Originally created 01/25/02

Grab a "buddy" and chat



You have just entered room "cypher2208 Chat 48."

sugarspice11: hi!

ritzvit: heyhey we're gonna have a pretend christmas dinner.

sugarspice11: yay! when? i miss christmas.

ritzvit: sometime in february i guess.

sugarspice11: o ok, score!

AfpRINcESstar: Who are these people I don't know?

Fingers flying across their computer keyboards, these teenagers and a dozen others spent a recent evening gleefully swapping jokes, gossip, insults and profanities.

They call it "IMing," short for instant messaging, an Internet application that has become a nightly fix for millions of teenagers worldwide.

Never heard of it? As wildly popular as IMing has become among adolescents, most adults haven't caught on. But that's changing as instant messaging makes its way into the nation's workplaces, linking employees, friends and acquaintances.

Until now, the adults with the most exposure to the instant messaging phenomenon have been parents who find themselves coping with perpetual busy signals, struggling to exercise some control over their kids' Internet use and worrying about the dangers of contact with anonymous messengers.

Instant messaging "is a great way for my kids to stay in touch with friends," said Jim Glover of Minnetonka, Minn., "but we've tried to drive home the fact that there are strangers out there they should avoid."

Glover's son, Miles, a 10th-grader, steers clear of online chat rooms where lewdness and sexual innuendo among strangers prevails. "I understand my folks don't approve of those, but I'd rather be talking with my friends anyway," said the younger Glover, who has 120 friends and acquaintances on his IM list and whose screen name is punkrockkid2004. "It's fun to talk to all your friends at once instead of just one person."

Instant messaging has been around since 1984, when some Internet bulletin boards allowed users to hold real-time conversations with each other via their modems.

The trigger for the explosion in IMing's popularity occurred in 1996, when America Online unveiled its "buddy list" function. Users compile the screen names of friends and whenever logged on they can see which of them are online and reachable for messaging.

Differences between instant messaging and chat rooms are subtle. Chat rooms are set up by online services, accessible to anyone who uses the sponsoring service. Users of instant messaging essentially create their own chat rooms by compiling personal buddy lists. Sometimes, instant messaging takes the form of a dialogue between two users, but more often involves many people conversing.

The IDC technology research firm estimated that nearly 100 million computer users worldwide sent about 900 million instant messages a day last year. That will jump to 7 billion a day in the next two years, the firm predicted.

More than 53 million Americans used the three biggest messaging providers in 2001, an increase of 28 percent in a year. While the number of Americans using instant messaging last year at work was far smaller - more than 13 million - the growth was considerably larger: 34 percent.

"It's going to follow the pattern of e-mail and will encroach more and more into the workday," said David Silver, a communications professor at the University of Washington who heads the Resource Center for Cyberspace Studies. "As people find the Internet more a part of their daily lives, they want more and more of it. IM is just the newest phase of wanting immediate feedback and communication."

Also last year, the Pew Internet and American Life Project published "Teenage Life Online: The rise of the instant message generation." The report concluded that most teenagers "have embraced instant messaging in a way that adults have not, and many use it as the main way to conduct the most mundane as well as the most emotionally fraught and important conversations of their daily lives."

A Pew survey found that 17 million people aged 12 to 17 use the Internet, which represents 73 percent of the population in that age bracket. Of those, about 13 million use instant messaging, a rate of use far higher than among adults.

Teenaged IMers have staked out this realm in a variety of ways. Some have come up with multiple screen names, keeping some of those names a secret so they can lurk in chats. They've also come up with an ever-shifting lexicon of abbreviations designed to baffle parents.

The Pew survey found that 17 percent have used instant messaging to ask for a date, while 13 percent used it to break up with someone. More than a third said they have written something they wouldn't have said face-to-face, which can lead to the crude language some routinely use.

That's not surprising, said David Walsh, who heads the National Institute on Media and the Family. "A lot of the normal social constraints are not there on the Internet, so kids resort to socially unacceptable language," he said. "It frees kids up to explore different roles, but the less positive fact is kids might sometimes behave in ways they never would in the real world."

Silver agrees. "I don't think kids IM in iambic pentameter," he said. "They use the medium the same as the phone, to gossip, chat and insult. Teenagers, like all cultural groups that feel a little oppressed, develop their own cultural norms. It's in-group communication, with their own slang so they can promote their own coolness."

Silver said it makes sense that teenagers have embraced instant messaging "as a little node of the Internet to call their own. They've taken to it because the Internet is, in essence, their medium. And younger generations adopt new technologies more quickly."

Walsh said instant messaging also satisfies teenagers' needs. "Given developmentally how important their peers are to them, this lets them stay connected with those peers," he said. "They're starting to pull away from their parents, which they need to do. They're in uncharted territory and the people most important to them are the people who are in that uncharted territory with them."

For all parents' worries about this technology, "kids dabbling in it is no big deal," Walsh said. "You should be concerned when kids really become obsessed with it, so their friends are their online friends and they leave real-world friends behind."

Resources for parents concerned about their kids' Internet use.

- The Pew Internet & American Life Project "Teenage Life Online" study: http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/

- The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Internet safety guidelines: http://www.missingkids.com/cybertip . Click on "Internet-related Child Exploitation."

Some of the instant-messaging acronyms and abbreviations kids have cooked up.

g2g or gtg: got to go

brb: be right back

bbl: be back later

lol: laugh out loud

rofl: rolling on the floor laughing

ttyl: talk to you later

jk: just kidding

[filtered word]: parent over shoulder

h/o: hold on

o: oh

2: to, too

lylas: love ya like a sis

ttfn: ta ta for now

sup?: what's up?

c ya: see ya

l8er: later

cuz: because

y: why

hw: homework

w/e: whatever

nm: never mind

afk: away from the keyboard

ppl: people

gf or bf: girlfriend or boyfriend

bff: best friends forever

On the Net:

AOL Instant Messenger

MSN Messenger