The year is 2007. Every day, I spend hours chatting with several of my closest friends until late into the night. We vent, joke, dream about the future, and process the present. When I’m sick, they wish me well. When I’m down, they make me laugh.
Fast forward 13 years. The year is 2020. The only person I talk to everyday is my girlfriend. My friendships are mostly hanging on by a thread, and I meet up with them to chat and play catch up… oh, anywhere from once a week to once every few years.
What’s the difference? Why are friendships so hard now? Aside from all the usual calamities of life in my late 20s, there’s the fact that I no longer have access to one of the most nostalgic cultural touchstones of an entire generation: AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).
OK, hear me out.
Founded in 1997, AIM is one of the ancestors of modern social networking and messaging apps. What millennial raised in the U.S. doesn’t recall their cringeworthy AIM screen name? (Mine was “kimmuh.”) While it wasn’t the first chat client ever, AIM blew up at just the right time to become the go-to instant messaging app for every young person in the U.S. with an internet connection in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.
As someone with severe social anxiety, AIM was the perfect way to make and maintain friendships throughout middle and high school — the day and age where even the idea of approaching people in-person was the stuff of actual nightmares.
Even though I saw people every day at school, AIM was the tool that allowed me to actually get close to them, to let my personality shine through from the comfort of my bedroom. These tight digital friendships were a lifeboat, and they also led to many close IRL friendships (not to mention my first real romantic relationship).
I abandoned AIM sometime in 2009, when Facebook’s popularity really took over. Since then, many other social networking sites, including Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, have also turned into instant messaging apps over the years. In theory, they killed AIM. Who needs to sign onto AIM to talk to someone when you can just DM or text them? And so AIM became obsolete before officially shutting down in 2017.
Sure, modern apps are similar to AIM. You can send messages instantly, curate contact lists, and build a customized online presence. But AIM was distinct in one huge, important way: it helped set boundaries.
You had to “sign on” to signal you were available to chat; your arrival was announced to your entire buddy list with that infamous door opening sound. You said “hello” to start a conversation, “G2G” to end one, and “BRB” if you had to step out for a minute (along with a clever away message, of course).
You could even make yourself “invisible” if you wanted to sign on without being publicly available. To me, AIM is more similar to IRL conversations than any modern way of chatting.
You can talk to anyone, anytime, from anywhere, and you never really “sign off.” One is technically always available to DM or text, which is very anxiety-inducing for someone like me, who never wants to bother people.
My social anxiety makes it hard to feel confident with starting a conversation via text, Twitter, or Instagram without an explicitly urgent purpose (or to send memes), and I never know how long to keep a chat going.
I miss AIM’s time and space constraints. Chatting really felt like you were sitting down and having a talk with someone. In most cases, you actually were sitting down at your computer typing, while your pal was sitting down at theirs and doing the same. Conversations happened in real time.
Online conversations in 2020, on the other hand, usually involve picking up your phone randomly, noticing a new message, and deciding whether to respond right away or not. You might get nervous and put it off, then accidentally forget, then answer 72 hours later with an apology. This goes on back-and-forth indefinitely until finally somebody leaves the other person on “read.” Best case, the person is secure and doesn’t think of it. Worst case, the person feels rejected and slowly stops reaching out.
That’s how many of my friendships faded over the years, leaving me feeling like I need AIM more than ever.
Barring the comeback of a long-dead app, I need to somehow make modern technology less anxiety-inducing, or at least stop allowing that anxiety to affect my friendships. To do that, I can take a hint from AIM’s toolkit and set clearer boundaries.
Boundaries are limits around personal space — physical, mental, and emotional. These limits protect our time and energy, and they also help us separate what is our responsibility from someone else’s. For example, you’re allowed to start and stop engaging in a text or DM conversation whenever you feel like it. Likewise, other people’s reply time is their business, not yours.
Here’s how Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, board-certified art therapist, and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles, suggests managing my expectations, re: reply time. She emphasizes that, in reality, our friends can’t always reply immediately.
“Technology has given us the idea that we’re more connected than we used to be, because we can message someone instantaneously,” explains Lurie. “However, expecting our friends to read and respond to our message right away — in other words, to be virtually available to us 24/7 — may negatively impact us more than them,” resulting in disappointment and negative assumptions.
“If we feel hurt or think that this person is not meeting our needs, we may withdraw from them, which creates even more distance in the relationship,” she says.
Instead, assume your friends are offline when you message them. If they do reply right away, take a moment to ask whether they’re available to chat for a few minutes, or simply state your own availability. You can also get into the habit of saying “hi” and “bye” at the start and end of conversations to set expectations. Think of it as signing on and off.
According to Lurie, “if we are investing all of our friendship energy into virtual communication, it may create the illusion that we are connecting, when some of our relational needs might still be going unmet. So, as well as managing our own expectations around our friends’ 24/7 availability, we can also seek connections in ways that might ultimately be more satisfying for both parties.”
In other words — I’m sorry, socially anxious comrades — brace yourself and invite your friend to a tea or FaceTime date. The natural, more intentional, intimate, and boundary inclusive aspects of IRL conversations just do us good.
And simple low-pressure and specific requests will do (and remember, if they’re busy, it’s not about you).
Or! Force all your friends to start using Google Hangouts. Hot take: Google Hangouts has potential to be the new AIM. Like AIM, Google Hangouts (formerly Gchat) is an app that people can “sign on” and “sign off” from — if you see that green dot next to their name, you know it’s go time. It’s also most often used by people who are sitting down at their computer, ready to offer their attention, emojis, LOLs, and GIFs until it’s time to say bye and sign off.
Most importantly, unlike AIM, it still exists.
Kim Wong-Shing is a writer in New Orleans. Her work spans beauty, wellness, relationships, pop culture, identity, and other topics. Her website is kimwongshing.com.