On Messaging and Connection

I heard just yesterday that Aol Instant Messenger is shutting its proverbial doors on December 15 of this year for the last time. I remember that sound actually, the door shutting and opening as people signed off and online. The latter always excited me, leaving me to wonder who and in what far-flung part of the world the most recent addition was. I used to want to have so many contacts on my buddy list (buddy list? Yup, that’s what it was called) that those sounds would almost never stop. Weird desire, huh?

AIM was one of the first things I did with my personal Internet actually. On a computer with next-to-no memory by today’s standards at about this time in 2001, I logged on with username Johnmill79 and had a lengthy conversation with one of my friends only a few miles away, but to whom I would have had to talk via long distance prior to that. He kept saying “lol” and because I wasn’t looking at the spelling as my screen-reading software enunciated the syllables, I wondered “why does he keep saying whoa!” It was my introduction to NetSpeak, a concept that has now become so much a part of the language that it is even spoken. OMG, really?

That poor computer could only hold up for a couple of hours though, and after frantic conversation the synthetic voice was reduced to a stutter so bad I gave up and pressed restart. That’s the thing though, because that technology was sort of slow and less portable, we were not as able to be so, some would argue unhealthily, immersed in it as we are nowadays. You had to leave your desktop in the dorm room and go out onto the yard to actually talk to people.

That may be so, but even still it had an impact. Shy guys like me could in fact meet people, and by “people” I of course primarily mean women, in a forum that catered to my preferred method of interaction: writing. I “connected” with folks as far afield as Sydney Australia, Tokyo Japan, and the University of Iowa. A couple of them, one from small town Alabama and another from Greensboro North Carolina I thought I might get to meet in person, but for various reasons that never quite happened. (Read: broke undergraduate).

I was also introduced to the strange concept of starting a conversation with someone local, a woman I’d met in my residence hall, and talking to her without a clear notion of where she was. This is of course commonplace now with cell phones, but before that usually if someone was talking to you telephonically, they were also tied to a particular location.

Time marched on, and MSN Messenger soon became supreme, only to be pushed aside by Skype and voice capability, which Microsoft of course then bought. Then they all got slapped around by Facebook, which will I suppose someday be subsumed by someone else. I think though that the random openness of those early days has long gone away. Most of us, smartly I suppose, only really talk to people in our own circles. But it was kind of fun trying to teach a French or Chinese person a little English, until the conversation inevitably got weird. And that, of course, is the problem: just dealing with the qualms of human nature. And Spam, etc.

I think AIM had tried to compete in this new Mobile world, but they simply didn’t have the infrastructure to do so. I now do most of my connecting via Twitter, and the issue with this is indeed its portability. My iPhone, which I have now possessed in varying versions for just over 5 years as of September 21, has opened my world in ways I once could hardly imagine. It enhances my Twitter influence, especially in the area of book recommendations that I post in the form of #FridayReads mini-reviews each Friday, tagging the author if possible.

I think this is one of many examples of how social media can be a source of good and add to one’s life, but I very readily acknowledge the need to control it so it doesn’t control you. To that end, I set my phone’s timer for 20 minutes three times a day, and shut everything down until it rings. This allows my brain to work through itself without distractions and occasionally come up with solutions to my vexing issues. I also just leave it on my desk in most cases when heading to meal time, so that I remember to talk to people without being bombarded with incoming notifications. And even if it is on me, I can just ignore those vibrations for a bit. I am not a mouse, after all.

I know that some of our youngest readers grew up as AIM was coming online, and others know almost nothing before social media and texting really took over. As many have said, this may not be as bad as some of us old fogey fear, as the research is only beginning on the full effects. But well who knows.

What do you remember a bout your first time logging onto Aim? Did you ever meet someone in person whom you had first encountered in that virtual space? How creative was your username.