Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Instant Messaging: It's Not Just for Kids Anymore

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Instant Messaging: It's Not Just for Kids Anymore

Article excerpt

By anyone's definition, instant messaging, or IM for short, counts as "hip technology." Although it rides on technological components, instant messaging is really about an interactive style of electronic conversations, replete with its own linguistic conventions. It's not exactly a language of its own, but it's certainly a dialect. It's about communicating with others conversationally in real time. Savvy IMers might carry on a dozen simultaneous virtual two-way conversations, intuitively keeping track of what's been said--or not said--to each of the chatters. It all makes perfect sense to the "in crowd," yet appears cacophonous to the uninitiated. At first blush, conversations held through instant messaging appear sloppy and chaotic, yet far more nuances of expression prevail than would be read in a typical e-mail exchange. The pervasive presence of instant messaging will be ignored only by organizations willing to risk irrelevancy.

Many individuals--mostly, but not exclusively, from the younger generation--prefer instant messaging to e-mail and other forms of electronic communication. Especially in the home, but increasingly in educational and business environments, instant messaging stands as the most popular means of communication. I notice that for my own teenagers, instant messaging even displaces the telephone. For them, the virtual conversations of IM provide a level of immediacy and engagement far beyond that of e-mail. A few days ago, I was talking with some of my daughter's teenage friends, and they were interested in a particular Web site. When I offered to e-mail them the link, I was surprised that none of them kept up with an e-mail account. For that crowd, "IMing" has almost totally displaced e-mail.

One of the downsides of e-mail lies in not knowing if or when a message you send might get answered. Not the case with IM. All instant messaging systems offer availability notification--a feature missing from both e-mail and the telephone. Knowing that a person is signed on and available for a quick electronic chat enhances the feeling of immediacy. Having your online presence available might not always be a good thing. While you may want to be online to chat with a particular individual, you may not want to be available to everyone.

Instant messaging isn't just about chatting with text. Have a Webcam? If so, some IM services let you enrich your instant messaging experience with live video. Also, instant messaging isn't limited to computers--it thrives on all sorts of mobile devices. PDAs and cell phones include text messaging capabilities and represent a huge amount of communications. One of the recent developments I've been reading about involves interoperability in the instant messaging services, between providers such as AOL and Yahoo! and cellular telephone text-messaging systems from companies like Cingular and Verizon.

Instant Messaging @ Work?

Instant messaging increasingly finds use in the workplace--usually informally, but often with institutional support. In the same way that IM facilitates interactive person-to-person communication at home, it serves as a natural medium for conversing with co-workers. Instant messaging emulates the hallway conversations--where the best exchange of ideas often takes place--much better than e-mail. Communicating in real time among a geographically dispersed group of co-workers fuels a level of collaboration that only rarely occurs with the store-and-forward model of traditional e-mail.

Yet several of the qualities of instant messaging that make it attractive for individual communications might cause problems when used at work. Consumer-oriented IM systems lack authentication, security, and accountability features essential in many business environments.

Conversations held with consumer-grade instant messaging leave no traces behind. That's both a good and bad quality. Just like conversations held person-to-person or on the phone, no official record is needed (or probably wanted! …

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