In the beginning, there was AOL Instant Messenger. That wasn’t actually the beginning. Talkomatic, Compuserve’s CB Simulator, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) all preceded it. But AIM was the beginning of something, a gateway to real-time, all-the-time internet communication for the normies.

You didn’t need to be a computer nerd to ride the AIM train. Your parents got the compact disc in the mail, you plugged your clear plastic corded phone into a modem connected to your Gateway 2000, and you were off. Rather, you were on. Very online, and unaware at the time that the portal would disappear behind you once you crossed through, that you would never again live a wholly offline life.

AIM, which launched 25 years ago this month, represented that moment for me. It propelled me into a universe of limitless pixels, endless distractions, and a penchant for bland screen names (my only embellishment was my basketball jersey number, tacked onto my initials). It was also a live social network. A digital door creaked open, and millions of us scrambled to our seats to see who had just signed on, who was down to chat.

Sometimes you had to step away. So you threw up an Away Message: I’m not here. I’m in class/at the game/my dad needs to use the comp. I’ve left you with an emo quote that demonstrates how deep I am. Or, here’s a song lyric that signals I am so over you. Never mind that my Away Message is aimed at you.

I miss Away Messages. This nostalgia is layered in abstraction; I probably miss the newness of the internet of the 1990s, and I also miss just being … away. But this is about Away Messages themselves—the bits of code that constructed Maginot Lines around our availability. An Away Message was a text box full of possibilities, a mini-MySpace profile or a Facebook status update years before either existed. It was also a boundary: An Away Message not only popped up as a response after someone IM’d you, it was wholly visible to that person before they IM’d you.

Nothing like this exists in our modern messaging apps. Oh fine, you’re going to insist I mention some of the messaging guardrails tech companies have rolled out in recent years. On iPhone and iPad, there’s “Do Not Disturb” and “Focus” mode, while Android OS supports “Do Not Disturb” as well as “Schedule Send,” which, as a Google spokesperson put it, “is great when you’re texting across time zones, such as when you want to send an early morning Happy Birthday to your friend in London.” And yes, you can “Mute Notifications” on WhatsApp.

The always-on workplace chat app Slack offers “Update Your Status,” the closest thing we have to Away Messages today. You can give fair warning that you’re Out of Office or slap a “sick” emoji on your profile. You can write “Writing, please DND,” because you’re once again behind on a deadline. This, it turns out, is an invitation to be disturbed anyway.

More than just cute pictures, these digital icons are a lingua franca for the digital age.

These are not guardrails. These are squishy orange cones that we all plow through, like 15-year-olds in driver’s ed. Even the names of these features—Focus, Schedule Send—are phrases born of a work-obsessed culture. Bring back the ennui, the poetry, the pink fonts, the tildes and asterisks.

What I’m reminiscing about is, of course, an entirely different technology protocol. There’s instant messaging, and there’s text messaging. Today the two are practically indistinguishable, but 25 years ago these experiences were disparate. AIM was a desktop client that sent bits of information to an internet server when you logged on, blasting your arrival to the folks on your Buddy List and displaying the same information to you when your friends logged on. It used a proprietary protocol called OSCAR, which stood for Open System for CommunicAtion in Realtime. Realtime meant live chat. Text messaging, on the other hand, referred to SMS, or Short Message Service. And this mostly happened on mobile devices connected to cellular networks.

Technology aside, the social interactions around these messaging forms were distinctive. Think of it as synchronous messaging versus asynchronous messaging, says Justin Santamaria, a former lead Apple engineer who helped launch Apple iMessage (now Messages). Back when he was working on iChat, a Mac client that supported live AIM chats and was the precursor to iMessage, the mentality was that “SMS was very much about asynchronous communication, a kind of ‘fire and forget’ model,” he says. “If I want to tell you something I send it, you receive it, and then you respond on your time.”

Now, “asynchronous” messaging has become the dominant form of text-based remote communications, Santamaria says. We’re all glued to Messages, WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, and Signal on our phones, and in many instances we receive the same messages at the same time on our laptops. With that evolution, our social contracts have changed.

Catapulting even further back into the past for a moment: Old-fashioned phone calls used to, and sometimes still do, start with “Hey, you free?” Santamaria points out. “You were going to tell me if you could talk before we started the conversation.” There’s a version of this today—someone might preface their message with “Not urgent, respond when you can,” for example—but for the most part, we just send the text message without consideration, Santamaria says. Interruption is the default.

Continuing to make the distinction, though, between synchronous and asynchronous messaging only damages my own argument, which is that asynchronous messaging is real-time chat now. We are always on. That clear plastic corded phone that dialed up and signed me on has morphed into the world’s most powerful pocket computer that also happens to make phone calls. Provided we’re in range of cell service or Wi-Fi, we can be reached at literally any time. The dreaded ellipsis—the dot dot dot as someone types a response—has made us captive audiences. We are all walking live chats.

Does anyone pay any mind to the fact that a person appears to have their notifications silenced when we initiate a text message to them? I think not. Instead, as Santamaria points out to me with a chuckle, we see that as a signal that it’s OK to send a message because the person won’t be disturbed.

This is a fair point, and it’s also worth acknowledging that some people (not me) are just better at managing their messages than others. Not long ago I was both horrified and fascinated by a screenshot a prominent tech CEO shared on Twitter, in which he inadvertently showed that he had well over a hundred unread text messages in his Messages queue.

I inquired about this via Twitter DM, no doubt interrupting him, and he told me he treats his text messages very much like he treats email. He triages, which is a very CEO thing to say. “I just respond to the stuff I need and mark anything as unread I need to get back to … the numbers don’t stress me out.”

This seems smart. This guy is smart. Although the author Sam George might diagnose him with a totally made-up condition called Dyscommunication Syndrome, or DCS, the basis for his book I’ll Get Back to You. The subtitle of the book is “The Dyscommunication Crisis: Why Unreturned Messages Drive Us Crazy and What to Do About It.” (I haven’t read the entire book; I’ve been too distracted by messages.)

George makes a case for closing the gap between messages and their response times, rather than taking a pause or breaking the feedback loop entirely. Some of his advice is sound—take the conversation offline when possible and channel empathy when someone doesn’t respond right away, making sure to ask if they’re OK before firing off an accusatory text. The book also includes such gems as, “What you do with a dick pic is up to you.”

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Lest I’m perceived by others as a communications curmudgeon, I’ll just own up to it: I’m a communications curmudgeon. A deluge of notifications drives me wild, and not in a good way. Reminders of “memories” from a year ago, or nine years ago, today? No thanks. I’ve given up on my inbox—well, for the most part. On days when I do have the energy to address email, I gleefully mark as spam and unsubscribe, rinse and repeat.

People send too many messages. I send too many messages. The first step in making messaging amends is to admit that you, too, are an inconsiderate messaging maniac.

But I’ll never stop, and neither will you. Quick messaging is a utility. It is, in many cases, the most efficient and meaningful form of communication we have. It’s crucial for relationship building, for organizing, for supporting others through hard times. It can be joyful. It’s an accidental social network, an observation I’ve been making about Apple’s Messages for a long time (acknowledging that Messages is extremely US-centric; outside of the US, people use WhatsApp, Telegram, or WeChat in similar ways). It’s not even accidental: Meta, née Facebook, knew exactly what it was doing when it acquired WhatsApp.

Would something like the Away Message, a relic from an era when we just didn’t message so darn much, actually put up the guardrails we need? Maybe not. But I’m willing to try anything at this point. If we can’t ever get away from messages, at the very least we can create a digital simulacrum of ourselves that appears to be away. What else is the internet for?