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AOL Instant Messenger sign-off gif.

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), the archetype of online text messaging, is set to discontinue service on December 15th, 2017, after 20 years of operations. The chat agent’s popularity outlasted its rivals including ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, and MSN Messenger and at its peak was the world’s most popular instant messaging client.

AIM debuted in May 1997 on Windows as part of AOL Desktop, and later as a standalone chat client.  As VP of Communications Michael Albers notes in the product’s retirement announcement, AIM is likely to evoke memories from the group that might colloquially call themselves 90’s kids:

If you were a 90’s kid, chances are there was a point in time when AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was a huge part of your life. You likely remember the CD, your first screenname, your carefully curated away messages, and how you organized your buddy lists. Right now you might be reminiscing about how you had to compete for time on the home computer in order to chat with friends outside of school. You might also remember how characters throughout pop culture from “You’ve Got Mail” to “Sex and the City” used AIM to help navigate their relationships. In the late 1990’s, the world had never seen anything like it. And it captivated all of us.

Back in 1999, AIM and Microsoft went back and forth in a chat messaging spat. Microsoft introduced MSN Messenger, and was attempting to reverse-engineer AIM’s software to allow MSN members to sign in to either application. AOL battled back, blocking Microsoft’s 20-plus attempts, and AIM kept its popularity. MSN Messenger was rebranded in 2005 as Windows Live Messenger, and AIM began losing popularity around 2010 with the rise of Gmail and its built-in Google Chat client.

During its heydey AIM was popular for use with group chats and bots, most notably the SmarterChild bot which attempted to use natural language software to converse with those on AIM.

AIM began as a skunkworks-like product within AOL, developed by a small group of engineers. The product’s early iterations introduced the notion of a “buddy list” now taken for granted, showing whether your contacts are at their computer or not. It was originally released with ‘zero fanfare’ and no public announcement, but AOL watchers quickly found the program and spread it around. Not long thereafter, the originally engineers told Mashable in a 2014 interview, they had 18 million simultaneous users. “AIM became how all Wall Street communicated.”

Use of AIM in the late 90’s and early 00’s, especially among teenagers and twenty-somethings, helped to solidify various acronyms now common in text messaging including LOL, BBIAB, WTF, and TTYL. While not necessarily originating in AIM messaging (LOL, for instance, was first documented in the late 1980’s in a Bulletin Board System (BBS) message), its wide usage helped to embed the new phrases into modern colloquialisms.


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