AOL Instant Messenger was a defining part of my childhood. As part of the first generation to grow up with the internet, it helped me understand internet communication intuitively and emotionally in a way that people just a few years older may have only considered intellectually.
Growing up, I lived in a different town from most of the kids I went to school with. I lived in Dobbs Ferry, but went to school in Ardsley — a town small enough it imported students from nearby towns. There was a bridge separating Dobbs Ferry and Ardsley, and every day I took a bus across that bridge to school and back home.
That meant every day after school all of my friends were on the other side of this bridge. A lot of my interaction with them was through AIM. I developed a lot of empathy for the nuances of how people expressed emotions and ideas online, and I became very focused on improving how this worked.
For example, I didn’t like that I had no control of whether AIM told my friends I was active online, because sometimes I just wanted to code without being interrupted unless someone I really wanted to chat with signed on. This may have seemed like a small detail to whoever designed it, but it was my social life and I really felt it. So I hacked together a tool that let me set myself as if I’d been idle for a long time, even if I was actually at my computer. (Because of this, Facebook chat today always lets you turn off your online activity indicator.)
My friends and I spent a lot of time curating our online identities. We spent hours finding quotes for our AIM profiles that expressed how we felt, and we picked just the right font and color for our messages to signal what we wanted about ourselves. I built a tool that let me send messages with the letters fading between any colors I wanted. It was simple, but it was fun to build and it made my messages look different.
One day my dad saw me using AIM and asked if I could set it up in his office so he could communicate with the other dentists and hygienists. I told him I didn’t think AIM was ideal and since he controlled the network in his office I could make him something better.
I built him a system I called ZuckNet that he used for many years afterwards. In addition to chatting one-on-one, he could broadcast an update to everyone in the office at the same time. It also saved every message you received so you wouldn’t lose them when you closed your chat window, and it queued up messages to be delivered later if a person wasn’t online at the time. Everything was encrypted so sensitive information could be secure. These were all features that solved pain I felt using AIM. ZuckNet improved how the dentists communicated and changed how they worked.
As a child, many people will tell you that you don’t have the skills or experience to build something that matters. I was certainly told that many times. But these days I wonder if children actually have a unique perspective to build some of the most important things. The world is changing quickly, and only a child has a full emotional understanding of what it’s like to grow up today, with say, mobile phones or AI you’ve been able to talk to your whole conscious life. If you grew up before this, you can intellectually reason about what this might be like, but you can only understand all the emotional nuances and develop a world view based on how it feels if you grew up with it yourself.
I always loved coding. I vividly remember riding home on the bus across that bridge after school thinking to myself that now I had the whole evening to build things on my computer. Fridays were the best, and I remember being even more excited because I had the whole weekend to build things.
Those early projects and experiences had a lot of the seeds of what would become Facebook. Since early on, AIM shaped a deep aesthetic sense that the world works better when we can all connect and share. I’ve lived these ideas since I was a child, and I still believe them deeply today. Thanks for everything, AIM.
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