Tonight I signed into AIM for the final time using the two accounts I used most during the heyday of the service. To my surprise, there were two people from my buddy list still logged in (although one has a cell phone icon next to his name, which I assume means he is logged in via mobile) but it was otherwise a ghost town. I read in the news that the service is shutting down for good on December 15th, about a week from now. This doesn't come as much of a surprise, as I remember reading not long ago that they had shut off connections from external clients and the only way left to connect to the service was through the official AIM client and website.
It's a non-surprising but still bittersweet end to a service that played a crucial role in the lives of many of those in my age bracket. I could easily have several conversations going at once, while still browsing the web or otherwise being "productive". In the earlier days, cell phones were still prohibitively expensive, and even those of us lucky enough to have one (I didn't get one until ~2001 or so) didn't have plans that allowed excessive texting so it was still a luxury. AIM, on the other hand, was free and ubiquitous.
I still remember when AIM first started becoming the de-facto IM service. The market was already crowded and I had been through several services prior, including ICQ, Yahoo, and MSN, all of which I was also a member. I was wary and didn't want to join yet another service, but everyone seemed to be flocking there, and soon it was clear that this was the only one that mattered. The annoying sounds are still etched in my brain. The door opening and closing as buddies logged in and left. The xylophone sounds when messages were sent and received. Annoying as they were, I knew from the next room over that someone was trying to get my attention. It worked.
When I was in high school, this is how I communicated with my friends into the long hours of the night. Over the summers, we all stayed in touch not by phone or in person, but via AIM. AIM was the medium that kept us together. In college, AIM was our primary method of communication when not in person. Organizing a group to meet up at dinner, or to study? Got a question about the homework? Making plans for the weekend? Just killing time? AIM was how it was done. Even with my roommates and suitemates, who were physically just a few feet away, AIM was indispensable. I suppose it's similar now, with cell phones taking AIM's place, but that portability wasn't there. When you sent someone a message on AIM, you were reasonably certain they had a full sized keyboard in front of them. There was still a concept of disconnecting. There were no offline messages. A buddy was either online or not. It was a stepping stone to the world of today where you're expected to be connected all the time, but we were happy with the tradeoffs.
I made and lost friends on AIM. My major relationships started on AIM. And, sure, if it wasn't for AIM, I'm sure another similar service would have taken it's place, but there's no denying that my life would be a little different today if not for AIM. So many hours getting to know friends, bullshitting, crafting angsty away messages, and even difficult conversations.
I know at this point nothing of value will be lost when the service is shut down. It's probably been 5 years (maybe more) since I last logged in. But I'll look back fondly on AIM as the indispensable service that connected me to my friends for a decade and a half. But life goes on.