AOL is working on a new initiative to make its instant message service, AIM, a central social feature to any web site, well-placed sources tell me. Starting next year, a user on a social network might use AIM to create an IM chat list from their friends list on their favorite social network. They could then IM each other without having to use a separate chat application.

Oh wait, what does that remind me of? Ah yes, Facebook Chat (pictured), MySpace IM, and most of all, Meebo‘s Community IM service. In fact, AOL is closely mimicking these interfaces, sources say. But AOL apparently wants to differentiate itself through tying everything around Bebo. Here are some more details that I’m hearing about the service:

AOL will use chat technology developed by Userplane, a startup it bought in 2006 for somewhere around $40 million. Userplane already offers a way for sites to integrate chat, but it’s a basic chat widget. AOL’s new chat service will feature a toolbar integrated at the bottom of partner sites, showing things like how many of a user’s IM friends are online and free to chat.

The new effort is being spearheaded by AOL employees at Bebo, the social network AOL bought for $850 million this spring, according to sources. Bebo rolled out a new “social inbox” earlier this month (screenshot below), that integrates AIM and other web services to try to create a central online hub for users. That service uses the concept of “lifestreaming” to let you share feeds of information from other sites: Photos from Flickr, videos from YouTube, status messages from Twitter, etc…

Details about AOL’s larger plan have been vague. But it apparently got Yahoo execs all excited when they heard about it during AOL-Yahoo merger talks, Kara Swisher has previously reported. The new service, she heard

[I]ncludes offering AOL’s various social-networking tools–-such as chat rooms, news feeds and instant messaging–-to be easily embedded by any Web site. The service will be called “Site Social,” with plans to use AOL’s advertising platform to help monetize the offering.

But to be clear, AOL’s effort isn’t just about making these features easily embeddable. It’s about making AIM a ubiquitious IM service that every other web site will use to offer its own IM services. So — and I’m speculating here — imagine signing up for your favorite social network, signing in through AIM, then chatting with your friends on that network. Or imagine the ability to send links you share on IM back to Bebo’s new service, for your friends on Bebo to see.

Apparently, though, AOL has been feeling jealous of Meebo and its IM integration service with other sites. For example, Perfspot, a social network that claims 20 million monthly unique visitors, is featured as an IM partner on Userplane’s site. But Perfspot is dropping Userplane to use Meebo’s CommunityIM service, I hear. AOL has been going around to some of Meebo’s partners, trying to get them to switch to AOL’s forthcoming service.

AOL is playing catch-up, in other words. Earlier today, Meebo announced integration with MySpace and Facebook — a way to chat with all of your friends on those sites, from within Meebo. CommunityIM now has more than 30 partners. Aside: AOL parent company Time Warner is also an investor in Meebo.

So what’s going to make AOL’s new service interesting? If AOL can tie in the 80 million users it claims to have on Bebo, AIM and its other chat service, ICQ, the company could regain its position as a central social destination on the web.

(For what it’s worth: I asked Bebo about this article and it said it “doesn’t comment on rumors or speculation.”)

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