Hours after the college freshman killed himself by jumping from a dormitory balcony, his classmates at George Washington University were whispering about the form of his farewell.
They heard he had posted an "away message" on his computer. "Goodbye," he wrote to friends with access to such postings on a Sunday evening in April. Then he typed his initials. Or so they heard. D.C. police say only that he left some remarks behind on paper and in his computer. What he actually did is less remarkable than how matter-of-factly the students talk about this newest shape of a suicide note.
Why wouldn't he leave an away message? That's how everyone they know communicates these days.
Away messaging, a function of instant messaging, is this generation's automatic way of telling online buddies, when the sender's not online, where he or she is, or is not, 24-7. It's no more remarkable to a 20-year-old than the telephone answering machine is to parents. If you can't imagine letting your 150 closest friends know that you're in the shower, it's a good bet you're 30 or older.
Today's young people are way more tribal than the rest of us, according to social researchers like Hugh Mackay. "They can't get enough of each other."
Huge demand for instant messaging
Feeding this herd mentality is text messaging (on cell phones), instant messaging and away messaging. In 1997 America Online began offering its Instant Messenger service. Called AIM, it allowed users, including non-AOL subscribers, to post short notes, known as IMs, to individual friends, who would receive them immediately. Other companies began offering the same thing, and today some 3 billion to 5 billion IMs are sent every day, a large proportion of them from teenagers, according to Francis deSouza, CEO of IMlogic, a software company. One major attraction: Unlike blogs or Web sites, they're usually free.
From the beginning, the IM package included away messages. Young people, says deSouza, were the first to catch on to the general concept known as "presence," and away messaging is now as common on campus as sagging dormitory couches.
"I don't think I know anyone who does not do away messaging," says Russ Tanguay, a rising junior at GW.
Tanguay tends to post one-liners: "Cleaning the fish tank" or "On the phone." Other students put their spin on quips from politicians, philosophers or pop music stars, as in: "Looking for Rhonda at the Jersey shore. I wish the Beach Boys gave better directions."
GW sophomore Tina Lalangas spots the reference to the tune "Help Me, Rhonda" on her computer late one afternoon last week. It makes her smile as she settles into what has become the first thing she does once she gets home from her camp counseling job.
She finds as many musings as parting words. "Feeling better," one correspondent has written. "Thanks to all who remembered me."
Social relationships better
In the early days of Internet communication, social scientists warned that it might replace face-to-face contact and that we'd all be worse off. They're now rethinking that. Susannah Stern, assistant professor of communication at Boston College, has researched the phenomenon extensively among young people. "I haven't seen one study that [IMs and AMs] have done anything but enhance social relationships," she says.
Say Tanguay takes off for Nevada and leaves an away message saying where he's going. Upon return, he phones a friend. "So, how was Las Vegas?" his friend begins their conversation. No catch-up is required.
Or say Lalangas returns from the gym at 9 p.m. and would like to party but has no plans. With a couple of clicks on her mouse she discovers that two of her friends are going to Club Daedalus later and another is probably already there. Out she scoots, after posting her own plans, of course.
Away messaging is the perfect tool for a generation that, in psychologist Bradford Brown's view, is "very free-flowing and flexible in plans to go places and do things."
"Two generations ago, when we were young, you had to have things laid out by Tuesday or you were in trouble," the University of Wisconsin professor says. With this generation, "nothing is clear-cut until an hour or two before. It's easy to miss where to go." Away messaging "lets people know 'I'll be back in this period of time.' It's a way of saying, 'Don't leave me out, I'll get there.' "
It's also becoming an art form, a way of crafting an image of how you would like the world -- or at least the 150 people on your buddy list -- to think of you. If your away message says you're out with friends, you're telling people you have a social life. If you say you're making dinner, as Tanguay did recently, you're saying that, at the moment, you don't. "People know I'm here and not really doing anything," he says.
Maybe you've broken up with your boyfriend or girlfriend and want to signal that life goes on just fine, thank you very much. So you post something like, "Irish girls are fantastic" or "Emotional detachment is the key to the game."
"If you read something an 'ex' has up, it can hurt," Lalangas says. "They want you to see it, and everyone knows. It's a community 'dis.' "
A smile flits across her face. "I've done it, and it's been done to me."
There is an etiquette to away talk. No direct insults. No sex talk.
Meaghan Colley, who will be a freshman at Old Dominion University this fall, says you're also not supposed to steal other peoples' messages. She searches the Web for riddles or quotes that convey the mood she's in. She's happiest when she makes up her own message. One day, exhausted from three different jobs, she wrote, "Going to work is like eating your favorite food. Too much is awesome for a while but then you just get sick of it.
IM thrives in colleges
Once they are wired into a college's Internet, away from parental controls, young people often step up their use of away messages, changing them three, four, even 25 or 30 times a day. A host of Web sites has sprung up over the last couple of years to assist, offering sayings, jokes and icons.
Two students at Wake Forest University in North Carolina devised a way to make reading messages easier. Under the current system, a user can only read one away message at a time, a function that requires three clicks. Nick Gray and Ryan Farley devised a service that allows a viewer, with three clicks, to see all his away messages at one time.
They named their service BuddyGopher and posted 20 fliers in the school's freshman dorms. "Within four days we had 500 kids signed up," Gray recalls. This is not surprising, perhaps since, according to his research, more than 90 percent of Wake Forest freshmen use away messages. Now offered around the world, BuddyGopher serves 13,000 users and the number is growing.
Gray checks his away messages constantly. Last Wednesday night, the messages ranged from sweet ("Actually watching poker with my dad") to full-of-oneselfness or possibly irony ("Tentative efforts lead to tentative outcomes. Therefore give yourself fully to your endeavors. Decide to construct your character through excellent actions.") Thankfully, the next writer was more succinct: "My head hurts."
Writing away messages can take time. "It's the new self-conscious thing," Tanguay admits. "Sometimes I put up something I think is witty, and my friends say it wasn't. It's one more thing to worry about."
Even worse is putting up an away message and hearing nothing from anyone.
Sometimes you want to take a break for several days, Lalangas says. She adds, "I can't imagine doing that."
Michael Barnett, who'll be a junior at GW, can. He doesn't IM or AM.
"Away messages are annoying," he says. "They're the newest stage of having no privacy. I'm not sure what purpose it serves, to let people know what you're thinking."
He confesses he's out of the loop on this. Telling someone his age that he doesn't use the latest tools to communicate "is like telling someone you don't breathe," he says.
So what happens when Barnett's wired colleagues move into the workplace and eventually set up a family life? Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community" and other books, says it isn't clear.
"Ten years from now, 15-year-olds will be 25," he says. "There will be more of a connection among them and more of a difference between them and their elders. We're looking at the beginning of something."