Popularized by America Online (AOL) Instant Messenger (AIM) in the late 1990s, instant messaging services have found an ever-broadening niche in our society. The program spread largely by word of mouth, connecting students and computer-savvy families through real-time text conversations. In the beginning, only text was transmitted through AIM. Now, users can transfer files, create chat rooms, and choose to communicate through voice or video.
While the very first instant messaging programs, such as ICQ (I seek you) in 1989, were more business oriented, instant messaging has proved itself conducive to ordinary interpersonal relationships (Harding). In fact, such services are generally seen as informal modes of communication and have only recently been finding their ways back into the workplace. AIM, which practically had a monopoly on instant messaging from 1997 to 1999 when Yahoo and MSN messengers were launched, has easily survived the competition with its solid base of 45 million users by September, 1999 (AOL).
It's hard to get an accurate census of IM users on the web. "Friendships Through IM," an article published in November 2004, puts the proportion of American web users who also IM at about 50% (Hu). Hardly a year later, in November 2005, AOL claims that the proportion is nearly 70%. IM use is spreading quickly, but not that quickly. Although its data is from June 2004, the Pew Internet and American Life Project's instant messaging report probably offers the most accurate statistics, putting the figure at 42%.
It comes as no surprise that young adults, ages 18 to 27, are more frequent IM users than the average online American. 62% of web users in this age group have used IM services, and nearly three out of four college students instant message.
An instant message window is basically a private chat room. Like the bulk of chat rooms, IM is generally used for conversation between friends. There are two main schools of thought regarding the effects of instant messaging on interpersonal relationships: Lost and Liberated.
The Lost perspective focuses on the social cues that are lost when interaction is entirely text-based. When instant messaging, users cannot register the subtleties of body language, facial expression, and vocal inflection. Emoticons, images or collections of symbols that represent facial expressions, can only partially remedy the situation. Emoticons have two main weaknesses: 1) they give the speaker full control of how they express themselves nonverbally, and 2) IM services offer only about twenty to thirty icons - insufficient for the number of human emotions and for discerning among shades of emotion. The deficit of social cues results in more likely misunderstandings and greater social uncertainty (Hu).
The Liberated perspective counters that online relationships help break the bonds of location. Proponents of this viewpoint claim that people have been developing ways to supplement aural and visual social cues in text. For example, bold, italic, and ALL CAPS help to communicate inflection. While emoticons may be insufficient compared to face-to-face expression, they do communicate nonverbal information. Liberated IMers argue that IM relationships can also overcome social uncertainty - it just takes more time (Hu).
However, these two viewpoints on instant message communication seem to approach the problem assuming that instant message is the only form of communication in the relationship. More frequently, IM is one of many forms of communication, supplementing face-to-face meetings.
Even when they are not actively conversing, some IM users put up and "away message" to maintain a social presence. Many leave the program running all day or even all night. Most often, the away messages are amusing quotes or information about what the user is doing. Sometimes users include contact information, such as cell phone numbers. Using away messages in this manner is very common among college students.
In 2004, 27% of IM users report using an IM service in the workplace (Greenspan). Reactions to instant messaging in work situations have been mixed but positive overall. Some see it as a distraction, as 33% of users send personal messages from work. Parents appreciate the ability to quickly check in with their kids from their desks. Some IM users in the workplace believe that IM enables gossip, but less than five percent believe that it has negatively impacted teamwork.
As college instant message users enter the workforce, the proportion of workplace IMing is expected to continue increasing. Amanda Lenhart, research specialist for the Pew Internet Project's instant messaging report, said, "I would expect that IM use will grow within the workplace. As younger users age and move into management and positions of greater responsibility, they'll take their tools and comforts with them, one of which is instant messaging" (Greenspan).
One of the major drawbacks of instant messaging in the workplace is the lack of security offered by IM services. As services with tighter security are developed, use of instant messaging at work is predicted to increase significantly.
Some organizations have been utilizing instant messaging for real-time trouble-shooting conversations. For instance, Hewlett Packard offers IM tech help through their website. Because IM allows for multiple conversations to occur simultaneously, support personnel may be more efficient than if they used a telephone. Closer to home, the MSU library offers research assistance through instant messaging. Both organizations launch the instant messaging programs from their own servers. As technical writers, we may one day find ourselves working in this capacity.
IM is already changing the way we socialize and do business. How will it affect the field of technical communication? It is a powerful tool for organizations that offer personal trouble-shooting services. For technical communicators in the area of content management, IM may facilitate communication with the client and with employees who are learning to use the system. Instant messaging is a promising form of communication.
is an undergrad in the Digital Rhetoric & Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. She wants to be a science writer when she grows up.