronym that absolutely doesn’t get the usage it deserves anymore is “POS”, or “parent over shoulder”. You typed it when your parent was entering the room and you didn’t want whoever you were talking to typing something incriminating. Nowadays, we simply lock our phone screens.

17. You could write your own bio

Again, unlike many other chat services, AIM had a function by which you could construct your own profile bio. You could tell everyone everything you wanted about yourself right there in that window, and it was often a way to air personal drama like fallouts or new relationships without having to talk to people about them.

18. Mark Zuckerberg created Messenger in response to AIM

Mark Zuckerberg was inspired by AOL Instant Messenger when creating his own Facebook Messenger app. All the features you’d usually find in AIM – friend lists, Away or Appear Offline statuses, and group chats – are all in Facebook Messenger as well, and that’s absolutely no accident.

19. AIM had a dark side, too

AIM wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Many users remember being trolled or bullied by their school friends on the app, many of them hiding behind unfamiliar usernames in order to affect a degree of anonymity. Cyberbullying didn’t start with AIM, but it definitely got worse in part because of apps like AIM and MSN.

20. Users could add you to their AIM buddy lists without you knowing

Unlike other chat apps, AIM didn’t require users to reciprocate when they were added to a buddy list. This meant someone could add you to their buddy list, see when you were online, and read your profile without you even knowing who they were. There wasn’t really a good solution to this issue; you’d have to block everyone on the app who wasn’t on your friends list to achieve any degree of privacy.

21. You could add friend names to AIM away messages

Thanks to “code” (simply typing the percentage symbol and then a string of text), you could add the names of your AIM buddies to your away message. You could also add a date and time if you wanted to, thus telling people when you went away and when you expected to return.

22. AIM was discontinued in 2017…but there’s a catch

AOL technically sunsetted AIM in 2017, shutting down servers and discontinuing active help for the service. However, that wasn’t the end for the much-loved chat app. A group of developers got together and started the AIM Phoenix project, which is technically still active today. Signing up is something of an arcane process, but AIM lives on in some form, which is great if you’ve got nostalgia for it.               

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