Hulu's PEN15 recreates the sights and sounds of the year 2000 with excruciating accuracy, and what's more '00s than AOL Instant Messenger (a.k.a. AIM)? For the uninitiated, AIM was the first social network for many millennials when we were kids. With the launch of season 2, PEN15 continues to give Millenials a severe case of cringe, especially when it comes to the myriad uses of AIM. The show is so incredibly detailed when it comes to fashion, accessories, and school supplies from the time period, so of course it's accurately recreated AIM as well.
Season 1 of PEN15 had an entire episode about AIM, in which Anna and Maya (Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine) got their first screen names and Maya was almost immediately catfished by someone who thankfully turned out to be a friend instead of a predator after entering an AOL chatroom that definitely wasn't meant for seventh graders. That episode opened with the dial-up tone, the sound of the '90s and early aughts. You can tell Maya's house is high tech because she's able to be on the phone and on the internet at the same time. Such luxury.
But the way AIM is used in the second season is more casual, because IM-ing your friends quickly stopped being a novelty and just became how we communicated after school. Here's everything else, nostalgic or otherwise, that PEN15 gets painfully right about the time of AIM. Even the specific shade of green that Anna's family has set as a desktop background is nostalgic, somehow.
The Accidentally Inappropriate Screen Name
Maya ended up with her lowkey gross screen name "Diper911" when "Viper911" was taken, and didn't see the problem with it. She'll definitely regret that when she's older. So will Anna "Babyspice666" Kone, probably. I have a similar horror story myself. I made my SN "lubeubah," my first name in Ubbi Dubbi, the language from the TV show Zoom. Totally missed that the first four letters spelled "lube," whoops.
The Instagram Stories Of The '00s: Away Messages
Everyone on AIM in the '00s curated a collection of creative away messages — auto responses for when you were signed in to AIM but not on AIM — to use for different moods and occasions. They tended to fall into one of two categories: artistic or informative. Sam (Taj Cross) encounters both varieties in PEN15 season 2, episode 5.
Jafeer (Tony Espinosa) puts a quote in his away message. "'When the people you love are gone, you are alone' - Keaunu Reeves." Typo aside, he's trying to be deep and using his away message to tell Sam his feelings are hurt. It's like a subtweet, with way more drama.
Song lyrics were also a popular choice in the artistic category. In season 1, Anna's boyfriend Brenden (Brady Allen) puts "I just wanna fly, put your arms around me baby" as his away message to announce his relationship status. But you can tell he's a dork because he cites "Sugar Ray, lyrics by Mark McGrath" after it.
Brandt (Jonah Beres), on the other hand, chooses the informative route and puts his actual plans: "royal rmble preview with ma boyzzz! Where u @ Dustin, Alex, TJ, Kyle, Evan?" This away message makes Sam feel left out. FOMO, anyone? Everything comes back to AIM.
The Hidden Language Of Buddy Icons
Before profile pictures became a necessity on every social media, you'd add a little cartoon or picture of something you liked to differentiate your account. Anna uses the default yellow AOL "Running Man" on PEN15; Sam's regular buddy icon is a picture of a spoon and the words "wanna spoon;" but when he's secretly IMing Maya as "flymiamibro22" his buddy icon is a little animated dude lifting weights. I honestly don't know which is more awkward.
Buddies Lists Weren't A Numbers Game
It's also totally normal that the kids on PEN15 only have a handful of "buddies," a.k.a. contacts on AIM. It wasn't really until Facebook and Twitter that social networking became a numbers game and everyone tried to have as many friends or followers as humanly possible.
The Devastating Sound Of An AIM Sign-Off
Today, pretty much everyone you know keeps their devices on silent, but 20 years ago those AIM beeps and boops and creaking door sounds were everything. In season 1, a cute boy signs off the second Anna starts talking to him and the door slam that happens when he leaves is devastating. Those AIM alerts were so corny in retrospect, but I kinda miss them now.
You'd only turn them off if you were trying to hide from your parents that you were instant messaging instead of doing homework. Anna and Maya get away with using AIM on their family desktop computers by saying they're "reading" or "doing research" for school, which is a blessing. Most of us had to be sneakier than that.
The Fact That AIM Conversations Actually Ended
I don't wanna blow your mind but when was the last time you texted someone "bye," "ttyl," or "g2g" and genuinely ended a conversation? Our text conversations are now just ongoing streams of messages that never end. That's maybe the one thing about AIM that isn't cringe. When Anna and Maya chat about the school play on PEN15 they sign off with "bye techie" and "bye star." It's nice, and makes me nostalgic for a time when social media was simple and not all-consuming.