Passive Identity: From AOL Away Messages to Instagram

October 27, 2015, by , in Blog, no comments

Picture it: College or High School, 1997…AOL Instant Messenger. Relationships were won or lost based on what Cure lyric was carefully chosen to appear when friends saw that you weren’t available. This mini digital mission statement for the hour (or the day if you were deliberately gone or hiding for a long time) quickly evolved from simply, “I’m busy” to a creative statement about your state of mind. Sometimes it captured the essence of who you were with a famous quote and sometimes it just cattily called out those who had ticked you off.

It was a way of describing yourself, your mood, and your relationships in a passive way that would be left for all (or at least just your friends) to see. And it’s behavior that deserves a closer look, because we’re seeing it appear again, unprompted, in a new generation.

AOL Instant Messenger’s Away Message
No matter what you wrote in it, the Away Message in some ways pre-dated the Facebook Profile as a way to statically showcase identity. Sure it wasn’t a litany of family or occupational information (Facebook’s About section has turned into a slightly softer version of a LinkedIn profile nowadays) but it was a true representation of mood.

Source: Buzzfeed

Source: Buzzfeed

Maybe it’s more akin to the text version of your Facebook profile and cover photo combo. It held a certain pressure to either be slightly abstract (like with the quotes) or very literal (usual contenders being, “I’m working on a paper” or, “Out partying”). As the relational took a more firm hold, including the completely real use of Away Messages to actually break up with people, using an app to truly express your place in the cosmos of your relationships wasn’t such a weird thing. Eventually, especially into the 2000’s, it started to become a place where you were expected to itemize your absolute best-est friends.

MySpace’s Top 8
Which brings us to MySpace. Somewhere in the social media primordial pool MySpace plucked an interesting, similar concept and put it front-and-center: first with the Bulletins and also The Top 8. Bulletins were ways for you to ostensibly communicate with all of your MySpace friends at once. The ten-day limitation (when they would disappear) and the misuse by spammers make the Bulletin feature not the best example of passive-identity.

Source: Buzzfeed

Source: Buzzfeed

With Top 8, users would prioritize a select group of Friends (and also Interests and Bands) who would appear front-and-center on your profile. The Top 8 concept was an important one whose muscle users flexed constantly as a signal of who was in good-graces, what interests were primary, and whether we actually cared. For all of the ridiculous bells and whistles a MySpace profile might employ, from auto-playing music to dancing unicorns across the screen and obnoxious customization, The Top 8 was a refreshingly rigid rule that one could depend on. Well, depend on and obsess over. Who you had in your Top 8 mattered to many teens – and likely some adults. (And the order – Who appeared first in your list?) Even older audiophiles were careful in choosing the 8 musicians or bands that really mattered – wouldn’t want that errant liking of Def Leppard to cloud an otherwise perfectly-manicured gothic Top 8 with Joy Division, NIN, Sisters of Mercy… I mean you had to put a new band or two in your Top 8 so you could look like you were open to new ideas and to educate potential new fans. Not that I’m saying anyone did that. Ahem.

Behold, The Tween Use of Instagram
So fast forward another few years and we’re seeing the passive identity concept bubble up again – This time less as a learned-concept translated to new channels and in fact just born anew within a new generation. Yes, the Gen X’ers and Millennials who curated Away Messages and Top 8’s are still at it on their new platforms, but it’s the tweens of today that I’m referring to – and it’s happening with both males and females.

The Bio portion of my daughter’s Instagram profile changes about every month or so – not significantly in purpose or style mind you, but rather the exact contents of a few slots she has in the short few lines. The emoji’s of laughing so hard you’re crying are there, her school initials are there, but then so are two very important sections at the end: her two best friend’s names flanked by representative emoji’s. It’s important even for those who aren’t her friends since she and many of her friends, rightly use a private profile on Instagram, and Bios still show up to those who aren’t connected to her.


A quick look at every other profile of her friends reveals basically the same concept, just tweaked slightly to taste: best friends, maybe a favorite sports team, always the school as an identifier, and a few emoji’s for good measure. Some use amusing file-name patterns. Others actually add in an “anniversary” date or last changed  – inserting a time-element in ways AOL Instant Messenger users used to. In fact there isn’t a single one who actually, beyond the school name, used the Bio for any actual Biographical information… that is, unless you count that they are letting their friendships define them. Which, of course, is exactly what we were doing with MySpace. The vehicle itself is immaterial – it’s more interesting that they started doing this even with no prior experience with social networks.

Passive Identity Markers
So it’s interesting, all told, that this is all still happening without prompting – this need to publicly display a social order and your place in it – the association with things as a part of who we are. It’s what people see you say even when you aren’t saying anything – significant as it showcases we might not always have to be talking aloud through the channel to be expressing something.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t apply to all channels – no one ever really cares about your Twitter bio and as noted before, your Facebook About section is starting to look more like LinkedIn than anything fun (unless you’re one of those hyper-clever people who try and subvert the Facebook labeling system with puns like, “Graduated from the School of Hard Knocks”). But it’s interesting to see that there’s a generation who found this for themselves. And it begs the question: does it apply to brands? Could it?

It’s not necessarily the last thing you said in the stream, it’s the totem you’ve left outside the house for people to see when you’re not home or just not talking to them.

Points to my wife Caroline of Commonwealth PR who pointed out the connection to Instagram and gave me the idea to elaborate!


by: Dean Browell, Executive Vice President and Co-Founder