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An oral history of the AIM away message (by the people who were there)

4 min read
Dale Berning Sawa  •  Aug 12, 2019
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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.”

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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.

“This whole project was completely unsanctioned by AOL.”

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Bosco: This whole project was completely unsanctioned by AOL. In fact, most of the senior execs absolutely hated it and did everything they could to kill it. They were worried about cannibalization: “You’re taking features that are really cool that we ask people to pay $20 a month to use, and giving it to them for free? That’s crazy.”

Appelman: If you don’t cannibalize yourself, though, in tech, you’re doomed. Somebody else will do it. If you’re not constantly really rethinking what you’re doing and trying to adopt disruptive technologies—disruptive, that is, to yourself—you will be disrupted, and be gone.

JoRoan Lazaro, former design director AOL: The AIM team was infamous for not asking for permission. I was working on the redesign for AOL 4.0. The core concept of the interface was a person—the running man—who would be holding a pencil, an envelope, or a heart, to stand for “write mail”, “read mail” or “favorites” etc. I remember walking in one morning when a product manager pulled me aside. He was like “Hey, uh, the AIM team has started to use the running man as the logo for the interface.” I laughed: “What? How did they even get it?”

Personal Adobe Illustrator sketches of the “Running man” for AOL 4.0. Courtesy: JoRoan Lazaro, Vice President of Product at Elephant

Bosco: We were working on launching AIM as a brand new thing, while also fixing AOL IM and AOL Buddy List. And literally, I just lived at work. We had sleeping bags; we were in the office all the time. Every day was, like, “Can we launch today?” because every day was a day that people on the internet couldn’t communicate with each other.

Because it was covert, we had no budget. Barry was friends with the guy who ran all of AOL’s data centers, and somehow wrangled, unofficially, some of the old servers for us to work on. So I was writing code in the morning and then in the evening doing the system admin and the deployment of the code because nobody else was authorized to do it. To begin with, it was just a handful of us on the server-side and a Boston-based team developing the client.

Every day was, like, “Can we launch today?” because every day was a day that people on the internet couldn’t communicate with each other.

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Jerry Harris, system architect and technical manager AOL: AOL bought Booklink, where I worked in Boston, in 1994, because they wanted our browser. From 1996, Jim Crawford and I, and a few others, were building the AIM client, for both Mac and PC.

Harris: It was a weird feeling to be working on a product that was free, and so wildly popular. When we first launched we had a “report a bug” feature, and we’d sit as a team and read through every one, to get a feel for how people were liking or not liking it, and adapt accordingly. We had a ton of ideas—an address book with the ability to add phone numbers, internet phone, the ability to launch a game with someone else and play together …

Bosco: We had a client-server protocol called Oscar (which stood for “Open scalable communications” something or other) and the very first version of Oscar I don’t think had provisions for away messages.

(Jim Crawford, developer AIM client, AOL: The one downside to the AOL brass coming on board with what we were doing was that marketing decided what to rename Oscar. “AOL Instant Messenger” was such a boring name.)

Version 1.0

Bosco: There was a very strong culture around what we called “eating your own dogfood.” All employees were expected to use AOL products, and the engineers thought AIM was super cool.

Lippke: One thing about instant messenging—in the dial-up world—was that when it showed active, you knew the person was there, they could answer your question. But once broadband and then mobile became dominant, which took a while, that became watered down.

It’s hard to remember before iPhone days, but people didn’t always carry their phones on them. They’d leave them on their desk to go to a meeting. I was a firm believer back then that we shouldn’t show people as active unless there were real recent signs that they were.

Lazaro: The away message was the classic finding a solution to a very personal problem: nobody’s answering, what does that mean? And that’s often how great features, or great startups come about: there’s something you personally want to fix. Since that team was able to move so quickly and try things out, they did it.

“The away message was the classic finding a solution to a very personal problem: nobody’s answering, what does that mean?”

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Harris: We always resolved to not let the product get in the user’s way. AIM was all about helping people. There was no other reason for its existence. That made it both simple and challenging. How non-intrusive and complex can you make it, so that it becomes second nature to people? Whenever we were developing a new feature at AOL, we had a mantra: would this cause [CEO] Steve Case’s mom to call Customer Support? The idea was that every call cost the company $10, and everyone was like “That’s $10! Let’s avoid that.”

Lazaro: When I joined AOL in 1996, there was no formal UX. I was one of three designers to be placed at AOL by a New York City recruiter and we were all mutts, coming from a whole bunch of disciplines. I was a fine-art, graphic-design major with computer science and psychology, which didn’t make a lot of sense, until suddenly this internet thing came about and it made a whole lot of sense.

“AIM was all about helping people. There was no other reason for its existence.”

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Back then we weren’t testing things, or focus grouping things. We were literally making things up as we went along. Seeing the impact of it on people’s lives was very validating. Not because it was cool, because it wasn’t. It was useful.

Bosco: The away message started out as a canned status—“I’m away”—on the internal IM platform. But then we realized that still wasn’t that helpful. It didn’t specify where you were away to. Were you at a meeting? Had you gone to lunch? So we thought why not make it more freeform text.

