How AOL Instant Messenger Works

By: Dave Roos
AOL instant messenger
AOL Instant Messenger is one of the oldest IM programs.
Image courtesy of AOL

Instant messaging (IM) epitomizes communication in the Internet age. It's fast, informal and free. According to 2006 statistics, nearly 70 million North Americans, or 37 percent of the total online population, use IM on a regular basis. In the rest of the world, IM usage is even higher, with 49 percent of online Europeans and 64 percent of online Latin Americans using IM regularly [source: ComSCORE].

What's IM exactly? By downloading a small program on their computer, IM users can send and receive short text messages over the Internet. IMs are different than e-mails, because they enable a real-time conversation between two or more people. When I type an IM and press send, the other people in the conversation see that message immediately and can reply within seconds.


AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) is one of the most popular IM programs. It's also one of the oldest. The first version of AIM was released in 1997, one year after the release of ICQ, the very first publicly available IM client. Now AIM boasts 33 million unique users every month. During peak hours, over 6 million people are logged on to AIM at the same time [source: AOL].

AIM has evolved over the years to offer an expanding list of services. Besides sending simple text messages, users can now share photos, videos, music and other files. They can even use the AIM software to make free Internet phone and video calls.

In this HowStuffWorks article, we're going to explain how AIM works including how to set up an account and how to use the software's basic and advanced features. Let's start with the basics.


Using AIM

AIM buddy list
AIM users can create Buddy Lists so they know when their friends are online.
Image courtesy of AOL

To start using AOL Instant Messenger, you need to sign up for a screen name. A screen name is like an e-mail address for IM. If a person wants to send you an IM, they need to know your screen name. Here's how to sign up for an AIM screen name and to set up a profile:

  1. Go to AOL Instant Messenger and click on the link that says "Get a screen name."
  2. Select "Create an account" and click continue.
  3. Type in your desired screen name and a password.
  4. Answer the security questions and click continue.
  5. If your screen name is already taken, you'll be prompted to enter a new one. AIM will help you find an available screen name based on your preferences.
  6. Once you find an available screen name, you'll be sent a confirmation e-mail with a link to open your new account.

Now that you have a screen name, you need to download the AIM software client. The latest version is AIM 6.5 for Windows XP and Vista. There are earlier versions available for Windows 98, Mac and Linux users. All of them are free and available for download at


The first time you open the AIM software it'll ask if you want to search your existing e-mail contacts for buddies. "Buddies" is an AIM term for contacts. AIM will automatically search your Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail and Microsoft Outlook accounts for contacts who also have AIM screen names. AIM will then give you the option of adding these screen names to your Buddy List. Your Buddy List is the organized list of IM contacts stored in your account.

When you open AIM, you'll see a main window featuring your Buddy List broken down into different groups. The default Buddy List groups are Buddies, Family, Co-Workers and AIM Bots (automated Buddies for movie times, stock quotes, et cetera). You can add new groups of your own by going to the Edit menu and choosing "Add Group."

When you want to add a new contact to one of these groups, go to the Edit menu and select "Add Buddy." You'll then be asked to choose a group for the contact. You can also enter more information about the person, including his e-mail address and mobile phone number.

Your Buddy List tells you which of your contacts are online and which are offline. The contacts that are online are listed under their group headings. Those that are offline are listed at the bottom in a group titled "Offline."

Now that you have your account and software set up, it's time to start sending instant messages.


AIM Basics

AOL instant messenger
AOL Instant Messenger allows users to chat online with friends in real time.
Image courtesy of AOL

The easiest way to send an IM is to send a message to someone on your Buddy List. There are two basic ways to do that:

  • Highlight the contact's screen name in the Buddy List and click the IM button at the bottom of the window.
  • Double-click on the buddy's name and an IM window will automatically open.

If you want to send an IM to a person not on your Buddy List, go to the AIM menu in the main window and select "New IM." You'll then be prompted to enter the screen name of the person you wish to contact.


Once you've opened an IM window, it's easy to send a message. Simply type your message into the white text box near the bottom of the IM window. When you're finished typing, either hit the enter key on your keyboard or click the "send" button in the bottom right corner of the IM window.

The text that you entered will appear in the top half of the IM window. When your buddy replies, you'll see his or her response under your message like a conversation. You can save IM conversations from the File menu by clicking on "Save Window." You can also open the conversation later and pick up where you left off.

