An oral history of the AIM away message (by the people who were there)
When AOL announced it was retiring its seminal, 20-year-old chat service two years ago, a thousand ageing #2000teens shook their heads. It was like they were graduating high school all over again. “RIP AIM”, “AIM is ded”, “FML”: the internet raged in authentic early-aughts chatspeak. “If you’re old enough to remember the days of AOL Instant Messenger,” wrote Lex Gabrielle for Pizzabubble, “God Bless because they were the best.” “AIM is dead”, tweeted @chrisboudi. “To hell with 2017.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the end of a year: it was the end of an era. Just 14 years prior, as Bush and Kerry headed to the polls, Facebook took its first steps, and the iPhone was but a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye, the IT weekly CRN reported that AIM counted 36 million worldwide users.
Online chat was the thing that, until it came around, no one knew they needed, but once they started using it, as AIM creator Barry Appelman told CRN, it became impossible to live without. AOL Instant Messenger was where it all started.
For most of those bloggers, listicle writers, and other tribute account holders mourning AIM’s passing, the one feature that mostly neatly summed up what had made AIM so special was the away message.
From “afk”, “g2g bye” and “brb mom needs comp” to those missives so painstakingly crafted with ascii art, SpongeBob-style random-case tExT, Taking Back Sunday lyrics, the away message was a game changer.
It might have started out as something purely functional—a live out-of-office, if you will—but the away message was much more than that. It was the first real tool you had to signal your presence online: the original status update, the proto-tweet, and the stated inspiration for Facebook’s status feature. I sought out Appelman and five of the developers and designers who worked with him to discuss how instant messaging changed the online landscape, how AIM changed their lives, and how the away message is still taking them all by surprise.
“Online chat was the thing that, until it came around, no one knew they needed, but once they started using it…it became impossible to live without.”
David Lippke, SVP Systems Infrastructure AOL: Frankly until [VP community and communications engineering AOL] Eric Bosco contacted me about this interview, I was unaware that the away messages had ever emerged [as something people had fun with], mostly because after I stopped working on AIM, I moved on to advertising systems. When I came back from to take over Barry Appelman’s old job, Eric Bosco had AIM well enough in hand, and I had other fish to fry. And after leaving AOL in 2002, I co-founded a startup with other ex-AOLers and AIM was no longer something I gave much thought to. In the beginning it had been a huge source of happiness and pride. We were such a close team. Now you wouldn’t use the term, but pre-9/11, we used to say it wasn’t a project, it was a crusade. We were zealots. Towards the end though, it brought mostly sadness in terms of what could have been but wasn’t, and I moved on to other things.
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Barry Appelman, head of server development AOL: I was hired by AOL in 1993 to run server development. AOL was famous for inundating people’s mail boxes—actual snail-mail mail boxes—with discs (CDs, floppy discs, small hard discs). There were jokes about how AOL was filling up landfill. It was a brilliant marketing strategy, though, because, remember, people weren’t online. There was no internet. Everything was dial-up. The only way to get online was to get a modem, and install a client on your PC which enabled you to connect to the provider’s servers (kind of like the cloud today). More than 50% of people connecting online (which in those days wasn’t strictly speaking the internet) were using AOL.
Lippke: From the beginning of AOL there was instant messaging. Barry noticed that users had created scripts to query whether their friends were online or not. So he decided we should just let them know all the time. He commissioned an initial version of the Buddy List, that worked within AOL. It didn’t scale well, though—we called it the Buggy List.
Appelman: I thought we should develop—and this was sacrilege—a free version, independent of the AOL software: a standalone AIM client. Plus in the process, that we should build an entirely new infrastructure to support large numbers of messaging users.
Eric Bosco, VP community and communications engineering AOL: Almost on the day I joined AOL as a Unix programmer in 1996, the company changed its pricing model from charging by the hour to unlimited usage, and the whole system crashed. All the existing engineers were tasked with fixing that, whereas with me, it was “Hey you new person, go work on this AIM thing for me.” Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
Appelman: We were changing the innards of how AOL worked, because we needed to—our idea was that it was going to grow. The agreement was that nobody would tell anyone else in the company what they were working on. People don’t get away with that very often.
Bosco: Our key metric, the scaling factor, was the number of simultaneous users. Barry challenged us to aim for 5 million. We were like, “Barry, you’re crazy”, and he said “Trust me, this is going to be big.”
Appelman: For some reason, I just realized we should get the rest of the universe involved. It’s one of those things where you’re swimming in the ocean and you realize things are changing and you have to change too.