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An oral history of the AIM away message (invisionapp.com)
120 points by wallflower 54 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

They don't get into it, but the AIM host infrastructure was based on the event-based non-blocking libraries written by Lippke. The host complex was a distributed hash table (routed on relevant data, e.g. Screen name, ICQ number), with the extra step that you can migrate the in-memory state from one host to another while still taking incoming work. Quite a powerful infrastructure to build highly-available services. Only oddity is that you needed to have the clients (AIM clients and internal datacenter callers) have the ability to detach from one end point and re-attach to another end point when the bucket containing doing work for that client migrated to new hardware.

In the layer you were writing code, it was routed by the thing you hashed on, so it was sort of SDN like in its ability to separate the application state from the physical hardware. Amazingly good server technology. AOL had all kinds of cool tech - dynamically assigned (/24) subnets, IP Tunnels from the client, giant compression/caching farms that essentially cached all the static assets on the internet, etc. etc. In the 90s that is; those machines Eric was deploying onto were less powerful than your smart phone.

The early days of Facebook chat where god awful, with tons of missed messages and things not syncing within the web and 3rd party clients. AIM (and even Yahoo and MSN) were over a decade ahead of that garbage before FB eventually caught up with having a messaging system that didn't suck ass.

In fact most things Facebook did originally it did poorly: poor quality photo storage (Flickr offered high quality or even original quality for a fee), garbage messaging, etc. It eventually caught up after it got big, because everyone was already using it .. and all the other platforms lost market share or became niche.

All these systems stay proprietary, and then others can't build on top of their previous work. Seemingly any "science" which is designed to make money gets locked up in intellectual property or patents and the state of the art never progresses.

We have probably re-invented the exact same systems over the last 30 years, poorly, because companies are too bass-ackward to share their engineering work.

I believe messages were originally built on SMTP, then it moved to XMPP, then it all moved to MQTT

Quite an interesting thread posted last New Years here of how Facebook scale for demand at New Years Eve when everyone is sending Happy New Years messages at midnight


AIM was rock solid. It made me sad to see it go away a couple years back.

I love that you mention ICQ number and the article posits that "AOL Instant Messenger was where it all started".

ICQ (the original chat client) was around for a full year before AIM launched.

If you're wondering what people (teen girls) used to put in their away messages, I've been running a site since 2003 that has acted as a database of these "witty profiles".


Kudo's for WBM link; it's fun to see Then vs Now.

The first successful software project I made was an AIM chat bot.

I wanted to receive messages from friends while I was offline (because, remember, you had to dial into the internet and tie up a phone line...). I was amazed by the utility of store-and-forward network architectures, but I was surprised that SMTP was the only high level protocol that seemed to use it. Why couldn't something send me my messages when I came back online? It seemed so simple (I think ICQ even supported it)

So I found some Perl libraries that could talk the AIM protocol (later OSCAR) and started hacking. I was able to beg my way into a free shell account on a Linux box and used it to mock up a client with a chat interface. Say hello, and it would give you the options: send a message to a friend, get a fortune, play a game, etc. If you sent a message to a friend, it would wait until the friend was online and relay the message. It also had pre-recorded responses for how I imagined people would talk to it.

I don't know how, but word got out about the bot, and eventually I had dozens of people playing games and getting fortunes, and occasionally using the message-forwarder. It was amazing to me that people liked using this dinky chat bot that I put together for fun, and it inspired me to get into open source development. I think was 16 at the time.

This is random, but did anyone get interested in programming due to Furcadia?

I played it in late elementary school and you could write your own levels -- I think they were called "dreams" -- that people could visit with all kinds of conditional logic.

You know how as a kid you'd sometimes daydream about your future? I daydreamed that I would later become a computer programmer and be able to look back and my messing around in Furcadia was my start. For some reason I thought being a programmer was a fancy job that was somehow out of reach.

Now I'm a computer programmer... and yeah, tooling around with computers in the 90s was my "start."

I had a similar experience. A friend gave me a free shell account so I built a little battle.net chat bot in Perl. Later I branched out into AIM bots, one had jokes/fortune but also a student directory (commandeered from a school server with lax security). The other would sign on like 60 different accounts and on my command mass message someone, it'd crash some versions of AOL and just be a real annoyance for AIM users.

