I Used AIM for the Last Month to See if It's Still Good
Investigating whether we should all get back on AIM and what has become of our away messages.
For the last month, I've been conducting an important scientific investigation. As I learned in third grade science class, every great experiment starts with a question. Here is the question: AIM, is it still good?
If I remember correctly—and I probably don't—AOL Instant Messenger didn't really do anything to deserve the mass exodus it experienced circa 2010. It didn't become bloated like MySpace or anything. It just kind of got disrupted by Gchat as Google took over the internet. Funny, then, that AIM, which turned 20 last week, will outlive its murderer.
In any case, I decided to see what the experience of using AIM is like in 2017. The last major revision of AIM was released in late 2011, and then AOL promptly laid off its entire development staff. But AIM 8.0 has gotten periodic minor updates, and AOL still supports the service (there is a very helpful AIM Twitter feed).
I typed in my old screenname and hilariously insecure password (still works!) and was greeted with a list of 200 people—friends, former crushes, enemies. All offline.
So I hopped on iMessage and Gchat and told my friends I would only talk to them if they signed back onto AIM. One friend got online and promptly told me that the only other person online was a boy from her high school who died seven years ago, so things were off to a good start.
As a quick aside—the question of whether anyone still uses AIM has been a hotly debated one for several years now, and "lol, remember AIM?' articles appeared as early as 2011. Judging by the fact that the AIM Twitter fields, like, two questions a day, I think it's fair to say that some—but not a lot—of people still use AIM.
AIM in 2017 is similar to AIM in 2003 in that the resolution on the desktop app is so low that it definitely felt like I was typing on a CRT monitor in the corner of my childhood bedroom. You can still change your font and text color, but only on desktop. Also, your old buddy icon (we didn't even call them avatars, smdh) is still there. My friend Angela still has an animated gif that flickers between a picture of Adam Brody and the logo for The OC.
AIM in 2017 is less similar to the experience you had in 2003 in that AOL recently nuked everyone's buddy profiles forever. An AOL spokesperson told me that that the company "sunset" the feature on March 20 after giving users 30 days notice. Internet archivists aren't happy: "We didn't even think that was a thing they'd do. Sadly. There's a lot of stuff we get surprised on," Jason Scott, who focuses on archiving rare and esoteric technological ephemera, told me. Also, no more away messages :( … maybe because one can never be truly "away" from messaging these days.
These days, there's also AIM Android and iPhone apps, which are fast and generally not terrible, but have lots of quirks. Chat notifications are rare and are sent intermittently, and the Gchat integration across both desktop and mobile is exceedingly buggy. For instance, some messages would go to my phone but not desktop and vice versa, which made it seem like I was having a very bizarre conversation with myself.
For the first few days we used it, all I would chat about with my friends was how funny it was that we were using AIM. But, generally, the program still performs the task of instantly transferring messages, and soon we were making plans and sharing links and gossiping. It didn't feel quiiiite like high school, but I guess it was kind of like driving through my hometown or something. Sort of familiar but, well, there's nothing here for me anymore.
Of course, we demand more out of our messaging apps these days—things like encryption and apps that reliably notify us when we get messages. AIM doesn't offer encryption, but you can send pictures, pre-recorded audio, and drop location pins. I prefer to think that I'm getting some security by obscurity, though.
So, AIM: Is it still good? I mean, not really.
AIM pitches the latest version of the program as being a "brand new supercar" and a "sleek ride." It's definitely neither of those things, but it was nice to take the old clunker out for another ride.