Introducing 1997.chat: Instant Messaging, the way it used to be

Alex Obenauer
Mar 19 · 4 min read

Last week, with many headed into social isolation, a thought occurred to me: AIM should come back. After a few more thoughts occurred to me, outlined below, I went ahead and built it.

👉 Want to jump right into it? Head to 1997.chat on your desktop to get your screen name. If you want to add me to your list o’ buddies, my screen name is ado12! (Note: You don’t have to have numbers in your screen name, but it adds to the nostalgia.)


The case for AIM

Back in the day, before Facebook and Twitter, and before email became… email, we had AIM, ICQ, and MSN Messenger. It was not like texting, email, or social media are today.

We held real conversations. Remember how you’d have AIM open while you were online, and a friend would notice that you were available, and shoot you a message, “Hey! How’s it going?” It would often spark a spontaneous, meaningful conversation. (One of my favorite things was getting a message at 2 a.m. from someone because they were up too and saw that I was.)

We don’t have that anymore. Conversations such as those do not happen over SMS, email, Twitter, or Facebook.

Your buddies had a status, but only one at a time. No feed. Your last status goes away as soon as you have a new one.

When you’re offline, no one can message you. Nothing accumulates while you’re away. There is no inbox to process or unread messages to tend to when you log in.

In so many ways, instant messaging — the way it used to be — might be the exact antidote we need.

Plus, we all need something fun right now. A break from the madness.

Remember away messages? Buddy profiles? Buddy icons? Do you remember your Screen Name?

As we were all being pushed into social isolation last week, I saw many seeking deeper connection on platforms that do not enable it. Hence, 1997.chat.


Introducing 1997.chat

To get started, launch the app at 1997.chat. Click “get a screen name” and brainstorm something great.

Once you’re in, you can set a status and add your buddy icon. Back in the day, we didn’t use pictures as our buddy icons. Instead, many of us opted for pixel art gifs. Luckily, a number of sites still host those.

Send your screen name to your buddies so they can add you to their list. You can add me too — my screen name is ado12.

When you’re available, leave the app open. And when you see a buddy of yours online at the same time, send them a message. See how they’re doing. Learn something new about them. Brighten their day a bit!


Building it out

Over the course of seven days, I built out the Windows 98 stylized IM app. It works in any desktop browser.

In all of its glory:

In order to get this thing together in just a few days, I chose a series of technologies that would make for fast development:

Chat: Twilio — their client SDKs already had every chat feature built-in, including managing the websocket connections, and their Node library allowed me to build the rest fairly quickly.

Interface: Svelte — Essentially, Svelte is a language (and compiler) that allows you to write entirely declarative interface code that is then compiled into the correct and super-efficient imperative JS code that powers what you intended. It’s a fantastic technology.

Server: Node + MongoDB

Hosting: Heroku — dead-simple platform-as-a-service.

Database: mLab — for a fully managed MongoDB service.

For the most part, I live-tweeted out the process of building out the app, which you can read here, complete with work-in-progress screenshots.


What’s next

There is a lot I didn’t get to build in the last week. I started, but did not finish, a macOS app version. There are no buddy profiles yet. And messages cannot be formatted with the chaotic choice of background and text colors that so many people seemed to use. Hopefully I have some off weekends in the future to play with these, and other, developments.

Until then, enjoy the start. I hope it helps your social isolation to be a little less isolated.

Update: The Mac app is here!

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