AOL Instant Annoyance

America Online has probably done some good things over the years, I’m sure of it. I mean you can’t become the worlds largest internet service with crappy connections, buggy software, and bad attitudes alone! There has to be something in there that attracts people to the service. Many will say user-friendliness, others will say good marketing, and others just can’t make sense of it no matter how they look at it (me, for example). But regardless, much of the internet use in the United States flows one way or another through AOL.

Now because so many friends of mine had been ‘using’ AOL’s online service, I was thrilled in 1997 or so when the company first announced it would release a program that would allow people using real and reliable internet services to Instant Message their friends on AOL (when they could connect and stay on for more than thirty seconds, anyway). I was even more thrilled when I found this would be free.

Now for a time before this, I had been using an Instant Messaging application called ICQ (from Mirabilis) to communicate with those of my friends who knew how to click “download” and run an installer. ICQ was, and in fact still is, a highly powerful internet communications application with a lot of capabilities. This is what I was expecting to find when I first downloaded that original beta version of AOL Instant Messenger on Ziggy II, my Windows 3.1 computer I had at the time.

The application was inept, to say the least. It had virtually no capability, it crashed, and it was ugly. I promptly erased it from my computer.

Now a year or so after this ordeal, I actually started having friends, and I swear each and every one of them was either on AOL or used AIM to communicate with people. So, I was forced to download AIM again to try and stay in touch with them. Since then, my experiences with AOL Instant Messenger have been bittersweet. In its stark usability, it does allow me to keep in touch with a plethora of people I know scattered throughout the east-central part of the United States and beyond. However, even after AOL bought Mirabilis, and thereby ICQ, almost two years ago now, very little of the capability that application has ever made it into AIM. This baffles me, and some of the other little AIM tidbits baffle me as well. To combat this issue, I have compiled Scott’s List of Things They Should Change About AIM. My computer knowledge is high, and my usage of AIM is more-than-daily, so yes—I am qualified to do this.

  • Warnings—Okay, the warn function is a good thing. It’s a nice way to . . . warn people. But what is up with the anonymous warning thing? If you’re angry (or just messing with someone) you should have the guts to have your screen-name on it. If you don’t have the guts to have your name on it, then you shouldn’t be warning people. Anonymous warning capability should be removed from AOL and AIM. PERIOD. Keeping this option in there opens the door for people to harass others with warnings, without giving the receiver the information needed to block them in return.
  • Blocking—Blocking is beautiful. I just love blocking. Porn site link? BLOCK! Annoying person keeps warning you? BLOCK! Psychotic friend won’t stop saying the word “fruity”? BLOCK! But there is ONE little thing I would love to see changed about blocking. As it stands now, when someone is blocked the blocker and the blockee both appear to each other to be offline. The system should be changed so that the person who blocks someone can still see if the person they blocked is online (though they would appear in a folder called “blocked”). I figure the person who clicked block deserves that little leg-up.
  • Invisible Mode—Halfway in the same vein as what I’d like to see changed with “Blocking”, they should add Invisible Mode. Those of you who have used ICQ or Yahoo! Messenger (yuck) or many of the others have probably experienced this. In invisible mode, nobody can tell that you’re online—BUT you can see if other people are. This is good if you only want to talk to one person, you could IM them and nobody else would know you were online.
  • Profiles—If I see that “AOL Profiles not available to AOL Instant Messenger users” message again, or however it goes, I’m going to explode. Come on AOL, you can make your profiles accessible to everyone, it’s only fair!
  • Buddy Information—I have a lot of info and quotes and things I’d love to put in my buddy info, but it’s just not long enough! They should significantly expand the amount of data you can put in your buddy info.
  • Make Things Consistent—I have worked on three different kinds of AIM. The Windows one (which most of the readers use), the Macintosh standard one, and the Mac OS X version (which I use now). Overall, they’re basically the same—however there are a couple Windows things I’d like to see on mine, and a couple things I have that I’d like to see in windows. First off, with mine, there’s a little AOL logo next to people who are using AOL, and a little IM guy (the orange guy) next to people who use AIM. This is a nice thing to have. Windows, on the other hand, still has the ability to send files and the little cartoony smileys. For some odd reason, both of these are missing in the OS X version. I’m sure AOL can be more consistent.
  • Random Chat—ICQ has this great little thing called “Random Chat”. You create a random chat profile, and then you’re up there for people to find! If you feel like talking to some random person, you go into your random chat thing and click “find a random chat partner”. It’ll pop up with someone’s profile and you can IM them or search for someone else. It’s a great way to meet random people! This, of course, would be optional—you could choose whether or not to be available for this.
  • Sounds—For God sakes, PLEASE give us different sound schemes to choose from! The standard AIM noises are getting so OLD.
  • Shared Buddy Lists—Yahoo! Messenger, as much as I hate it, does have one little advantage—all of your screennames share one buddy list. I have two SN’s that I use often on AIM, and I always forget to sync. my lists so sometimes people are missing from one or the other. There should be an option to link two or more screennames to the same buddy list, optionally—of course.
  • Away Mode—Away mode is a blessing and a curse. When you’re at college like I am, and as reliant on AIM for socialisation as I am, it makes sense to leave AIM on all the time. When not here, it makes sense to put up an away message. Now some people just don’t seem to understand this concept. First off, there should come a time when if you don’t upgrade your program you can’t get online anymore. The away-mode functionality joined regular AOL 2 versions ago, and yet some people still can’t tell when someone is in away mode because they’ve avoided upgrading all of that time. Now—and I know AOL can’t fix this—there are some really oblivious people out there. I get IMs occasionally where someone will say “Hey!” and my away message will pop up, and they follow up their IM with “Hello?” and “Are you there?” . . . then an indignant “Fine . . . ” and they log off. IT IS AN AWAY MESSAGE PEOPLE. IT MEANS I’M NOT HERE! So what can AOL do about this? Well if someone IMs someone who is away more than twice, it should pop up with a dialog box that says “Hey, you do know that (screenname) isn’t here, right? I mean, they’re in away mode. DON’T YOU GET IT?” with yes and no boxes. Clicking “yes” will allow you to continue, some people do have a good reason for IMing someone who is away, and if you click no a window should pop up explaining the entire “away mode” thing in terms comprehendable by a six-year-old. Harsh? Perhaps, but AOL has made a name for themselves catering to people who just don’t get it.

So that’s my two-cents about AOL Instant Messenger. Don’t get me wrong, AIM is a good idea and not even that bad an implementation, there are just a lot of little things that need a lot of tweaking, and considering they’re at version 4.5 (on the Mac side anyway) I would think many of those would be addressed by now. So what do I plan to do about it? I’m really thinking about doing the Martin Luther thing and nailing these complaints to the door of AOL (the next county over :-)), but that seems very low tech . . . maybe I should stand outside with my new Handspring Visor (Palm-Pilot like handheld computer) and use the infrared port to beam the complaints to executives as they leave the AOL premises. Hey, that’s an idea!

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.