‘Msging’ memories rich, future not

Mark Merritt

It was 2003 when AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) became popular at my middle school. Myspace had launched the same year, but most kids were too busy updating their LiveJournal accounts to bother with the newfangled trend of social networking.

We doubted it would ever catch on, so we continued to communicate how we felt most comfortable: almost exclusively via instant messaging.


We passed our AIM handles—our alternative, Internet identities—beneath desks and slipped them into lockers between classes. At lunch, we’d scribble them on each other’s hands.

The first thing we would do after we returned home from school was dash to our desktops, update our Buddy Profiles and relinquish our clever “away” statuses.  We’d bask in the glow of our computer monitors, sometimes until 3 a.m., swapping music, photos and URLs.

In 2006 AIM became the United States’ most popular instant messaging software and dominated the market with 53 million users, according to figures from Nielsen.

But the software’s popularity plummeted over the following years.

Two years ago, OPSWAT, a San Francisco-based software company, reported AOL’s market share had nose-dived to less than 1 percent.

Shortly thereafter came the massive layoffs. Succumbing to the rise of Skype and Facebook Messenger, AOL in 2012 notified employees at its West Coast offices difficult changes would be initiated to keep the company afloat.

The AIM crew suffered the heaviest blow. In an interview with the New York Times, A former AOL employee said the instant-messaging branch of the company had been “eviscerated” and added that nearly all of the West Coast team had been “killed.”

But, surprisingly, AIM isn’t dead yet. Refusing to let go of former glory, AOL has churned out updates for its antiqued IM client in recent years.

Yielding to nostalgia, I decided to create a new AIM account. I downloaded the updated client, a rather small executable file, launched the software and began the setup. Already, some substantial differences were discernible. For one, AOL insisted I stray away from using a pseudonym and instead provide my full name. I disregarded the advice and registered with my middle school username, “Spoaks,” and began tweaking my settings.

The software then encouraged me to merge my Facebook and Twitter profiles with my AIM account to create one bastardized social-media conglomerate.

Surprisingly, AIM’s redesigned client is quite modern. Users can now share videos, tweets and photos in real time. AOL has also rolled out a streamlined web-based client for those who don’t wish to download the standalone software. Two other impressive features include the integration of face-to-face video chat and a comprehensive RSS dashboard, which displays up-to-date news headlines and blog entries. An iPhone app has also been introduced.

Sadly, none of these improvements have fixed AIM’s chief dilemma: an ever-shrinking user base. When I signed into my new account for the first time, I was greeted by an empty Buddy List. Equally barren are the once bustling chat rooms. They still exist, and a handful of users continue to interact through them, but the experience of visiting one is not unlike walking through a digital graveyard.

“The old AIM is like a champion race car: it’s received updates and new parts over the years,” reads AIM’s frequently asked questions site. “Sure it ran alright, but it was still in need of an overhaul after many pit stops. The new AIM is like a brand new supercar that has some of the old features and a whole lot more integrated into one sleek ride.”

I’m not sure what a supercar is, but I’m fairly certain the comparison isn’t fitting for AIM as it stands now. Twentysomethings will continue to view instant messaging’s golden era through rose-tinted glasses. We’ll fondly remember AIM’s old sound effects—the opening and closing of doors, the bleeps and bloops. We might even miss those hideously designed Buddy Profiles. But these memories should remain in the past. And, more importantly, AOL should axe its IM client once and for all. Some things are better off dead.