Beyond email: instant messenger

If email seems cumbersome and your phone bills are driving you crazy, instant messenger may be for you. Here’s what you need to know before you sign up.

What is instant messenger?
Instant messenger programs are like chat programs, except they allow you to chat online with a single person. Each of you must be online at the same time. You type what you want the other person to see, press return, and then they see it on their computer.

Because it is quick (faster than email) and designed for conversations back and forth, it can be a nice way to keep in touch. Rumours abound that teenaged grandchildren are particularly susceptible to actually communicating this way, but we have been unable to confirm this directly.

How does it work?
There are several instant messenger programs available for free. You and anyone with whom you wish to chat will have to choose the same program – some common ones are AIM (AOL instant messenger – you do not have to use AOL as your internet service provider to use it), MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger. It’s a good idea to ask your family and friends if they already use one or several of therograms.

You (and your chat partners) will have to download whichever program you choose.  They are usually quick and easy to install.  You also will have to create a messenger profile.

This profile is how people will be able to find you through the same chat program.  Once you and your friends have installed the same messenger program, you will be able to add each other to your contact or buddy list.  Then you will be able to see when others are online, and start a chat conversation with them.

To start a conversation you must be online on the Internet, of course. Start your messenger program and log in using the user name (or email address, depending on the program) and password you selected when you signed up. If you are not logged in, you’re not “online” in messenger (even if you are connected to the Internet). Once you’ve logged in, a window will open that shows a list of your contacts and whether they are on or off line.

Once you see a buddy online, just double click on their user name and a window will open. The top part is the “conversation” and the lower window is where you type. You type in your message, hit return, and you will see it appear in the top window – this is how you know the other person has received it.

Remember that it sometimes takes the other person a minute or two to type back!

It’s that simple.

Privacy and security concerns
Be sure to read carefully when you create your profile, and look for privacy and security options. It’s worth the extra time to read each option through. You will be able to choose who can see your messenger profile: who can look for your email address or shared interests.  You can also choose who can contact you: anyone with the same program, or anyone on your contacts list. 

Also most instant messenger programs allow you to transfer files with other members. This can be really handy if you want to share a picture without having to start up your email program. But it can be a risk to your computer, so be sure that you have your security set to warn you if anyone tries to send you a file. And if you don’t know what a file is, don’t accept it!

Etiquette and concerns
Instant messenger can bring a whole new series of challenges. Unlike email, which can be read when it’s convenient, messenger can be like the telephone – going off at inconvenient times. Here are a few dilemnas and how to handle them.

Is this a good time? Just as with calling someone on the phone, it’s really a good idea to ask if this is a good time for a chat.  Often people suffer from the “one more thing” syndome when at the computer – they may be about to go start dinner when that window pops up, and before they know it an hour has gone by. If you take the time to ask you’ll find no one ever resents your friendly hello.

Critical information. If you have information to share that’s important – dates and times of events, information about family members – it may be best to put it in an email. That way the person at the other end can store it and look at it again and again.

Work and messenger. You or your family may use messenger at work – many teams in the workplace are finding it’s a great way to ask quick questions of each other, or to keep in touch with people working in different locations.  If this is the case with someone with whom you’re chatting, make sure that you’re clear about what communication is all right. A quick question about when they’ll be arriving may be fine; a long conversation may not be all right. And some companies log all instant message communications, so be aware that you may be speaking with your friend’s boss as well.

Unknown chatters. If someone sends you an instant message and you don’t recognize them, it is often a good idea to ask how you might know them.  Sometimes our friends and family choose odd user names and the person you think is a stranger may in fact be your neighbour.  On the other hand, some people use messenger to look for people with whom to chat, or sometimes confuse one person’s user name for their friend’s.  Having your privacy settings set the way you would like them is a good way to avoid things, but the odd person may still contact you.

If you find you don’t want to speak with a person, you can always block them. Once blocked they will not be able to contact you through messenger again (in fact, in most programs, they will never see that you are online again). That’s something to remember if you ever get to the point that you and spouse are sending each other instant messages about unfinished chores!