The ability to send a message from one computer to another over the Internet, with that message popping up in a message box on the target computer's display.

America Online did much to popularize the concept of instant messaging. One of the most popular instant-messaging utilities today is ICQ, also owned by AOL.

Jabber is an open-source instant messaging protocol using streaming XML as its underlying data format. It is compatible with other instant messaging systems like ICQ or AIM.

Intsant messaging is the boon and bane of the world.

Utilizing either the internet or an intranet, instant messaging allows a person to communicate with anyone using the same service in a nearly spontaneous way.

In the workplace, instant messaging can be a great force for communication between employees, removing the need for them to ever leave their cubicles and so increasing productivity. Of course, unless the system is monitored, then this also allows gossip to occur in the same manner, meaning that even though the minions never need leave their cubes, they still manage to trade the juciest bits of information. Of course, if you do monitor the system without telling them, then you get all the information, regardless of who says what about whom.

In the world at large, instant messaging is a useful tool for communication between friends, both distant and local, and enables a person to meet others from all over the world, at least those places in the world where there are internet connections. This produces an interesting effect of cutting through government propaganda. If you think the news services are lying, you can always just call up your friend in some other country and find out what their government is busy telling them. It's amazing how often the reports bear no similarity whatsoever.

While nearly all that can be done through instant messaging can also be done through the use of email, it's a faster, more direct means of communicating with others. Especially as spam email gets more and more prevalent, taking over inboxes. Conversations via email also tend to be far less spontaneous. While instant messaging is often far from instant, it doesn't suffer the delays email sometimes does as it's passed from system to system. If a bottleneck occurs, it could take days for an email message to arrive at it's destination, although most arrive in mere minutes.

The most popular of the instant messaging programs are easily AOL Insant Messenger and ICQ (released by Mirabilis and later bought by AOL). A separate system, called Trillian, is designed to work with a variety of the instant messaging services at once, providing those who have logins on more than one of the services not have to have more than one program open to utilize them all.. Microsoft has designed a system to work with AIM, but originally without permission, so their users were often dropped by AOL's servers. I am uncertain if this is still the case with the MSN IM. Yahoo has also designed an AIM compatible system, but with permission from AOL, so they don't get summarily disconnected. Thus giving the world yet another reason to say "Microsoft sucks."

(I hope it's more general, but this might only apply to situations of forced social interaction amidst a maturity level that isn't at its fullest potential (i.e., school) because only in this setting could you be familiar enough with a sizable number of people to know screen names and such but still be so distant as to hinder any conversation)

In the real world, there is a certain overhead to conversation. If anybody want talk to someone at a significant extent, they generally need to stop talking to anyone else, cease most other activities that require their attention, and place themselves within the physical proximity of the other party. Online, there is no need, and they can hold, for all practical purposes, an infinite amount of conversations without having to sacrifice on other forms of entertainment (books, music, games, whatever). Thus, people strike it up with others they would not usually find in their company. Thus, people talk to me.

In terms of raw social interaction, this would seem like a win-win situation, a great internet facilitated love fest, unswayed by such previous deterrents as time or status (after all, no one can really tell who you chat with). Sadly, that's just a little too idealistic to be true. Really, the physical constraints placed on a person's ability to socialize has an important (but arguably selfish) advantage: someone is most likely to only talk to people with whom they can most easily converse. When this is taken away, you end up with a facade, a pseudo conversation, people who have nothing to say to each other pretending otherwise.

So what? A semi-awkward silence (given the amount of external stimuli most participants have, lulls aren't as bad online), but then you move on. You've got your own circle of friends, and talking to them outweighs the failed interaction with someone you probably didn't even care about anyway, right? Yes, that's absolutely what happens, unless you're me and you're desperately trying to maintain the fragile illusion that you aren't a total loser.

I don't have that many good conversations in the rest of my life either, but I'm only passively reminded of the fact. Online, I don't have that luxury, and four line gems like these spell it out clearly enough:

: Hi
: what's up?
: Hey. not much. you?
: nah

Maybe there's more, but not much, and the talk just falls stagnant. Maybe I'm exaggerating here; I'm not hated, I'm not an outcast, and I can even make people smile a little or at least laugh. But still, this doesn't detract from my concern. Convenience devalues everything, and we just need more and more to sustain ourselves. How much is too much?

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