IF YOU CAN believe it, I’m old enough to remember a time before we all lived on our phones. It was before we had Snapchat, Twitter or Instagram; before we were all on Facebook, and long before our parents ruined Facebook. It even was before we had text messaging or Gchat. It was way before our entire worlds were encased in an aluminum and glass rectangle that we can fit into our pockets.

Yep, it was way back in the “aughts,” when we, Millennials (long before that label for our generation became synonymous with a sense of entitlement and a penchant for avocado toast), lived in a simpler internet age. It was the age of AIM — AOL Instant Messenger — and it’s what started it all.

If you’re a Boomer and you still type like a disoriented chicken, slowing pecking at each letter on the keyboard with just your pointer finger, or if you’re one of those Gen Z kids who came out of the womb with an iPhone in hand and can’t comprehend such a primitive mean of communication as instant messenger, you might be wondering what AIM was all about and why I’m taking this stroll down dial-up lane.

My reverie of technology past was brought on last Friday, when the folks at AOL sent notice that on Dec. 15 — with one final sound of the proverbial door slamming shut — AIM would be logging off for good. After millions of messages exchanged, instant messenger will soon be another artifact stacked on top of our old cassette tapes, MySpace pages, iPod shuffles and other relics retired from our culture.

There’s a lot to say about how much AIM was a fixture of our lives, but the mechanics of it were simple. AIM was like text messaging, but the program was constrained to a desktop computer. For my siblings and I, that meant many wars were waged over which one of us got to be on the computer and for how long. I would race home from junior high to claim the swivel chair in front of our black Dell in the basement so I could chat with the friends I had just left at school and burn CDs.

The people you could message — presumably your classmates, friends, teammates and frenemies — made up your Buddy List, which you might equate to your contacts in your phone. But instead of using your old boring name given at birth, you could create your own identity on AIM by way of a screen name. These would typically be some kind of combination of your actual name and some of your favorite things — like a sports team, color or band. For example, my sister’s first screen name was TacoNo.5 — concurrently a reference to her favorite food, tacos, as well as Lou Bega’s 1999 smash hit, Mambo No. 5. The best screen name to come out of the early 00’s? Debatable. But like TacoNo.5, the screen names we chose in our teens were often terrible and embarrassing. (You could catch me at XohiggibabioX).

Like honking cars, barking dogs and trains rattling the streets above make up the noises of a thriving metropolis, the clacking of our keyboards and the computer-generated sound effects that punctuated our every action collectively created somewhat of symphony that was the score to our time on AIM. Every time a buddy logged on, you’d hear a door creaking open. Logging off, that door closing again. When you a received a message: blee-bloop.

But the most iconic feature of the messaging system was without a doubt the away message. In a way, the status message was an art form. It was often a carefully crafted narrative about our teenage psyche and current emotional condition. If you were moody, you might write something cryptic and self-pitying about how your crush did you wrong. If you really wanted to get your mood across, you’d paste in lyrics from emo favorites like Dashboard Confessional, Brand New or Death Cab for Cutie. The away message not only let you call out whoever trespassed against you that day, without really saying who or what they did, but it also helped you show everyone how sick your taste in music was.

As I tick off all of the attributes that made AIM what is was, it’s important to note that it was much more than just a messaging system, it was the advent of how we interact online.

For so many of us in Generation Y, AIM was our after school destination or late night hang out. It was our town square, a place to discover and pass on the day’s best gossip; it was our personal letter carrier, in which we trusted to deliver missives containing our most intimate thoughts and feelings.

It’s where we first learned how to over-analyze every word we sent and was sent to us. Adolescent romances began and ended with a tap on the enter key. The sound of our crush logging in was enough to make your heart sink to your stomach and your hair stand on end. Would they message me first?

There was this thrill that accompanied the communication. We had this private space that was meant just for us where we had the confidence to say whatever we were feeling in the moment. And as we often learned in those moments, what we say on the internet has consequences.

Despite all of the ways in which AIM opened us up to one another, it also emboldened bullies and clique behavior. Having the power to say whatever we wanted without a moderating force, other than your teenage conscience, sometimes led to bad behavior and harsh words. Though there are still harassers and trolls creeping around the comment sections and our Twitter mentions, most of us learned from the mistakes we made as unthinking kids online, and we tried better the next time — and we keep trying.

Though for most of us the AIM era ended when Facebook came into prominence, and we moved onto the bigger, better social network, we can look back and say that AIM paved the way for the social media sites that followed. With each, the culture created on instant messenger — including a language of abbreviations, emoji and angsty status updates — is carried on.

Let’s raise a glass of champagne emoji to AIM, the OG messaging platform. You were always good to us.

I know you G2G, but I’ll TTYL.

Goodbye, AIM. LYL.

Emily Higginbotham, originally from Illinois, is a copy editor at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmilyHigg. Or reach her by email: [email protected]

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