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America On-Line launched “AIM” in 1997. It was one of the first text based chat programs of its kind. AIM was how all high school and college kids texted each other back then. There were no smartphones, laptops were cutting edge technology. AIM required you to be sitting at a computer.
If you were using AIM at home, most computers in the late 90s had three or four clunky components. In 1997 only half of US homes owned a computer. If you were lucky enough to have one, it was a machine that was shared by everyone in the house. We were a Gateway household.
Our disk tower sat on the floor by your left foot and all of its wires ran through holes cut into the desk to a heavy monitor and to a power strip that was plugged into the wall. You’d pray that the chimes, gongs, and pots and pans of dial up internet wouldn’t wake up your folks when they went up to bed. The computer was housed by a fortress of furniture. It would be like sitting at a dining room table the size of a Buick with two giant dressers bolted to the top.
There were lot of cubbies and compartments and overhead cabinets. I don’t know how they were assembled and you could never move one without a forklift.
Everyone had a cheap leather chair on wheels that came with a hard sheet of clear plastic that allowed you to wheel from location to location inside the fortress without damaging your carpet. The computing experience when I got to college was different.
Soon after arriving on campus in 2002, I was issued my first laptop computer. A black IBM ThinkPad. It was free with the 48k per year tuition. Once you made it back to your dorm, the first thing you did was download AIM, immediately followed by either Limewire, KaZaa, or Napster so you could steal reams of music, movies, and porn.
AIM was electrifying. You could kill hours sitting at your computer just clacking away at the keys. I can remember sitting in a cramped room with a roommate three feet away and both of us not saying a word to each other for hours. We’d have lots of little chat windows going. We’d probably be talking to a lot of the same people. We’d be sitting inside our bed caves* with the blue light of the screens shining on our faces.
It was fun to collect new screen names. I can remember cute girls with screen names like DancerGirl88 that sent flirty messages in pink font. AIM was home base for all communications. You’d discuss class material, make plans to visit the city, or just chat. I think the worlds first “u up?” message was sent on AIM.
When you finally went out to interact with the real world, you’d put up an away message (think Out of Office Responder). An away message could be a simple message letting your Buddies know why you weren’t responding or it could be a cryptic piece of poetry. You could share a couple lines from an emo song letting everyone know that you were in a fight with your girlfriend or you could troll for sympathy with a message like, “Send love….classes all dayyyyyyyy :(
The whole thing was text based, you couldn’t send photos or attachments to anyone. There were no nude photos going back and forth in 2002 (that I’m aware of). Profiles were statement pieces. In your profile you’d write an inspirational quote and then down at the very bottom you’d put your boyfriend’s initials right next to a 143 and a couple of these (<3<3).
All this to say…
Here’s my most vivid memory from the days of AOL instant messenger.
In University, I had a crush on a very cute badminton player who lived upstairs. We used to throw joint parties with the women’s sports team. After a spring practice, someone would dash off to New Hampshire and get 10,000 cases of Keystone Light and enough Rubinoff vodka to fill an olympic lap pool. I never did the math on the savings from buying booze in NH after spending two hours in the car, but at the time no one questioned it.
At the end of one of these parties, I found myself alone with my crush. We stayed up late, having a chat. It was fun. The next day, on the walk to the dining hall for a 1pm breakfast, I told my friend Rickie about the evening. I shared some detail.
We sat in the dining hall for 3 hours with a group of friends eating scrambled eggs, pizza, Fruit Loops, salad, bagels with cream cheese, deli sandwiches, and meatloaf with mashed potatoes . We left the dining hall with soft serve ice cream cones in hand to sustain us for the walk. After a nap, it was time for some studying. I was pretending to look at an Econ assignment back at the dorm and Rickie had gone off to the library for a group project.
Like any trusted friend, the first thing he could think to do when he opened up AIM, was to start gossiping about my evening. Half of his brain is busy with the group project and the other half is managing a bunch of chat windows. He intends to launch a chat window with our pal Greg. He starts typing away about some of the details of what I’d told him on the walk to brunch.
Have you ever had this happen? You’re composing a gossipy message about a person that you want to send to a pal. Somehow during the composition, the wires cross in your brain. When you hit the return key, your brain assumed that you wanted to send the message to the person you are writing about. As you look up, you hear the wooooosh sound effect and watch your message get sent off to the wrong person. Instead of sending the details to Greg, Rickie sent the details to my crush.
My phone rings. Rickie starts with “I’m sorry man, I fucked up…” and then tells me what happened. After he sent the message, he panicked and quickly signed out of AIM like it never happened (this is a funny move). I’m sitting at my desk with a dry, open mouth, unable to say anything in response. Twelve seconds later, there’s a gentle knock on my already opened door. DancerGirl88 is standing there and she’s got some questions for me.
Footnote about Bed Caves:
*In order to maximize space, we’d go to Home Depot for lumber and build these unapproved loft structures to get our beds up into the air. Your desk, dresser, and anything that wasn’t bolted down got shoved in there to maximize floor space. The ceiling would be six inches from your face when you were lying down. Like sleeping in an MRI machine.