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updated 9/2/2004 4:33:54 PM ET 2004-09-02T20:33:54

IM DNWFM, WFU?

If you're an avid instant messenger, you probably know what I mean: "Instant messaging doesn't work for me, does it work for you?" Yet I appear to be on the way to becoming a minority, a fuddy-dud resisting the text-chat party. Instant messaging, or IM, is catching on with adults in a big way as it moves rapidly into the workplace, according to recent surveys. In fact, analysts predict IM soon will overtake e-mail as the No. 1 form of electronic communication.

Already, more than four in 10 adult Internet users in the United States use instant messaging software, and one in five IM users is sending instant messages at work, according to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

"We are seeing the beginning of something that will get bigger as instant messaging becomes a standard tool in workplaces in the next couple of years," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project.

Instant messaging software, for those few remaining uninitiated folks, allows people to send text messages over the Internet and have them appear almost instantly to friends and colleagues. Equally important, most IM software allows people to detect when their designated friends or colleagues are online with indicators that flash or play sounds when people sign on or off.

Pew's report on adult usage follows a similar survey released last week by America Online, a major provider of instant message software. AOL found that if teenagers are included, a substantial majority of American Internet users -- 59 percent of the total -- are using instant messaging. "E-mail took much longer to see that kind of growth," said Brian Curry, senior director of network services in AOL's instant message unit.

Huge generation gap
Anyone with teenagers knows already that there is a huge generation gap in IM usage. In AOL's survey, IM usage ran 90 percent among those age 13 to 21; 71 percent for ages 22 to 34; 55 percent for ages 35 to 54; and 48 percent for 55 and older.

It was the second year in a row that AOL commissioned an outside firm to survey 4,510 people 13 and older in 20 big cities. Pew surveyed 2,204 people 18 and older in both urban and rural areas.

AOL found even more people sending instant messages at work than Pew did -- 27 percent of all IM users, up a whopping 71 percent over last year.

IM is still mostly an ad hoc tool in the workplace, something that employees have brought in to roughly 75 percent of large companies and started using without the official blessing of their technology departments, according to Lou Latham, an analyst for Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn., technology research firm. Latham said many workers are using relatively insecure public IM networks at the office, such as the free IM services available from AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft, subjecting their companies to risks from viruses, worms and similar problems.

"A couple of years ago, all of my calls were along the lines of, 'How do I stop this?' "said Latham. "Now, nearly a third of those folks are making an effort to develop a strategy for actually using IM in their company and getting business value out of it." Gartner estimates that people are sending nearly 1 trillion instant messages a year. The company predicts that by the end of next year, most people will be getting more IMs than e-mails.

Already, 29 percent of IM users told AOL they send as many or more instant messages as e-mail. Pew found the same thing -- 24 percent of IM users said they send instant messages more frequently than e-mail, and 6 percent spend equal time on both. "For some users, instant messaging is already becoming a more important communication tool than e-mail," Rainie said.

Flirting over IM
At-work users consider IM a mixed blessing, Pew found, enabling idle gossip as well as boosting productivity. But on balance, 68 percent saw more positives than negatives, with half those surveyed saying IM saves time by letting them communicate more quickly.

Also on the rise is flirting via IM at work. Some 21 percent of IM users nationwide told AOL they use IM to flirt in the office. Washington, it turns out, leads the country in flirting and setting up dates via IM at work, according to AOL. It found 39 percent of those in D.C. acknowledging flirting or making dates via IM in the office. Washington also was one of the three cities where IM users were most likely to use multiple screen identities to maintain an alter ego.

Overall, Washington has more IM users than the national average -- 61 percent of the D.C. Internet population, versus 59 percent nationwide. That placed the District at No. 8 among the 20 cites AOL surveyed. Washington residents also send more instant messages -- an average of 16 a day, compared with 12 nationwide.

One tidbit from Pew should surprise no one with teenagers at home -- nearly one in four IM users send messages to people in the same location, such as from their bedroom, say, to Dad in the study. Men were more likely to do this than women.

As for how many pals people typically chat with, AOL reports that the average user of its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software maintains a "buddy list" with 77 contacts (200 is the maximum allowed.) Pew, however, found most adult IM users regularly send messages to fewer than six people.

Both surveys noted that IM is creeping onto cell phones, electronic organizers and other wireless devices. Pew found that 15 percent of IM users send messages on wireless devices, while AOL said about a third of folks doing mobile messaging use IM in place of, or in addition to, their SMS text-messaging services.

All of which makes me think I should get over my aversion to instant messaging. While I use an in-house messaging system to communicate with colleagues, it is a private system. I have repeatedly resisted requests from friends to make myself accessible through publicly accessible chat services from AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN.

Sorry, I tell them, DHTB. (For those of you as bewildered as I am by the IM boom, that means "Don't have the bandwidth.")

© 2013 The Washington Post Company

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