I was spurred to write this article after a conversation with a colleague of mine who is abysmally poor at using Instant Messaging (IM) technology. I find, as a regular user of online communications tools, talking to him seems incredibly stunted and almost awkward; as if one of us is really uncomfortable with the conversational experience. (If you’re reading this mate, it’s nothing personal!). The irony I found was that he is perfectly at home talking on the telephone or sending text messages.
The truth is that as an internet user I find IM far simpler and effective than any other form of communication. Many people will disagree with my sentiments and would suggest that picking up the phone or meeting the person face-to-face is a far superior method of social interaction and of course, in a socially dynamic world, that is currently the case. However, the first thing you have to bear in mind is the people using the technology are already comfortable with it and the problem arises when you only have 50% of the competence.
"The truth is that as an internet user I find IM far simpler and effective than any other form of communication."
The one point which stuck with me when I decided that IM (and to a lesser, regressive extent; Email) was the future of communications was when I actually picked up the phone to talk to someone I’d only ever spoken to (and indeed met) via the Internet. Suddenly, neither of us had anything to say to one another aside from the matter in hand. Now, this may be the perceived product of less than adequate social skills, but I give myself more credit than to assume that I’m just no good at making small talk. In reality, we had simply conditioned ourselves to use a communications method which didn’t require such pleasantries. This is why web-cam technology will never really become commonplace, even in the dogmatically hyped but transparently ill-fated 3G videophone market; people don’t want the intrusions of a camera watching their every move, especially when the majority of the time the conversation will be a 30 second topic which doesn't require the person at the other end to have brushed their hair or be wearing underwear.
This is conversely where the IM scenario falls down for people who are not comfortable with using it to talk. How often have you been in MSN or ICQ windows with people who are struggling with the scenario in front of them, many being technophobic relatives or friends? Something along the lines of ‘HELLO JOHN ITS MUM AGAIN HOW ARE YOU’, usually ending in ‘THANKS SPEAK TO YOU SOON, MUM XX’ should be jarringly familiar to you.
IM gives everyone the ability to seem like they’re sat in the same room as you and when I look up at my list of Who’s Online, I assume they’re all people I can just cut into a conversation with and leave as quickly as I would had I looked up at them and asked to their face. This is the issue which your non-techies have a problem with and the hurdle which needs to be dealt with. If only there was some link, something which these people could use to attune them to coping with real time conversations in text.
In the same way that the telephone was branded a fad and Email was seen as a tool for boffins and nerds to say hello to each other, instant messaging is still leaving the general public unconvinced as a true method of conversation. Unfortunately, once Microsoft are the truly dominant force behind IM technology (You can disagree all you want, but no matter how much we may not like it, it’s going to happen) then it will finally begin to become a more integrated part of people’s lives. People don’t like cross-compatibility if they have to do anything in the slightest to make it work and IM clients have historically been one of the most stand-offish applications ever developed. In my option AIM is only of use to AOL users, ICQ is becoming too complex and ironically restrictive for its own good, whereas MSN has been designed for ages 8-80 to use with ease. Even I now really only use ICQ to talk to people who either can’t or won’t use it, MSN is just simply too easy to use to pass up.
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If I have to make the world’s most obvious prediction, once MSN is available on most consumer mobile telephones phones, the text revolution which spawned over twenty billion messages in the UK last year will become the IM revolution and transform the way in which we communicate forever.
"How often have you sent an SMS, wondering if the person is there and waiting to find out if they’re responding?"
Picture it, predictive messaging integrated into a live IM client, easy and available to the masses at a price they can afford. The world will suddenly be catapulted into real-time conversations anywhere around the globe, without the need for all that unnecessary small talk. Those of us who are capable of both understanding the ridiculous pricing structure of GPRS and who own a smartphone can already use MSN in the pub or at the beach, so all the threads are coming together and one day Joe Public will be doing the same thing with the reckless abandon they already thumb-type what time they’ll be home for tea to their loved ones. The benefit this time, is that they’ll not only know that their loved ones are around to receive the message, but they can also make sure they get mash instead of chips without waiting 20 minutes for an answer.
How often have you sent an SMS, wondering if the person is there and waiting to find out if they’re responding? With IM built into an ‘always on’ connection, you can see who is or isn’t available and gain the benefit of it even telling you when they’re responding. If you go back to the people who have trouble with IM but are perfectly at home on the phone or using SMS, they now have the ability to hone their communication skills via an extension of the text messaging they’re already used to. They have no need to worry about the fact they’re better at talking on the phone, because they will find real time textual conversation as natural as they do using SMS. Phone conversations are already losing ground to text messages and it is only this small leap of faith which will render voice conversations to an act of necessity, not an act of choice.
Instant Messaging is at the apex of the uphill rollercoaster stage and it’s about to be released to the screams of those who are wary of the unknown, but to the delights of many who know what excitement is to come.