AOL Instant Messenger Made Social Media What It Is Today - MIT Technology Review
First released in 1997, AIM was a popular way for millions of people to communicate throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, and it helped form Internet culture and communication as we know them today. It’s where so many of us became fluent in LOL-ing and emoticons, and caught the itch to stay in constant contact with others no matter where we are.
But in the two decades since its launch, AIM’s popularity has dwindled in favor of mobile-focused platforms for communicating, like Facebook, Instagram, and Slack. At its peak in 2001, AIM had 36 million active users; as of this summer, it had just 500,000 unique visitors a month. And so, in early October, Verizon-owned Oath (which comprises AIM’s creator, AOL, and Yahoo) announced that on December 15 it would take this giant of the early Internet offline.
Back in February 1997, Barry Appelman, an AOL engineer, was granted a patent for something opaquely called “User definable on-line co-user lists.” It promised to be “a real time notification system that tracks, for each user, the logon status of selected co-users of an on-line or network system and displays that information in real time.” In plain English, that’s what we came to know as the Buddy List—a then-revolutionary feature that showed you your online friends and indicated whether or not they were actively at their computers.
“AOL Instant Messenger was a defining part of my childhood,” he [Mark Zuckerberg] wrote. “It helped me understand internet communication intuitively and emotionally in a way that people just a few years older may have only considered intellectually.”
It’s hard to imagine that the success of messaging apps, ranging from the work-oriented Slack to the ephemeral Snapchat, would’ve been possible had AIM not been so popular. AIM wasn’t the first instant messaging tool to exist, but it was the most widely used and influential in broad strokes, making it possible for us to feel at home in lots of different online settings.