I first spoke to the boy who would eventually become my husband in 2003, when we found ourselves standing together at a Christmas party. We were seniors at the same large suburban high school, and we had spent four years on opposite ends of occasionally overlapping social circles — with enough degrees of separation to have gone almost to graduation without actually meeting. He was more handsome than I had any business messing with, but his easygoing demeanor and lightning-quick wit were what really knocked me off balance. By the time I checked the clock on my flip phone, we had been chatting for over an hour. Uh-oh, I thought.
I had no idea how I’d talk to the Christmas party guy again without resorting to stalker behavior. We didn’t have any classes together. I was overscheduled in the usual high school ways, short on time to come up with excuses to bump into him. I didn’t have his phone number. But I did have AIM.
AOL Instant Messenger, the first widely popular online text-chat program, was introduced in the mid-1990s by America Online, the email and internet service that monopolized the internet’s early days. Even AOL didn’t anticipate that AIM would come to define digital communication as we now know it. It started as an afterthought feature on the company’s dial-up subscription service, a fast way to communicate with fellow users. In its infancy, you had to search for a person’s exact screen alias to see if they were logged on.
On AIM, I could duck under our family office chair, hyperventilating, and still be playing it cool.
But those searches were crashing AOL’s servers, so engineers came up with the “Buddy List” as a way for people to see which of their friends were available automatically. This curated chat function became so popular that in 1997 AOL spun it off into a free, standalone service. At its peak, AIM accounted for over half of the market for online chat products, and even powered the earliest version of iChat on iPhones.
I began tying up the family phone line with AIM in junior high. My parents were nervous about strangers finding my brother and me online, so they made sure we crafted screen names without the slightest whiff of personal information. One alias I proposed, Shyshy629, was nixed because it had my birthday in it. Sometimes I imagine going back in time to that moment and telling my horrified mother all about Facebook.
This was an era before everyone was online at all times, and each lazy AIM session was flush with possibility. Someone interesting could show up at any time. (They usually didn’t. But they could!) Buddy Lists even came with an animated “door” sound that would creak open when people arrived and slam shut when they left.
AIM was also great for nursing a crush: You could add people to your Buddy List without their knowledge but never speak to them. If you got really brave, you could venture into actual conversations from a safe distance. That digital mediation — at the time, a brand new way to communicate — proved crucial to turning my brief in-person encounter with a cute near-stranger into something bigger.
I was, and am, easily flustered in person, always thinking of the exact right thing to say five minutes too late. (Once, before we were dating, my future husband got behind me in line at an ATM, which I promptly forgot how to use.) But on AIM, I could deliver the perfect joke, the optimally calibrated response to a flirty hello. I could duck under our family office chair, hyperventilating, and still be playing it cool. This level of remove and premeditation would eventually come to characterize some of the worst of the internet, and it became standard practice to craft online personas that were almost entirely divorced from reality. Back then, though, it was just a way for me to catch my breath.
Once I had the Christmas party guy’s screenname, that creaking door sound took on a thrilling new dimension. We started with quick greetings, then advanced to longer conversations about friends, music, TV, and politics. We were both obsessed with Chappelle’s Show and shared an encyclopedic knowledge of The Simpsons. He was the first person in our Bible Belt town that I heard talk in favor of legalizing gay marriage. After a few months, we migrated to the phone, then started hanging out in person. By May we were a couple and never looked back. I doubt it would have happened without AIM.
Between that Christmas party and our first kiss, Mark Zuckerberg started TheFacebook in his Harvard dorm room. Text messaging grew easier and more widespread, and AIM-style person-to-person chat soon became an intrinsic feature of virtually all social networking sites. Before long, the program had outlived its usefulness. AIM had 36 million active users at its mid-2000s peak; it had about 500,000 when it was shut down in 2017.
But not before laying the foundation for one way my husband and I still communicate with one another. Even now, when we’ve been in the house together for months, we still use text chat as a key tool, though the content and purpose are different from those early days. Now, we text to pass along small, crucial bits of information, like grocery list additions and work schedule changes. But we also send each other funny memes and build inside jokes — the kind that help a longstanding relationship flourish. Even as I was typing this, he direct-messaged me an Onion headline he knew I’d like, while he was upstairs taking care of our kids.