Harris: We would have quarterly meetings with the client and server teams to map out big features, like the file-transfer function. But for smaller changes, like adding colors to away messages, we could just go ahead and make them. Jim Crawford was the main developer for the IM window. And as soon as a new feature was possible, we’d go “OK, let’s put it in the away messages: let’s give people more.” We added formatting, text size, links, emojis, colors …

Crawford: I went through the HTML spec and implemented any markup that I thought was easy and useful.

I think I got the idea for graphical smilies at the first AIM development meeting that we had in Virginia. One of the AIM managers made a crack about what would happen down the road if I added graphical smilies to an IM. I immediately thought that I could already do it if I just modified the code to parse the smilie syntax. It only took a week or two to do that, and suddenly smilies appeared in all ATE windows: mail, IMs, away messages, etc. It worked for the half-dozen typical ones like “:-)” but once the marketing people saw this, they went bananas and created a couple dozen smilies. I had to wait to release the feature until they had the graphics done for their smilie package.

Lazaro: We used AIM 90% of the time as a corporate messaging tool, like a tiny little mini Slack. Compared to the way the rest of the world used the away message, we were so unimaginative.

Iconography for AIM 4.0

Bosco: Giving our users the option to type in whatever they wanted got a lot of traction. Kids in high school would spend all their time crafting nifty away messages.

Crawford: I remember that the away message could be seen without actually sending an IM. I had initially implemented an auto-respond away message. Then colleagues started complaining that they would type a long IM to somebody only to get an away message. They wanted to know the person was away before wasting time composing a message. That required a server change, and it became a nice feature added to the buddy list window and users morphed it into showing their “status.”

“Giving our users the option to type in whatever they wanted got a lot of traction. Kids in high school would spend all their time crafting nifty away messages.”

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Harris: At first this had us worried. We had seen enough on message groups and bulletin boards to know that when you opened things up, you ran the risk of people abusing them. It can quickly reveals the darker side of human nature. But we were blown away. We didn’t get many complaints. Mostly people used it as an expression of themselves, a way to say not just “I’m away” but “This is who I am.”

Harris: Jim had a teenage son and I remember he came up with the buddy icon idea after asking him what he thought about AIM.

Crawford: My son was in high school at this point, and a big AIM user with his friends. He created the sounds we used: the new-IM-received sound, the buddy-came-online sound, etc. I don’t remember that chat, but he could very well have complained about the fact that when you had several IM windows open at the same time, you could get confused and type a message to B that you intended for A. So I came up with the concept of an icon for each user.

Bosco: Nowadays, it is easy for us to have a permanent placement on the internet: a Facebook profile; a Twitter profile; before that a blog profile. At the time, you had some Geocities-style things, but they were all very static. AIM both democratized and embedded “presence” on the internet, and made it dynamic. It was free to log in, and even if you stepped away from your computer, you could write whatever you wanted in an away message, up to a certain character limit.

“There is no feature that Facebook has today that AIM didn’t have at some point 20 years ago.”

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Bosco: Mark Zuckerberg has mentioned several times that AIM was the inspiration for what Facebook does. And from an engineering perspective, there is no feature (status updates, IM, news feeds, social, popularity/influence scoring) that Facebook has today that AIM didn’t have at some point 20 years ago. We just did a poor job of marketing or packaging them.

Harris: It is bittersweet to ask what else we could have done, with all that creativity, that energy.

Appelman: It’s interesting that Messenger has become the thing that people use Facebook for most. The guy who created it was a former brand manager on AIM, so there’s a direct lineage between the two: a real person.

Crawford: I am not a big Facebook user, and I have never tweeted. I do use text messages, and often think that AIM was a better product than what I find on phones. If cell phones had been developed as smartphones from the beginning, I think AIM might have had a chance to be the standard on phones, but once dumb cell phones were in place, text messaging was grabbed by the cell companies. Whenever I see some messaging functionality in other programs, I think that either it looks just like AIM or that I could have written their interface better. It is gratifying in a way, but also sad that nobody knows or cares that something I did 25 years ago still resonates in other products.

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Lazaro: I feel like every two weeks, Taylor Lorenz will come up with a piece talking about what the kids are doing now—using Instagram in ways you would never think of, or Google Docs, or AirDrop. From a design and communications perspective, what is interesting for me is how quickly that text-based AIM away-message idea evolved when the iPhone came out. We moved from words and three-letter acronyms to pics and emojis to what’s happening now with TikTok and video. It’s amazing how tech has enabled us to communicate faster with even more nuance, but always with that basic, core need to make fun and tell jokes and give updates: to connect.

Crawford: When 9/11 hit, my son was in college in NYC, about a mile from ground zero, and his best friend was also there but a dozen blocks away. Telephone service in lower Manhattan was basically non-existent then, and we got in touch with both of them relatively quickly through AIM. That was when I realized AIM was more than just a neat little app, but an important piece of our communications infrastructure.

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Feature image via Buzzfeed