AIM will notify you with an alert tone when you receive a new IM. If someone IMs you who isn't on your Buddy List, you'll get a message saying that "[screen name] has sent you an IM. Do you want to read it?" You always have the option to ignore an IM and even to block a particular screen name from ever sending you an IM again.

If you want to IM several people at the same time, you can invite all the participants to join a temporary chat room. Here's how you set up a chat:

  1. Go to the AIM menu in the main window.
  2. Roll over "Chat" and click on "Buddy Chat."
  3. Enter the screen names of all of the people you want to invite to the chat.
  4. Your buddies will receive an invitation, which they can accept or deny.

A chat room works the same as normal IM. To send a message to the group, type it into the text box and press the enter key or click send.

OK, now let's look at some of the newer, more advanced features of AIM.


New Features for AIM

cell phone chat
Cell phone users can hold instant messaging chats by using AOL.
© Photographer: Ron Chapple Studios | Agency: Dreamstime

One of the latest new features for AIM is the ability to send IMs to cell phones as text messages. To do this, you'll need to know the cell phone number of the person you wish to send it to. Here's how you send a text message in AIM 6.5:

  1. Open a new IM window by double-clicking on one of your buddies.
  2. Press the "TXT Msg" button at the bottom of the IM window.
  3. If you haven't already assigned a cell phone number to the buddy, you'll be prompted to enter one now.
  4. Type your message, click send and it'll go straight to your friend's cell.

There's even a new feature called IM forwarding that forwards IMs to your cell phone when you're away from your computer. You can activate IM forwarding by going into the main Edit menu and clicking on Settings. In the Settings window, choose Mobile and register your cell phone for IM forwarding. You can even reply to forwarded IMs with text messages from your cell phone.


AIM is capitalizing on the popularity of Voice Over IP (VoIP) telephony by offering free Internet phone calls to other AIM users. To make Internet phone calls through AIM, you'll need a headset with a built-in microphone or a computer with speakers and a microphone. Here's how to make a free voice call in AIM 6.5:

  1. Double-click on a contact in your Buddy List to open a new IM window.
  2. Click the "Talk" button at the bottom of the window.
  3. When your buddy picks up, start talking.

The same is true for free video calls. Simply double-click on a buddy and click the "Video" button at the bottom of the IM window. Of course, you'll need a webcam to participate in video calls.

AIM Call Out is another VoIP service, and this one is similar to Skype. You can call any phone number directly from AIM, but you'll be charged by the minute.

File-sharing is a useful new feature of AIM. You can easily send individual files or whole file folders to any other AIM user. Here's how it works:

  1. Double-click on a buddy or open a new IM window through the AIM menu.
  2. Click on the "Send Files" button at the bottom of the IM window and choose "Send File" or "Send Folder."
  3. This will open up a window asking you to select the file or folder from your computer.
  4. The recipient can choose to accept or deny the file transfer.

For sharing photos, AIM 6.5 has a special "Pictures" button at the bottom of the IM window. This feature lets you drag and drop photos into the IM window. The photos will be resized and sent instantly to the recipient as individual pics or a slideshow.

With AIM 6.5, AOL has also expanded social networking options for users. You can now create a public or private profile page on which to share photos, hobbies and links. These AIM Profile pages include links to your buddies' pages as well. You can access your profile page by going to the AIM menu and choosing "Open My Profile."

Now let's take a look at AIM Express, a new service that doesn't require downloading of software.


AIM Express and Other Products

instant messaging
Instant messaging provides a great way to stay
© Photographer: Lisa F. Young | Agency: Dreamstime

On an increasing basis, computer users are depending on instant messaging to reach friends, even when they're not at home. AIM Express, a new service, allows users to send IMs to friends without downloading or running any software. AIM Express runs in any Web browser and is convenient for users who can't access AIM.

Friends can talk to friends from any location as long as they're at a computer that has Internet access. They can use it at home, school or work. Here's how it works:


  1. Go to the AIM Express Web site and click the button that says "Launch AIM Express."
  2. Log in with your AIM screen name and password.
  3. Your browser will launch a small pop-up window that resembles your normal AIM software, without newer features like audio and video calls.

