Whatever happened to spontaneous synchronous 1:1 conversations?

A college friend and I were reminiscing about how we used to have lengthy, meaningful conversations on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) when we were back in high school and college. I’d be up late and bored so I’d sign on to AIM, scan my buddy list and message ‘sup’ to whichever of my friends were online at the time. It was the easiest way to talk to friends about anything and everything, whether late at night, during class, to friends across the hall or on opposite coasts.

When you signed on, there was almost always someone to talk to and you were likely on for hours at a time. Sometimes you’d be multitasking and switch back to an AIM window when it started blinking, and other times you’d be focused intensely on that one chat window with the person you were crushing on at the time. Even with all the crazy screen names (e.g. SuPaFLyBoi85 or aZnGuRL86), AIM was likely responsible for hundreds of thousands of new relationships and deepened friendships.

If you grew up before the advent of the smartphone, you can surely relate. Nowadays, despite the proliferation of communication technology, those magical conversations seem to come far and few between. What happened?

Synchronicity and audience

How I Map Mediums Of Communication by Ben Rubin

In his analysis, Ben maps communication technology along two axes: (1) synchronicity and (2) audience. It’s interesting to see the how 100 million+ user consumer apps have targeted certain user psychologies to carve out a niche. As Ben points out, there has been less focus on the ‘synchronous / 1:Many’ quadrant until recent advances in data bandwidth and smartphones have enabled live video broadcasting by anyone and from anywhere, e.g., Meerkat and Periscope.

Our interest, however, is in the top-left corner of the map — the ‘synchronous / 1:1’ quadrant. Here is essentially where basic communication began — from face-to-face conversations to phone calls to online chat to video chats using Skype, Hangouts and FaceTime. And this quadrant is where we find AIM conversations.

The magic of AIM

Buddy list

Sign on/off notifications

Screen name

Away messages

Multiple, simultaneous 1:1 chats

User etiquette

No chat history

Being online

Maybe the smartphone killed AIM

(What’s funny is that companies often design their office spaces to facilitate those chance encounters in the cafeteria or lobby or bathroom. Those synchronous, ‘hey, how are you doing?’ interactions can inspire creativity and catalyze partnerships, being hugely beneficial for company productivity and growth.)

Or maybe life just happened…

Recapture the magic

  • Synchronous. Only able to message friends who are intentionally online at the same time.
  • No chat history. Like Snapchat, no history of chats once you sign off.
  • Buddy list. Only show online buddies
  • Tiled chat windows. Swipe through your chat windows.
  • Sign on/off. Intentionally sign on and off. No one is always on.
  • Status message. Everyone fills out a short status when signing on and which resets when signing off.

I’m sure there are some holes but I think there is some magic recapture here. Not only would I be able to go online to see who I could talk to, but I would also finally be able to bring back my AIM screen name ______________ !

Thank you for reading. Feedback welcome. — @stephenjcho

operator // investor // advisor

operator // investor // advisor