The Age of AOL Instant Messaging (AIM)

Joceline De Lara
3 min readJan 17, 2021
Photo Courtesy of Reddit

You’ve got mail

It’s the notification, the first message you got after you’ve put your ears through the unforgettable dial-up (you can listen here). The little “running man” who symbolized a company that set a precedent for Instant Messaging connection in the new age of technology; it would stand through the test of time while showing us how long it used to take to boot up to the internet.

American Online, Inc., most popularly known as AOL, was the premier source for internet surfing and online connection. Originally launched as Quantum in 1983, it wouldn’t be until 1997 that AIM (AOL Instant Messaging) would finally come to life, allowing users to chat online without the need for actual physical communication.

The function of the free messaging service was to give users the chance to make creative usernames, chat through private messaging rooms, and keep records of friends with the “Buddy List.”

Photo Courtesy of Pinterest

As TIME Magazine reported in 2002, AOL saw its peak of subscriber’s cap at an impressive 34 million. Unmatched by what Facebook has even acquired now in subscribers — for the record, 2.7 billion as of the second quarter of 2020 — AOL and AIM would see this as a substantive amount, overwhelmed with the typical site crashes and tech capabilities.

Sadly, with the emergence and success of Skype, Yahoo, Google, Myspace, and so on, AIM would then see its decline and finally be closed down in December of 2017. Undaunting to the users who’d move on to the next big connecting application on the World Wide Web.

And Why Should I Care?

As a child during the early 2000s, I had very limited experience with AIM. AOL Instant Messaging is just as old as I am; about 24 years ago, this was a highlight for society. Communication had sped up for people and connection was closer than ever.

I guess my fondest memories would be getting back home from school, listening to the dial-up, and using AOL to play games and look up some homework help.

I chose to write about this medium because of the nostalgia for that dial-up itself and because I remember having some of those disks lying around the house as a kid. With more research, I find that this staple also meant that it was part of a bigger stepping stone for what comes after. Myspace, Facebook, and Instagram, along with many others, subsequently followed in the timeline of social media connection.

If I’d had my own AIM account, I’d probably be LOL-ing just as much as everyone else on the site.

The Influence

AOL couldn’t expand itself through mobile, which would ultimately lead to its decline in the mid-2000s. But would it have made a difference when the iPhone took over, the publics' first taste of handheld instant screen gratification? With AOL already on the deep end with no traffic thanks to Google, the company couldn’t be made to keep up or revamp itself to the new audience.

Pen15 Anna and Maya join AIM

Even Hulu’s Original Pen15, a show based on two girls, Anna and Maya, growing up in the early 2000s, features the infamous AOL Instant Messenger as a virtual hub for the teens to gravitate to after school. The show’s preciseness of cringe-fashion and cringe-tech gives the show levity and insight into what that life was like especially for the coming-of-age Millennials.

There’s no doubt that the age of AIM didn’t open doors for different and even better modes of instant communication. People gravitated towards AOL and grew a fondness for ease and simplicity. It was a great memory of the 90s and the early 2000s and an even greater memory for the history of social media to emerge.

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Joceline De Lara

As a grad student at the University of Florida, I aspire to study the age of communication. Let's see where that leads us.