Saying goodbye to the proto-social network of AOL Instant Messenger

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Many people remember specific, weird things about September 11, 2001. For me, it was a headline about stamps tucked into the chaos.

As I started to absorb the horror of the day through TV and online news sources that Tuesday morning, I noticed an odd inflection point highlighted on the Washington Post’s list of “Top News” links. While the first three stories were blaring headlines about the terrorist attacks, I remember clearly that the fourth was a news brief about the threat of postal stamp rate increase, the last trivial story published before all other news got pushed aside indefinitely.

I wanted to quickly share this lighthearted observation with my circle of friends, and in 2001 I only had one easy, surefire way to do that online. I brought up AOL Instant Messenger, opened the menu, and chose “Edit Profile.” That’s where I shared links to the Post’s top four stories at the time and warned my friends not to miss the important postal news amid the other stuff going on (I also included a semi-apologetic note that I hoped the lighthearted joke would be a welcome distraction on such a dark day).

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