R U IN2 IM?: How Instant Messenger is changing the way we communicate

By day, Kim Kass is a senior double majoring in political science and Latin American studies, but by night, “LuvKassanova” is a self-described addict who can’t live without one of the most popular pastimes, instant messenger, commonly known as IM.

Using six screen names (“SNs” in IM speak) on America Online, the Microsoft Network and Yahoo!, Kass estimates she spends more than five hours each day talking to more than 300 friends, family members and random people she has yet to meet face-to-face. When buying her last computer, Kass did not demand a CD burner or an advanced music system, just a fast Internet connection with IM software.

Kass is not alone. Millions of college students use some form of an instant messenger because it is efficient, wildly popular and free.

According to an AOL survey conducted last July, about three out of every four people online use some form of instant messenger application. D.C. Internet users instant message friends and family more than every other city except New York and Philadelphia. AOL ranked the District third in IM savviness, falling behind only those two cities. This rank is based on the amount of time users spend online (more than 10 hours a week), the length of their buddy lists (D.C. is second in the nation with an average of 31 buddies) and the percentage of users who customize their IM with buddy icons and sounds (58 percent).

AIM was created in 1989, but it only gained popularity in May 1997, when AOL launched a free version. With computer skills and high-speed Internet connections proliferating rapidly, AIM will only continue expanding.

While MSN is popular in Canada and Europe, AIM controls most of America’s instant messaging world. Many GW students said they had created their first screen name by their freshman year in high school.

Teenagers use AIM much more than any other age group because they tend to adapt to new technologies more quickly than adults, said Sheila Tran, a spokesperson for AOL. But other ages, she added, are adapting just as quickly because of the program’s simplicity.

Kass said she was not surprised by the service’s growing popularity because she said IM is not only the latest technology to keep in touch with people, it’s the best.

“Everyone can speak to their friends simultaneously without using cell phone minutes or sending out e-mail,” she said. “They can literally get in touch with them right then and there.”

As Internet use increases, both e-mails and IM are gaining popularity, but their functions are becoming more segregated, said Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University who recently conducted a study on IM. Just three or four years ago, e-mail was seen as a marketplace for casual writing, but now the IM is commonly casual and e-mail is more formal.

“Students feel quite strongly that e-mail is what you do with professors, but the instant messenger is what you do with peers,” Baron said.

More and more programs are being designed to tailor each person’s IM application to his own needs. With new AIM software, users can now play games with other users, and specific programs such as Dead AIM and Trillian Pro allow users to sign on to multiple screen names at once and combine buddy lists from multiple services such as AIM and MSN.

“4 real.” “I was like, OMG.” “TTYL.”

Such lingo is more prevalent than conventional English in many IM vocabularies. Because IM is the epitome of convenience, users often replace longer words with abbreviations. For example, “to” can be replaced by 2, “are” is signified by the letter “r” and “girls” is sometimes typed as “grlz.” Even entire phrases such as “talk to you later” and “be right back” are replaced with the acronyms TTYL and BRB.

IMs eliminate common communication tools such as tone, intonation and volume, but users compensate creatively – by typing the term “LOL” (laugh out loud) when they are amused, using capital letters to signify yelling and inserting various emoticons to represent facial expressions and their corresponding feelings.

While the language of IM conversations seems innocent and benign, its increasing usage is frightening some parents and writing teachers. According to a 2003 USA Today article titled “Yo, can u plz help me write English?” parents and teachers are seeing common IM abbreviations and acronyms leaking into academic papers and even resumes.

There is no doubt that IM is creeping into society via daily conversations and other electronic communication such as e-mails. But the head of GW’s Writing Department, professor Mark Mullen, said he has never seen an instance of IM speak in class because smarter students understand that these acronyms and phrases have no place in academic writing.

“AIM speak tends to occur when writers can’t shift between casual and formal writing,” he said. “To a friend, it’s OK, but on a scholarly paper, it’s not.”

The distinction may not be as clear to high school students, but Mullen said parental fears about IM are unfounded.

“If a parent is worried about IM speak entering into their children’s writing,” he said, “then we should be having conversations about how to improve writing instruction across the board, not denouncing the instant messenger.”

IM users let their entire buddy lists know when they are in the shower, taking a nap, at class or running errands. They tell their friends what kind of mood they’re in, who they’re on the phone with and what their exam schedule is like for the next two weeks.

Many people who put up away messages or check other people’s would say that these one-liners are often filled with subliminal messages and words meant for specific people. A study Baron conducted last fall lends support to these assumptions.

Baron said her students and their buddies are the first group to formally study the many meanings of away massages and their impact and usage.

“The vast majority of away messages are posted in order to give other sorts of either overt or covert information,” Baron said. “And, overwhelmingly, (respondents) told us that their away messages (are meant to) entertain.”

Many students in the study said they feel they have to “one-up” each other, and they do that by posting the newest song lyrics or the latest literature passage, or by quoting their witty friends.

“People think about what they post because they think it is a presentation of self,” Baron said.

Many students surveyed in the study said they would be letting their friends down if their posts were boring and that they save their best away messages so they can be used at just the right time.

While some GW students plan their next away message, they check the messages of all their friends – as many as 200 buddies.

Senior Alberto Valverde said he checks many of his friends’ away messages and has saved 16 of his own.

“I think checking away messages is pathetic, but I do it,” he said. “It provides a little insight into someone else’s life, and I can check to see if they have something interesting to say.”

He noted that many students incorporate their moods into their away messages and said he takes it a step further by leaving inside jokes for certain people in his own messages to make them more entertaining.

Citing her “gullible roommate,” sophomore Laura Brigham always puts up quirky quotes, including strange observations about Ramen noodles and radiators. Bringham could leave simple away messages such as “out,” but she said that wouldn’t be as specific or as amusing as roommate quotes.

Sophomore David Wilson said a friend of his demands that people contact him over the phone because he refuses to use IM. Wilson said his friend is “insane.”

“That’s the problem. I don’t talk to him as much because he doesn’t have instant messenger,” Wilson said.

AIM has made keeping in touch with long-distance friends much easier than it used to be, which makes the service especially desirable for college students with friends at various universities around the country – all at the same time.

“A phone call is much more of a mentally involved conversation, but with instant messenger, I usually have a few conversations going on,” Valverde said. “You can’t do that with a phone.”

Many GW students said they only use the phone if they have a specific reason to contact someone. If they just want to say hi to a friend, they use IM.

When Kass studied abroad in South America, she kept in touch with friends and family using IM, not the phone, but now she worries.

“I can’t talk on the telephone anymore. I prefer to chat to multiple people, and I don’t like only talking to one person,” she said. “I need to multitask.”

Neglecting schoolwork also worries Kass, but she continues to spend hours online.

“If I didn’t have any AIM installed on my computer, I think I would concentrate more on my papers or the research I should be conducting.”

Sophomore Ariel Wade is also wary of the drawbacks of using AIM.

“I can’t tell facial expressions, I can’t tell sarcasm at all,” Wade said. “For a gullible person like me, it makes it harder to understand people, and that’s really frustrating.”

Baron discovered an interesting peculiarity in her research on IMs. Some students see away messages as so important to their social life that they write fake messages about what they are doing. People might say they are out clubbing or at an important social function when, in fact, they are not.

Some students said they worry about leaving private information in away messages and personal profiles because it instigates unhealthy exhibitionism and competition.

Kass admitted to leaving away messages directed at an ex-boyfriend or two, but she said she’s getting better at just signing off, doing her work and living in reality, rather than relying on instantaneous connections.

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