Tina Lowry was in her freshman year dorm room in 2001 when her computer dinged: an instant message from HLstyles3.
The communication sent over AOL Instant Messenger was from a guy she'd met at a party the week prior. The two kept talking over AIM, sometimes for hours on end, and the relationship flourished from there.
His real name was Harrison Lowry. The two dated for nearly 10 years, and were married in 2012. Now Tina's more than eight months pregnant with their first child — due Dec. 23.
"AOL Instant Messenger was a pinnacle of how we communicated before we had texting or anybody had a cellphone," said Tina Lowry, a 34-year-old Glen Mills native who now lives in Virginia Beach, Va. "It's how we started our relationship, solely through IM."
AOL, which is now called Oath, is pulling the plug Friday on AIM, its flagship chat platform that served as the first foray for a generation into what would eventually become social media. Launched in 1997, AIM was the fast-paced communication method of choice before Myspace, Facebook, Twitter or even texting gained popularity. Its use died down in the mid-2000s, but AIM's final days have brought out the nostalgic tales, ranging from teenage flirting to humiliating "away messages" to even somber reflections on 9/11.
Like the Lowrys, Pat Woods owes his marriage to AIM. After finishing college at Temple University in 2005, he logged onto AOL one day from his father's Upper Darby home to check his old email account. An IM popped up from "lizbear430," a woman he knew from his high school days, but with whom he'd lost contact. She asked him to go bowling.
"We still look at that as our first date," said Woods, 35, who lives in the Powelton Village section of the city. Woods and lizbear430, whose name is Liz Hoffmann, dated for several years and were married in June 2015. They are expecting their first child in late April.
AIM's quick nature made it ripe for love stories like theirs. It also made spreading news that much faster.
In 2001, Robert Montani was working as an operations manager for a brokerage firm in Rosemont and talking to a handful of coworkers through AIM — the most efficient way to keep in contact with coworkers at the World Trade Center.
It was Sept. 11.
After American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower, his coworkers evacuated. When the building collapsed nearly two hours later, Montani watched his computer screen: One by one, the chat windows closed.
Now 56 and living in Valley Forge, Montani finds it impossible to think about where he was on 9/11 without, at least briefly, thinking about AIM.
"That situation," he said, "has stuck with and resonated with me for 16 years."
Russ Atwood, now 56, can't separate memories of AIM from the terrorist attack either.
Atwood, of Vineland, N.J., was chatting on AIM with a college friend during the initial strikes. After the Pentagon was hit, his AIM connection went down and the conversation ceased. He remembers the eerie feeling: "Scariest day of my life."
But along with the poignant memories of love and loss, AIM was the place where so many millennials socialized as teenagers. It was where they flirted with crushes and gossiped with friends and chatted with perfect strangers against their parents' will. Before there were Twitter handles or Instagram usernames, there were AIM screen names — the perfect way for an Instant Messenger user to shape their persona.
Chloe Lewis, 23, of Fairmount, was Horsekrazed17 on AIM, because she admits to being "that girl in your grade who was obsessed with horses and probably pretended to be one at recess." Readers on Facebook told us of their first AIM screen names.
And one astute reader pointed out what many AIM users might have forgotten: the definitive acronym used on AIM. A/S/L stood for "age, sex, location," and was used as a greeting of sorts when talking to a stranger over Instant Messenger. Usually those strangers "met" in AOL chat rooms (remember these?), and the respondent to the A/S/L question would normally write back in the same form with something like: 20/f/Philly.
The real art of AIM came in away messages. Because your away message could reflect what you were listening to on iTunes, she remembers meticulously monitoring every song she played.
The songs she chose?
"The perfect emo, alt-rock song," she said, "that made me look cool to whatever boy I had a crush on."