The Perl library was `Net::AIM::TOC` and later `Net::OSCAR`

This is BS.

The away message was invented by AOL "proggers" which included, amongst other features, the Away Message. This was long before AOL simply absorbed that feature. If you remember Fate/FateX, Sublime, Paladin, Magenta, and the other infinite number of tools many of them had this feature. AOL just copied it because like most awesome things, it was invented by the users' creativity.


-~[1337 tewlz]~-

> From the beginning of AOL there was instant messaging. Barry noticed that users had created scripts to query whether their friends were online or not. So he decided we should just let them know all the time. He commissioned an initial version of the Buddy List, that worked within AOL. It didn’t scale well, though—we called it the Buggy List.

I used to use all these AIM programs, which got me interested in coding!

I enjoyed reverse engineering AIM exploit programs, there was one called subterfuge by sevens from esotericcode.com below... Thanks for the nostalgia!


>If you remember Fate/FateX, Sublime, Paladin, Magenta

Now that's a name I've not heard in a long time

Punting was my first exposure to cyber warfare, miss those days

I enjoyed reverse engineering AIM exploit programs, there was one called subterfuge by sevens from esotericcode.com


Got my start writing proggies. Private channel vb/vb4 represent.

This was about 90% of the conversations my friends and I had:

Them: "hey whats up" Me: "nm you?" Them: "nm" Me: "cool"


As described by my favorite animation ever:

  Adam: Hey STUD!
  Adam: LOL j/k
  Duncan: Hey.
  Adam: What's going on??
  Adam: ;)
  Duncan: Not much. brb.


I would come home from middle school and have multi-hour conversations with the people I had just seen at school, plus a few strangers from the internet, only taking a break for dinner. It was an unusual time.

That might be what's called a "you problem."

Same here, also I remember having lots of "warn" wars too.

I remember the paranoia involved in that, since someone couldn’t earn you unless you’d sent them a message. If you and A were warning each other, you’d stop replying to A, but A might recruit B and C to start a friendly chat with you and then warn you when you’d responded enough. So you’d get a seemingly unrelated “hey what’s up?” and try to figure out if it was safe to talk to them.


Slack was probably the last straw that broke aim. We used aim internally at aol for work related messaging up until slack came out and people started using it one team at a time. It got to the point that so many teams were using it that aol bought an enterprise license for it and that was basically it for aim as a product.

To think that AIM could've been Slack. In the 90's and 2000's, we used it just like people use Slack today.

Didn't AIM for consumers shut down long before slack came out?

No, Slack was initially released in 2013. AIM was shut down at the end of 2017.

Speaking of ICQ, I remember when AOL bought out ICQ and had a huge engineering success when they pulled the switch and all of sudden, ICQ users were seamlessly on the AIM infrastructure. When you think of the sizes of those networks it was really amazing.

This was a great read. I liked the part about the AIM team 'stealing' the running man logo.

We talk about work-life balance, but these projects had to have been amazing for people to dedicate chunks of their lives to them.

I wonder if we'll ever read stories about building slack and look back it so fondly.

I grew up with AIM and remember, even before AIM, the AOL CDs stockpiled in my house. They were quite handy as coasters and lids to wine glasses in the summer when the fruit flies came out. My parents still have some lying around for those purposes, not at all the classiest solutions but free and better than the landfill? There isn't even a CD drive in that house anymore.

More on topic, AIM as something to grow up with was ehhh. I kind of wish it didn't exist so I would have been more forced to push my parents to drive me to friends houses instead of hogging the family computer. Today I feel like the modern equivalents are probably Discord+Fortnite/Minecraft/whatever on personal machines which from my armchair looks a lot better from a social perspective.

Before there were AOL CDs, there were AOL Floppy disks. There were gold to me. I had no money to buy floppies and I had stuff that I wanted to, uh, save. I think I still have an AOL Floppy in the original shrink-wrap somewhere.

14.4 Kbps modem...sneak downstairs after bed, hold pillows over computer to muffle the modem's screeching, set one (1!) picture to download over night, set alarm to wake up before everyone else, find connection died and only downloaded top third of the picture.

Rinse and repeat until I finally had something worth, uh, saving on a floppy disk.

