An ode to AIM

After a 20 year run, AIM is being shut down in December. I’ve had my AIM account since May 14, 1998, so this makes me sad for a number of reasons. But I think it’s also worth reflecting both on the consequences of AIM dying, as well as the general state of technology.

I used AIM a *lot* in the late 90s, before moving to ICQ. Back then, there was sort of a holy war between AIM and ICQ, and the more serious computer users (read, an hour of internet time a day) seemed to use ICQ. From my personal experience, I stopped using ICQ in 2000 when a new version (I think it was 2000b) was released that was so buggy it was unusable on Windows 98. The community I was around all sort of migrated to AIM, and have used it ever since.

So long before what is now called “social media”, AIM served as a way to keep friends together, but not incessantly. I have my chat client logged into AIM right now, and even though I haven’t used it in years, I have a whole list of people who are also still logged in. It’s sort of like an active rolodex. In many ways, the buddy list now serves as a communication channel to people who I have no other way to contact anymore. Some might be stale, but the possibility is there. Until December.

I’m not sure why AOL wants to discontinue it. One of AIM’s main problems is that it’s centralized, through a protocol called OSCAR. I have no idea how difficult it is to maintain an AIM server. I have run jabber servers before, and they are usually pretty low maintenance. I wonder if there is some bureaucratic issue going on. Maybe AOL has to pay someone a license to keep it running, and now they’ve decided it is too expensive. Maybe there are a lot of security issues with the protocol, and they want to get rid of their security team that deals with it.

I wish they were more transparent about it. I wish they would do something for the AIM community– maybe set up a small nonprofit whose sole purpose is to collect donation money to keep the AIM servers running. Or make it all totally free software so someone could patch it to be decentralized, and keep it all still running. But again, this is all speculation, I have no idea. The one thing I do know is it makes me sad.

I’ve also become disillusioned with this new generation of technology. I’m a huge fan of personal liberty, using technology to empower individuals, and using computers to make cool projects and maybe even solve complex problems. But technology now seems to be about agreeing to 40 page EULAs you can’t possibly understand, and about companies taking more and more control over your life.

I recall a conversation I had with someone years ago, complaining about the then-new Windows product activation. IMO, if you pay for software, you own it, and the idea that you have to continually justify it to the company is the worst kind of leash possible. Their response was that there would be a lot of complaining, and eventually people would just go along with it and it would become part of an accepted norm. And it seems that now, the strange idea is not that you would need to get permission to run software you purchased, but that you would run software locally at all, because it’s all in the cloud (aka someone else’s computer).

Beyond that, I’m a big believer in respect for tradition, something that has been completely abandoned in the modern era. A less laudable version of this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It seems that there is a rush to throw out the old in favor of the new. The problem with this is that we continually redefine the old in shorter and shorter lifespans, and we also redefine the criteria by which we judge “new is better.” This leads to making the same painful mistakes over and over again.

That was a long winded way of saying I’m going to miss AIM, I’m going to miss all the friends I’ll never be able to chat with again, and I’m sad with the general state of what is called technology.

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