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Instant Messaging - Introduction
This article provides an introduction to how instant messaging works.
Instant Messaging (IM) has been around for decades in one form or another, but has recently gained prominence with the rise of the Internet. This document attempts to explain what IM is, how it works, and when it's useful in basic terms, for those people who didn't grow up with it.
What is Instant Messaging?
With Instant Messaging, you can converse with someone who is geographically distant using your computer. You begin by creating a list of people with whom you'd like to communicate. When any of the people you've designated are logged in, they will appear in your "buddy list" and you can "call" them and begin chatting. Typically, you'll send only a line or two, wait for a response, and send another line or two, similar to face-to-face conversation. It's also possible with cIM to create separate chat rooms for different groups or purposes as needed. (Chat rooms are places where many people can communicate with each other at once.) As an added feature, cIM (the University's IM service) users can communicate directly with Google Talk and other compatible IM services.
How is it different from email?
IM connects people in disparate locations and facilitates interactions. IM is a complement to -- not a replacement for -- email. Both email and IM have advantages and disadvantages. With IM, as with email, you type your thoughts into a computer, but unlike email, cIM lets you see whether the person is available at the moment you are sending the message, and the experience is more like having a conversation than like leaving each other messages. This quick response time can be helpful when time is tight. On the other hand, email is the best alternative if you wish to send fairly long responses or commentary. While instant messages have the advantage of bringing people together across distances, the asynchronous nature of email means that respondents can get emails and respond when convenient.
Many people find IM to be a useful tool for quick business communications. People who are in geographically dispersed locations can work together on projects using IM. IT Services staff frequently use IM to ask another staff member for information in the middle of a meeting, for example, or gather in chat rooms to troubleshoot problems.
Of course, one could send an email during a meeting as well. The difference with IM is the assurance that the other party is online at the same time. As another benefit, if you have a question to ask, and know that any of four people could answer it, IM lets you ask just the one who's available instead of sending an email to all four and risking redundant answers.
IM is also beneficial for academic work. For instance, suppose you wanted to get comments from someone while working under deadline, or you wanted to collaborate on the writing of a certain paragraph. With IM, you can pass that paragraph back and forth quickly, revising and editing in real time, rather than sending something off and waiting for comments.
The question of whether you should add IM to your communications toolkit depends on how important it is to you to be in real-time communication with the recipients of your messages. If you feel comfortable with leaving a message and getting a reply later on, email will do fine. If you need the person to almost "be there" for the best communication, IM is a better choice.