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Instant messaging: it's not just for kids anymore

Computers in Libraries [November / December 2003]

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Copyright (c) 2003 Information Today

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Abstract: Breeding discusses the significance of instant messaging (IM) in communication today. By anyone’s definition, IM counts as "hip technology" and although it rides on technological components, IM is really about an interactive style of electronic conversations, replete with its own linguistic conventions.


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. Consumeroriented 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!). Instant messaging lends a sense of privacy, tempered with awareness that eavesdropping happens. In a business environment, that lack of accountability and permanency can be a real problem. Instant messaging often finds its way into official business transactions such as confirming prices and availability of products, placing orders, answering questions asked by customers, assigning work tasks, and the like. In some industries, regulatory mandates exist that require that all such communications be documented and retained. In an evaporative medium such as instant messaging, compliance with these mandates presents a challenge.

In response to such business concerns and in acknowledgment of IM's benefits as a communications genre, a number of enterprise or business-class instant messaging systems have emerged. These corporate IM environments provide the same user experience as the consumer versions yet interact with the organization's authentication environment, add encryption to ensure that others can't eavesdrop on the conversation, and perform the degree of message logging to meet compliance with regulatory or auditing procedures.

IM @ Your Library = VR

While I observe a trend of instant messaging displacing e-mail for personal communications and a growing trend toward its use in the corporate realm, I see some sluggishness in organizations like libraries adopting it for internal business communications. I'm not suggesting that librarians start using IM for its own sake but that they become aware that other types of organizations find it an attractive medium for certain kinds of exchanges.

The one activity where libraries have incorporated instant messaging is virtual reference services. The VR services that have become widely deployed in the last few years have often served as a librarian's first exposure to the world of instant messaging. The software for a typical virtual reference environment includes a chat window for communicating with the person who's posing the question, along with features that allow the librarian to push the appropriate Web page, or lead the customer through a session on a Web-based information resource. The chat component of most VR environments tames and domesticates the media, providing session logs, macros, and e-mail escape hatches. These features are not unlike the enhancements in other business-class instant messaging systems.

Do the chat systems imbedded in library VR systems resonate with those who use IM as their main communication mode? Or will users find them artificial and stodgy? I believe that the success of chat-based reference at least partially depends on the level of comfort that the librarian at the keyboard has with conventions of instant messaging and the informal and terse slang that comes with the territory. Again, IM seems to be just as much about the style of communication as about the software that carries it.

Maybe other libraries have different patterns, but most of the ones I'm familiar with don't see much use of instant messaging among their staffs. I wonder: If library workers used IM among themselves, would they be more comfortable with using chat-based VR to "talk" with patrons who have much more experience with IM?

E-Mail: Losing Popularity

E-mail finds itself in serious trouble today. Spam-that daily barrage of unwanted advertisements, get-rich-quick offers, invitations to porn sites, and the like-contributes to the risk of collapse of the communications medium on which it depends. I know that in my own in box, unwanted messages outnumber legitimate correspondence at least 20-1. Sure, I could implement more aggressive spam filtering, but at the risk of zapping something important.

But spam isn't the only factor. Even when a response comes within a few minutes, the wait can be unbearable to those used to the immediacy of instant messaging. When all you need is a quick answer, e-mail isn't always the right medium.

E-mail also creates serious document management troubles. Few of us are able to efficiently manage the volume of e-mail messages accumulated over the years. What should we keep, discard, or stash in a folder? We all have our own individual ad hoc methods, but at an organizational level, the complexity of the issues multiplies exponentially. E-mail has displaced the memo as the means for official communications within most organizations, without adequate infrastructure for retrievability and archiving beyond the individual level.

Will e-mail lose its status as the killer app of the Internet? It's not likely to happen anytime soon, but frustrations are rising. It seems to me that e-mail will remain part of the landscape for the foreseeable future, but it's hard not to see it losing ground due to attractive alternatives such as instant messaging and due to the ill effects caused by spam, spurious messages generated by Internet worms, and virus-laden attachments. I keep hoping for a time when the spam generators reach the point of diminishing returns, and e-mail once again becomes an efficient way to communicate.

Other Hip Technologies

Instant messaging isn't the only technology that gets my vote as "hip." Gigabit Ethernet gives us the ability to build networks that outpace the demand for bandwidth. The 802.11a and g flavors of Wi-Fi deliver wireless networks that offer morethan-decent performance. RFID (radio frequency ID) chips can revolutionize the way libraries circulate and inventory their collections. OpenURL-based reference linking helps liberate libraries from the futile exercise of hard-coding links to electronic resources in their catalogs and provides an infrastructure where library users easily click through from a citation to the full text it describes. Metasearch technologies enable users to more easily find information within the myriad of electronic resources to which libraries subscribe. Web Services provide an infrastructure that supports the sharing of resources among diverse Web-based applications. Long apart of the e-commerce infrastructure, library applications are just beginning to latch on to this important Web architecture.

Each of these technologies shows great promise of making a positive difference in the way librarians deliver services to their users. Although today finds each technology early in its life cycle, I see each as stable enough to warrant serious attention. It's important, though, to distinguish solid, forward-looking "hip" technologies from those that are only "hype" technologies.

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Publication Year:2003
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 23 Number 10
Issue:November / December 2003
Page(s):38
Publisher:Information Today
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
Record Number:10779
Last Update:2012-12-29 14:06:47
Date Created:0000-00-00 00:00:00