It was the fall of 1998. I'd enrolled as a freshman at Wake Forest University, where one of the perks of insane tuition costs was an IBM ThinkPad laptop computer and a (for the time) super-fast T1 internet connection. I'd gotten online for the first time four years before, when we got dial-up AOL at my house, but that was mostly good for scrolling in the MTV chat room and . . . chatting with . . . people . . . about . . . things . . . that . . . we thought . . . about . . .
Look, it was a sex box, okay? I was fourteen, gay, a boy, a latchkey kid, and online for the first time. Let's not pretend any of us were attending online Bible studies.
But also, I got to talk with people about cool bands, and what we wanted out of a new Star Wars franchise, and the relative merits of Kirk vs. Picard vs. Sisko vs. Janeway, and what character we'd be from our favorite Forgotten Realms novels, and what we were wearing, and how that bearskin rug felt on our . . .
ANYWAY. At Wake, we were told not to download America Online to our new laptops, as the program interfered with its network settings. (Which it did; take it from the guy who ignored this directive). But! If we wanted to chat, there was a new chat client from AOL! AOL Instant Messenger!
Are you on AIM? What's your screen name? What's your second, other one your mom doesn't know about? Want to meet up at Benson for dinner later? What are you wearing? A/S/L? How' that bearskin rug doing now?
Our screen names were carefully chosen to reflect something we cared about. For many of us, that was Jesus. There was Man4GSus, lvgsac ("Living Sacrifice"), and me, SixPaces64 (reference here; enormous 2017 eyeroll unavailable at press time). But there was also HiJumpGrrl, DTMWF2000, dmndcnjb. This last was the screen name of a boy upon whom I had an enormous unrequited crush in the spring of 2001 and could, upon appearing in my buddy list, cause me to grin like a goon on shrooms.
We used away messages much the way we use Facebook status updates now, though since we didn't have smartphones to connect us to the Internet at every minute, they tended to just be a rambling litany of how our day was going to go—presumably so our friends could find us in the real world should they choose to do so. "Skipping to breakfast with Brooke, then History, New Testament, and Italian, followed by two hours study time in the library, after which I'll be banging away at a piano in Scales until dinner. Anybody up to meet for food in Benson around 6:30 before going to see Nikki Giovanni speak?"
After I graduated and my pool of geographically convenient friends dwindled nearly to zero, I mostly posted funny Buffy quotes on my away message. Once, my boyfriend used a Family Guy quote and drew a sharp rebuke from his mother.
I fell in love over AIM at least twice. I litigated at least one ugly breakup over it as well. When I was living in New Haven, brokenhearted and recently injured, I used it during my job at the supermarket branch of a local bank when there was nothing else to do. During this time, I often found the only person online was a guy I'd known in my teens who'd helped make junior high a living hell. Somehow, we started instant messaging, and he listened and spoke with kindness. Today, I'm happy to call him a friend.
The first time Brian and I communicated in real time, it was thanks to our little yellow running friend. It took months before I admitted to myself how excited it made me to see his screen name—BeeStvns—online. We've used it throughout the whole of our relationship to stay in touch throughout the day. We don't waste hours talking, but it's nice to be able to check in. What do you want for dinner? Did you do this thing that needs doing? When will you be home? I love you.
It seems somehow fitting that, on the day the FCC voted to end Net Neutrality (SERIOUSLY CALL YOUR CONGRESSPEOPLE; IT'S NOT TOO LATE), AIM is going away as well:
The FAQ linked in that message is trés unhelpful in explaining why this decision was made, but made it has been, and dammit all if I'm not sad as a motherfucker. There are other chat clients, and so life will go on pretty much as usual, I suppose—unless we're suddenly expected to shill out $0.99 per day for the privilege (SERIOUSLY CALL YOUR CONGRESSPEOPLE)—but a tiny bit of this latter half of my life is gone now, and I'll miss it.