Buddies and Friends — A Requiem for AOL Instant Messenger

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I didn’t pay much attention last month, when AOL’s Instant Messenger service officially shut down. I hadn’t used Instant Messenger proper for many years, not since switching to an app called Pidgin — probably ten years ago — which collated many chat programs, including Instant Messenger and Google Talk (or GChat, Hangouts, whatever the hell they call it now), inside of one program. I just thought my AOL buddies would be there, as they had always been there, for the past eighteen years.

Yeah, you read that right — eighteen years. That’s how long ago I signed up for Instant Messenger, back when I first got online, in the year 2000. I, myself, was 18-years-old then, a different person altogether. Nobody stays the same for eighteen years, and more or less, the group of buddies on that list grew as I grew. The number of buddies changed, and the buddies themselves changed, and even if I hadn’t spoken to someone in a few years, every once in a while someone would see me online, or I’d see them online, and we’d trade a few messages about this or that. It wasn’t so much that we kept in touch, but knowing that people were on the list made me feel as if we were never not in touch.

Now, Instant Messenger is gone, and when I log into Pidgin, I only have my buddies from Google. I never imported buddies from Facebook Chat — I guess because I have so many friends on Facebook whom I have absolutely no relationship with at all. They are just “friends” because they sent me friend requests, and for one reason or another, I accepted those requests, and now we are connected, we are friends, although we are certainly not “buddies.” It’s an interesting linguistic difference, friend versus buddy, the former somehow a lot less personal than the latter. My buddies are people I feel like I know. Friends are people I feel like I’m merely aware that I know.

Anyway, the loss of Instant Messenger merely reminds me that the internet was once a much simpler place, with a lot more anonymity to it. It also reminds me of my youth. So many of the buddies on my list were people whom I connected with through AOL chat rooms, message boards, places where we connected over shared interests, things that we wanted to do, things we planned to become. I can remember chatting music with people who were just faceless screennames one year; ten years later, they were collecting platinum plaques, winning Grammy Awards, stuff like that. And I could still message them ‘till this day: “sup bro,” and they’d reply.

The list also consisted of former co-workers and other people who’ve gone on to do different things. These people, too, I could always check in on. And no matter where they were in their life, they’d respond, and that was kind of cool. I hesitate to say that AIM was the most intimate of the chat programs, but I think it was — something about it made everyone on the list, everyone you called a buddy, into an actual friend. Now, we’ve got friends, but we definitely don’t have buddies. It’s an interesting shift.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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