Sunday, April 25, 2010

RIP: The AIM Away Message

A blogger I follow, Katie from Boston, recently wrote an ode to AIM away messages. Both of us spent overlapping years at college, in that space where social media was growing, but hadn’t hit the wider world yet. Status messages were only in the province of AIM, and the unique college environment meant that everyone was on all the time, through one medium. We all had angsty things to say, and we did so by the most elegant and articulate way we could—song lyrics:

One thing that’s been lost in the translation from away messages to Facebook statuses and Twitter, though, is the art of the song lyric message. Most song lyrics are too long to sum up our deepest feelings in 140 characters, but that wasn’t a problem with the AIM away message! No, we didn’t have to come right out and say what we were feeling because an artist we liked had done it for us, leaving us with cryptic lyrics to provide our friends, hoping that they’d decipher our mood. And there were truly lyrics for every emotion.

I too have lamented this loss. Song lyrics just don’t work on Facebook, just another post on a feed. With AIM, we got the added bonus of fonts and colors, all designs to prove how precious or earnest we were through what we listened to.

Katie nails down many of the categories the songs fell in, although her personal references do not mesh with mine (or my friends), since that is based partly upon taste. But no one who went to college in 2004 will forget the ubiquity of Garden State (I’m pretty sure everyone on my buddy list used “There’s beauty in the breakdown” from “Let Go”). She misses the overused “We’re so in love” lyrics from “Such Great Heights”—to this day I groan when seeing “I am thinking it's a sign that the freckles/In our eyes are mirror images and when/We kiss they're perfectly aligned”. It’s not original or cute anymore, it’s hackneyed and trite.

Away messages were a code. Not always, and obviously, sometimes they were perfectly explicit, even when in song lyrics. I knew what certain lyrics “meant”: trouble, or heartbreak, even if I didn’t know specifics or if the specifics didn’t line up exactly with the song. I just knew it was bad news.

Of course, away messages were also misinterpreted, sometimes causing lots of offense and drama. That was all part of college, as was the timing of certain remarks (whether intentional or not), or the inability to update the away messages either out of sheer laziness or because people were plumb not there to do so.

I suspect AIM is not held in the same regard now among this demographic, not with Twitter and Facebook and cell phones and text messaging all overtaking the importance of the away message. Plus everything can be integrated, so there really is no excuse for not updating. But I do miss crafting my away messages, thinking of the audience to read them. Now, out of college, most of my buddies have gravitated away, and like most social services, the fun is in who you know and how many people in your network are in, so the reason for going on has diminished, and with that the motivation to put up an away message. Now, the same people are on, usually at the same time—the evening.

Instant Messages have gravitated toward the workplace, as a way of connecting to far-flung colleagues, or to those in a big organization where picking up the phone is pure avoidance or laziness. Katie does nail some of the problems inherent with talking via this means: the inability to detect tone (sarcasm often falls flat), causing confusion; and how to squeeze in this activity while doing other things (also a mainstay in college). It always seemed dishonest to ghost in order to talk to only one or two people, or to put up an away message in order to avoid those you don’t want to talk to while engaging others. AIM also foreshadowed the “digital autism” of today, the inability to have a conversation or pay attention to those you’re physically with, preferring to spend energy through technological means.

I still go on AIM, but it’s a different experience; it’s to talk to specific people. I rarely have away messages up now—what’s the point? Who’s going to see? And with all the new features, it’s no longer the service of yore, but an entirely new beast, one that’s trying to still be as old-school but playing catch-up with the new kids on the block. AIM’s heyday was rooted very much in its time, a benefit of a confluence of factors that was victim to technology and time: growing up.


John said...

It may be a little early to call time of death on the song lyric status message. I'm only friends with one seventeen-year-old on Facebook, but if she's representative of her demographic then song lyrics are still being used as facebook statuses.

It does seem strange to have another thing to tell our grandkids. "When I was your age, digital social networking was ONLY done on computers! There was no such thing as comprehensive Wi-Fi or 3G coverage (or smartphones, really), so you had to keep a message up for when people tried to contact you and you weren't at a computer!"

Emily said...

I miss the song lyrics away message/profile.

Katie said...

Nice. I loved reading your thoughts on the AIM away message, too. There was a time when it was as big a part of our daily dialogues as Facebook is now.

Also, I apologize for not commenting on your terrific blogs before- you always leave great comments on mine! Keep up the great blogging.