A fun (troll) use that I had for an AOL CD... I borrowed a CD from a friend in high school. It was their favorite CD, but we were friends so they lent it to me. When it was time to return the CD to my friend...I took an AOL CD, ground it into the dirt, held a lighter to one side, shattered it, and then scotch taped it back together. When I "returned" my friend's favorite CD, I gave them AOL CD shiny-side up. After a short (fewer than 5 second) freak-out, I returned my friend's favorite CD in pristine condition. I was a bit of a jerk, but they took it in good humor.

> AIM as something to grow up with was ehhh. I kind of wish it didn't exist so I would have been more forced to push my parents to drive me to friends houses instead of hogging the family computer

So I was young enough to not know a time before instant messaging as I graduated from high school in 2005. Are you saying that I'm missing out because I never knew what it was like to not have AIM constantly at my fingertips?

Because I see kids today are absolutely missing out because they never have to be bored and make their own fun.

lids to wine glasses in the summer when the fruit flies came out

Are fruit flies not able to fly through the big hole in the middle of the CDROM?

Little late here but some masking tape

Wasn't the original idea behind Twitter to keep a log of IM away messages?

when my friends and i figured out how to send someone a link that would turn on their away message (and profile i believe, cant remember) with whatever we wanted to it to say chaos ensued.

I remember sending people a link to change their buddy icon

AIM was one of those unique things, it was 'cool' even though it was created by AOL.

AOL was the lamest online service, it was what your grandma used. No self-respecting hacker or power user would use AOL. But everyone used AIM.

You must be young. The AOL hacker scene was quite vibrant. Mass mailers, PR room: server, server when server got banned, cerver. Plus the plethora of exploits. Go to archive.org and lookup aol-files.com.

EDIT: lest I forget AIM pr: darkside

Conclusion does not follow. Many of us skipped AOL entirely. That's not to say there weren't interesting things to do there if you chose to use it, or were forced to use it by circumstance.

Of course it follows. The OP said "no self-respecting hacker" would use AOL/AIM, which is a not only a "no true scotsman" fallacy but untrue. I, too was introduced to the world of programming through AOL chatrooms, and there were some really incredible hackers/programmers who hung out in them.

Fair, though I was referring to the "you must be young".

Yes, I spent a lot of time writing mass mailers, punters, laggers, and much later.. phishing and chat bots.

What a time to be 10 years old.

Not in the UK, everyone used msn (or before that yahoo chat or ICQ)

MSN came after AIM had been around for a little while IIRC.

Before/alongside AIM was ICQ.

Once MSN came around I remember everyone switching because the fonts were somewhat better. Sorry—not everyone. So you had to have each of the clients to talk to everyone.

Same with Australia. All MSN

Most "oral" histories should be called "folk" histories.

There are cultures where passing information orally is so common that it's as accurate as written information.

Writing things down made people less able to remember things. Just as Google made us incapable of researching and remembering details.

Would be interested to hear more about why you think that's a better term! I agree that there's something about 'oral' that doesn't quite capture it.

im a little perplexed why the phrase 'oral' was at all used here. It literally means "spread by word of mouth" -- but this is a text format. although this is probably a little bit nitpicky, i guess.

> There is no feature that Facebook has today that AIM didn’t have at some point 20 years ago.

The article mentions the Newsfeed; I don't know how the AIM team thinks distributed status messages (or whatever?) are analogous to the news feed, nor the community sharing/commenting/photos/etc.

But one thing Facebook DID have, when it was curated, was links to EVERYTHING. You could see who was taking the same class as you, even the same section. You could see who lived in the same residence hall. You could search/sort/filter on EVERYTHING. It was amazing.

I really wish iPhones had away messages for iMessage and/or SMS. It can seem like you're intentionally being a dick if you don't respond promptly, so it'd be nice to just make it clear you've chosen to be not available instead of this weird uncertain state that seems to be the default. Bonus points if you could join and leave group chats seamlessly like AIM chat rooms.

I don't think this is quite what you're looking for, but it's possible to set a custom auto-responding message when the phone is in do not disturb mode. I use this when I'm driving.

Actually I didn't know that, thanks.

AOL/Aim was really the original social network. You can have status message. They wasted a great opportunity.


I’m seeing a 404. Anyone else?


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