AIM Express works just like the software version of AIM. The application loads your entire Buddy List. Any new buddies or groups you add will automatically be added to your desktop version the next time you log on. You can also access AOL Mail through two e-mail icons at the bottom of the window.

Some office and school networks block users from logging onto AIM Express through their browsers. One way around this is to use AIM Express Proxy, a stripped down Web version of AIM that runs on a proxy server, eluding most network filters.

AIM Share is another Web service that lets you send a link or broadcast a message to all of your buddies at once. You can either log onto the AIM Share Web site or add a special AIM Share button to your browser toolbar. When you find a cool Web site, click the AIM Share button and AIM will create a message featuring the site's URL. Type a quick description and press "Share" to send to the link to everyone on your Buddy List.

In your Web settings for AIM, you can also configure AIM to send messages to your buddies each time you post on one of many popular social networking and social media Web sites like YouTube, Digg,, Flickr and others.

AIM Expressions is a new site for managing your buddy icons and wallpaper. A buddy icon is the small image that accompanies all of your outgoing IMs as well as your buddy profile. Wallpaper is the background to your buddy icon.

In the My Personality box at the top of the AIM Expressions page are your current settings. Click the Change buttons to browse a list of dozens of buddy icons and wallpapers. You can also type "buddy icon" into Google and find hundreds of sites for downloading customized buddy icons.

Now let's look at some of the other new products and services offered by AIM.


AIM Applications

AIM pro
Many business professionals rely on AIM Pro to maintain their schedule and reach colleagues.
Image courtesy of AOL

According to a 2004 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 11 million Americans use IM at work [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. While some office workers undoubtedly use IM to chat with friends, many others have tapped into the technology as a powerful professional collaboration tool.

With this in mind, AIM has released AIM Pro, a free IM tool that's designed to meet the communication needs of the modern office. Here are some of the key features of AIM Pro:


  • Desktop sharing - AIM Pro is powered by WebEx, a conferencing company. Desktop sharing is a powerful Web conferencing tool that allows you to show the contents of your computer screen to anyone logged into the conference.
  • Videoconferencing - This feature is similar to video calls on AIM 6.5. You can add video capability to any chat session between AIM users.
  • File-sharing - You can send important documents to colleagues instantly without worrying about exceeding maximum attachment sizes on e-mails.
  • E-mail - AIM Pro integrates with Microsoft Outlook so you can send, receive and manage all e-mails and IMs from one interface.
  • Calendar - AIM Pro has a built-in calendar program that also integrates with Microsoft Outlook to update you on important meetings and appointments directly in the IM window.
  • Security - AIM Pro relies on the secure WebEx conferencing infrastructure to encrypt and safeguard information that travels across the network.

AIM Tunes is a new Aim application that allows any two AIM users to listen to each other's music for free. Here's how it works:

AIM tunes
AIM Tunes allows users to create playlists.
Image courtesy of AOL
  1. Download the free AIM Tunes software plug-in.
  2. Once a user logs onto AIM Tunes, the software automatically searches his hard drive for audio files.
  3. Now any of that user's buddies can log onto AIM Tunes and search his music library.

AIM Tunes can't, however, stream music protected by DRM (digital rights management), which includes most of the MP3s sold on sites like iTunes and Napster [source: YouTube].

AIM 6.5 also lets you receive IMs even when you're logged out or offline. By going into Web settings, you can choose to "accept offline IMs" from buddies on your Buddy List. When you log back on to AIM, you can read any IMs that you missed while you were away. Previously, AIM didn't allow you to send IMs to users who were offline.

AIM Bots are automated buddies for checking movie times, stock tickers, prices on digital cameras and lots of other services. AIM Bots have their own group in the Buddy List. To use one of the bots, double-click on its icon to open an IM window and type in something simple, like “Hi.” Press "Send." The bot will then give you instructions on how to use the service, usually through a series of numbered menus.

Community chat rooms used to be a big part of the AIM and AOL experience in general, but they’ve become less popular as many were invaded by automated chat bots, the chat equivalent of spam. AIM has moved the conversation to community message boards that can be found at the AOL People Connection site. You can still access public chat rooms on most versions of AIM by clicking on Chat and scrolling to Community Chat, but many of them are empty or outdated.

We hope this HowStuffWorks article has provided a good overview of the basic and advanced features of AOL Instant Messenger. For more information about AOL instant messenger and related topics, see the links on the next page.


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