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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Instant Messaging - Now and in the Future

ICQ, Messenger, Google Talk, ...

What is it? Why is it attractive? How does it impact children's social lives? What to expect in the future.

Chances are that if you found this blog on your own you probably already know all about instant messaging. For those of you who had a helping hand in reaching this blog, instant messaging (IM) is an application that allows two or more people to chat via text messages on a computer. Unlike email, the message you type is received by the person with whom you are communicating immediately - and thus the name instant messaging. Google, ICQ, Yahoo, Skype, Microsoft and many others vendors provide such applications. Another key feature of such applications is the ability to see whether the person you want to contact is on line and available or not before you attempt to contact them. This capability is known as Presence, and I will dedicate a separate post to it.

Kids these days learn to use instant messaging almost from the moment they learn to read and write. In fact, I think one of the positive aspects of IM is that it encourages children to use the written word to communicate. One of my children had atrocious spelling and it was not school or my nagging that changed that, but rather IM! A bit of teasing about misspellings on ICQ did the trick.

Spelling is far from the only thing IM affects though. Wait until they reach the teenage years. I don't know how you were invited out on your first date, but in my day notes passed in school or phone calls were followed by a meeting with a very nervous boy. IM enables real-time interaction without the blushing face, shaky voice, and sweaty palms being observed by your dream date. One evening I watched amazed while one of my daughters chatted for hours on the computer with a boy that lived in spitting distance of her. When I asked her why she didn't just go outside and talk to him, her response was more or less, "I wouldn't be caught dead talking to him." It was the IM medium that caused them both to feel less inhibited and opened a channel of communication that social norms wouldn't allow to take place via other communication channels.

Personal safety is of course a concern with IM. Who I say I am is not necessarily who I am. Since no validation is required when I register and provide my name, age, etc many people misrepresent themselves for reasons which in many cases can endanger our children. While we can teach our children only to chat with people they know, to date there is no technical way to limit with whom they communicate other than completely blocking their access to these types of tools.

Today most instant messaging is done while sitting in front of a personal computer. In the not too distant future we will see additional devices which support instant messaging - for example, mobile phones and televisions. We are already seeing the first such applications on the high end mobile phones.

The following cartoon from gives a good idea of what schools think of IM ...

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