When I read the news, I had one of those heavy nostalgic pangs. The kind that created a gravitational pull from the middle of my chest, almost like heartbreak or grief. It felt like losing a friend, the close of an era, the end of the innocence.
Though I can still remember my password, I haven’t used AIM’s service since probably 2008. By then, my use was already spotty and disloyal, at best. Users like me had abandoned the platform in a steady trickle, which eventually emptied the reservoir. My buddy list, once a well-curated column of friend groups, was now a bunch of empty parentheses and doors slamming. My colony of buddies had relocated, so why even visit?
It was much easier to pretend to be an adult—someone deserving of a full-time, salaried position with benefits—when our cover letters didn’t include contact information dripping with superfluous Xs and Os or pun-laden nicknames we’d earned from our worstbest night at some off-campus house party.
For recent grads entering the workforce, Gmail and Gchat offered one distinct advantage; because they are web-based, they didn’t require you to ask your company’s IT department to install the app on your company computer—a request they surely would have denied, preferring to keep their young bucks focused and productive.
But Gchat made it easy for wishful, aspiring adults to continue their staccato, transactional, and superficial conversations between the hours of 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., while also getting paid a livable salary for the first time.
The social problem with the migration to Gchat was that if you didn’t have your friend’s email address, you could no longer chat with them. This, of course, was another savvy play for Google’s domination of the internet/data/world, and resulted in literally tens of millions of users creating Gmail accounts just to chat with their friends. Many of us already had AOL email addresses, but those went out of vogue as soon as Google forced these social interactions into the inescapable vortex they had spun for us. Google owned all our private conversations and email exchanges. And boy, have they capitalized on that. But we can’t just blame Google.
What began as a safe space, where we could harmlessly flirt and stalk the relationship status/sexual preferences of the hot people at our university, has grown into a monolithic, dangerous beast. Facebook is a place where ISIS recruits vulnerable youth, Russian operatives buy political sway, and people spend 304 hours a year consuming an endless barrage of unvetted and unreliable content. (Ed. Note: Thank you for reading The Prompt.)
Whether sliding into someone’s Twitter or Instagram DMs, Snapchatting the chronology of a largely mundane day/week/life, or texting your besties, we’ve grown accustomed to the one-line-at-a-time communication style more easily typed with thumbs than from hands settled comfortably on the home row.
We text each other with emojis that convey the SUPREME laziness. We’re not just too lazy to type what we’re actually thinking or feeling. We’re too busy maintaining accounts, faux relationships, and curated impressions to even think or feel whatsoever. We substitute original thought for color and shapes, pre-ordained pixels creating a false third dimension, depth, that we no longer supply for ourselves.
I think back to the many nights I fell asleep with my forehead pressed against my sturdy, boxy Dell monitor—debating song lyrics, or the ethics versus benefits of Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment, or whether to study abroad, or whether some dude in econ class was hot.
I reflect on the thought behind every away message and profile update. The conscious process that went into choosing fonts and colors and the careful, restrained use of WingDings.
I think about the many relationships and friendships that actually improved when I moved 3,000 miles away for grad school. What a gift.
And I can still feel the youthful anticipation and optimism of hours-long, cerebral, completely harmless flirting.
I mourn the lost art of conversation. And I am uncomfortable where we’ve landed. I hate knowing that relationships are ever-cheapening, like the price of oil, easier to consume while slowly choking us, leaving us addicted but unsettled and unsatisfied.
We’ve all been tricked.
There is no tool or medium or application that has improved the way we relate and interact the way that AIM did. And after careful thought—a practice I’ve largely abandoned for this emoji that looks startlingly like me 💁🏼 💁🏼 💁🏼—I think I know why.
AIM was a treat. We had to consciously “log on,” to connect. It was a choice we made when we had the time and mental bandwidth to truly engage with our friends. We went “online” specifically to socialize.
But somewhere around 2008, the time many of us abandoned AIM and AOL, the concept of “going online” went extinct. There was simply no difference between ON and OFF anymore. It started with BlackBerry and Sidekicks. Then by the time we hit 3G and the god forsaken smartphone, we had already resigned. We were always connected, always within reach, always a touchscreen away.
Between work and play. Between friend and acquaintance. Between private and public. Between authentic and bullshit. Between reality and fabrication. Between real news and fake news. Between intimacy and superficiality. Between quality and quantity. Between healthy interest and unhealthy addiction.
And now, we don’t know what we’re even supposed to do anymore. We can’t even think of life before or without our stupid fucking phones. And we’re unhappier than we’ve ever been.
So that pang I felt when I heard the news about AIM shutting down, it wasn’t just grief or sadness, or even a want for simpler times. It was also guilt.
We did this to ourselves. We let this happen. And now, we’re alone. Watching as the best friend we ever had, well, he packed up and ran away, leaving no sign of where to find him.
With nostalgic-ass shout outs to Maxajillian, LittleWaGe1, LordZicon2, MIKstravaganza, James00243, gjt31, IWriteSymphonies, SykoMike, BradRowree, Rdogg007, Markymark1399669, nebulaeinbloom, SmarterChild, and Stella401k.
extremism is ok in moderation.
the prompt. coed hoops. writing on planes. field day. kate fagan. naked and afraid. mid-october heatwave.
donald j trump. an inability to comprehend/show empathy for systemic racism. harvey weinstein. hurricanes. cancer. smashmouth.