New technologies call for new rules of etiquette and there is one that I would desperately like to see far more widely employed: Turn off your instant messengers when you are nowhere near your computer. The reasons for this simple courtesy are numerous:

1) Instant messengers (IM) make terrible answering machines. With an answering machine, the person knows for sure that you aren’t answering the phone. More importantly, they know that you will get any message that they take the time to leave. With an IM, you never know if the computer will crash or, for some reason, they will never get your message.

2) It is stupid to have to send someone a message to find out if they are actually online. The whole point of being ‘online’ with an IM is to advertise the fact that you are both online and willing to talk to those on your contact list. If you are not in both of these circumstances, don’t set your computer to automatically advertise your being in them night and day to the irritation of your friends and colleagues.

3) Phantom IM users clog up your contact list. When one has a few hundred IM buddies, having a few perpetually online, regardless of their true status, means there are a few dead wasted lines of space on your monitor – lines that slowly crush the brightness and energy out of your life. If you are persistent enough in your misrepresentation, someone might delete you from their contact list entirely.

Why, I often wonder, do people choose to leave themselves online all the time? I can think of a few possibilities, all fraught with fallacies:

1) They think that it’s l33t to be online all the time. Firstly, the coolest people are ones who have lives outside their computers – having it seem like you are always sitting in front of yours is not cool. Secondly, if you are trying to demonstrate your prowess, or importance, in the IM environment, it is best to make yourself relatively scarce. You begin to automatically ignore the names of people who are always online. Those who come online once in a while with a real desire to talk are refreshing and interesting. To be l33t, these days, even among geek circles, is to be mobile, not shackled to some clunky desktop PC. Making it seem like you are will impress nobody and will irk at least some.

2) They are counting on the IM program to act as an answering machine: a methodology whose flaws are revealed in part 1 above.

3) They are using their online status as some desperate affirmation to the rest of the world that you still exist or, alternatively, as part of the creation of a non-existent virtual community of which you can feel a part. I suppose that if it really does enrich your life and stave off crippling depression, you are welcome to be an IM phantom, but thinking carefully about this ought to reveal just how flawed a mode of behaviour this is.

All of those different statuses offered by IM’s have a reason. When you are away, you can use ‘Away,’ when you are online, you should use ‘Online.’ To do anything else is confusing and mildly disrespectful because it constitutes the active misrepresentation of your status. Not only will you make yourself boring and common through your constant presence, but, like the boy who cried wolf, when you actually want people to talk to you nobody will.

So please, out of consideration for your fellow IM users, make sure your status online reflects your actual status in life. It will save confusion and your having a dozen ‘Hello’ messages from different people sitting for hours on your desktop until you come back.

It does not denote net savvy to remain as a phantom on MSN, ICQ, or somesuchprogram. You will impress nobody with your always on status in a world where dialup users are shunned and ridiculed and broadband is expected. Finally, if you want people to be able to send you messages when you’re offline, let them use email thereby granting you the certainty of receiving that message. Finally, if you need to be online, but don't want to talk, because you're receiving a file or using Passport for logging into things, use 'Busy' or just plain 'Invisible.'

There are those who would say that IM is not a new technology and is, rather, a new form of IRC. Apparently, this sort of loitering is standard practice on IRC. To that I respond, firstly, that hardly anyone mainstream uses IRC anymore, so it isn't clear why those rules should apply. Secondly, the degree to which IM has become mainstream does make it a new technology, even if the underlying ideas have been present in other forms before. People lounging around in chat rooms does not really cause annoyance to those in them because in a chat room you rarely have an interest in talking to one specific person or knowing if one specific person is online. The situation for IM is quite the opposite, making being an IM phantom a considerable irritation in the long term.

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