Instant messaging, long associated with teenagers staying up late to chat online with their friends, is moving into the workplace with a speed and impact that has started to rival e-mail and the cell phone.
Less intrusive than a phone call and more immediate than e-mail, instant messaging is finding users far more quickly than e-mail did when it was introduced, according to Forrester Research, an independent technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass. In the past year alone the number of instant messagers has grown by more than 50 percent, so that nearly one-third of American adults are now IM-ing, as it is called, with their children, clients, colleagues and each other.
"It really is instant," said Nancy Elieff, a real estate agent in South Pasadena, Calif., who recently began using instant messaging to stay in touch with her children in college. "You don't have to wonder if they're going to get your message, when they're going to get your message, if they're going to write you back. It's really now."
The growth is driven in part by the availability of free IM software on the Internet, as companies like Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo use it to lure customers to their other services. In addition, the first generation of teenagers who grew up with instant messaging are bringing it with them into the workplace, unable to conceive of life without it.
Partly as a result, a technology whose hallmarks have been smiley-face icons, willful misspelling and an encyclopedia of acronyms ("BEG" equals big evil grin, "POS" equals parent over shoulder) is being hailed as a new productivity tool by grown-up operations like Wall Street investment banks and the U.S. Navy.
At the same time, some companies are seeking to clamp down on the technology, which allows employees to message several dozen friends while gazing diligently into their computer screens. Some companies limit IM use to within the enterprise, and keep records of the typed conversations that would otherwise disappear into the ether, casting what some avid IM users see as a pall over the free-wheeling nature of the medium.
To users, IM software typically shows a "buddy list" of friends and colleagues who are online at any given moment. By clicking on a name displayed in a small box on the computer screen, the user can type a message that pops onto the recipient's screen seconds after it is sent — and get one back just as fast.
The majority of IM conversations are one-on-one, but it is easy to include several people. As the silent conversation unspools, the participants can engage in unrelated activities at their desks — often including other IM conversations.
Many IM users rave about the ability to do different things at their desks while engaging in an ongoing electronic conversation. But they say it is also the notion of "presence," of being in constant peripheral contact with the cast of characters that defines one's life, that makes IM such a powerful, intimate — and potentially burdensome — form of communication.
"IM-ing takes many of the virtues of e-mail and lowers the psychological costs of communication still further," said James E. Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University and author of "Social Consequences of Internet Use" (MIT Press, 2002). "It is extremely casual and easy, but in many ways it is more demanding."
The latest in a string of technologies that conspire to demand faster responses at more hours of the day, instant messaging quickens the pace and broadens the volume of communication for many of its users. More than pagers, cell phones or e-mail, it provides the ability to broadcast an almost constant online presence, particularly with the spread of broadband Internet connections that enable users to always be connected.
In college dormitories, where such connections are prevalent, it has become common among students to simply enter an "away" message on their IM software that indicates when they are not in front of their computers. That way, IM correspondents can still send messages and assume they will be read upon the recipients' return.
"When I go to bed, I just put my 'I'm sleeping' message on," said Nora Keomurjian, 20, a student at Rutgers who more than once has found herself forced to winnow down her buddy list when it hit the 200-person limit. "When I'm at work I say 'I'm at work.' "
Others take a more whimsical approach: "My away message is presently 'I'm out on a violent rampage. I'll be back at 6,' " Joshua Elieff, a sophomore at the University of California at Santa Barbara, explained in an instant message. (His mother prefers it when he is "Out slaying dragons.")
Keomurjian, an intern this semester at a chemical company that blocks the use of instant message software, said she had been distressed at being cut off from the nearly 200 people on her "buddy list" during the day. She does not believe it would hurt her job performance to be able to exchange snippets of conversation with friends during the random free moments that arise in the workday, she said.
And she believes it would be helpful to be able to communicate with colleagues via IM, where the inherent informality makes it easier to joke or express a degree of individuality that might not otherwise surface in a work setting.
"You say things through IM that you wouldn't dare say in face to face contact or even on the telephone where you can hear each other's voice," said Keomurjian. "Between colleagues I think it's great because it helps you establish a relationship where you might be too shy in person."
Unlike e-mail, which caught on widely only after corporations began training employees to use it, instant messaging is infiltrating the workplace from the bottom up, by way of employees themselves. Often people download free software to stay in touch with friends or family, and find themselves using it to communicate with work colleagues as well.
Timothy Lim, an associate at JP Morgan Chase, said instant messaging helped him establish better working relationships with colleagues in London. Previously, he would wait until a regularly scheduled conference call to ask questions. Now, he said, "we IM all the time."
BeLynda Lee-Jensen, a product marketing coordinator at Sharp Microelectronics, said IM software helps her negotiate sales, because she can be IM-ing with a colleague while on a conference call with a distributor.
"I can say via IM, 'I don't believe Intel is at that cost,' or 'They're not telling the truth about this,' " Lee-Jensen said. "Stuff you wouldn't want to say to this person on the telephone but what you're thinking in your head."
Lee-Jensen said she has also been using IM exclusively to communicate with her husband, who has been in Japan for three weeks, rather than talk on the phone, only in part because it's cheaper: "I like it because I can type something quick and then do something else," she said. "I guess it depends how long you've been married."
Deborah Woodall, an administrative assistant in Sharp's Camus, Wash., office, said she likes IMs because they're harder to ignore. " 'Oh, I didn't get that e-mail,' How many times have you heard that?" Woodall said. "There's no excuse with this."
In what has become a common pattern, after seeing how some employees were using free IM software for their jobs, Sharp's information technology department recently installed IBM's secure IM software companywide.
Already, about one-quarter of American employees use instant messaging at work, for the most part informally, according to a recent survey by Osterman Research, compared with just 8 percent two years ago.
Analysts say the medium would be growing even faster except that the major IM providers — AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo — do not allow their software to work with the others. As a result, many users have multiple programs running at once. Trillian, a program that links all three together — along with ICQ, pioneering IM software for the Internet now owned by AOL — is an increasingly popular alternative, although it still requires users to have separate accounts on the other services.
Still, as people who already have IM software urge other friends and colleagues to get it so that they can add them to their list of contacts, its growth has spread like a virus.
"It was one of the first things I did when I got here," IM-ed Andrew Stein, 21, of his job as a technical support employee in his family's business. As Stein, of South Brunswick, N.J., answered a reporter's questions he said he was simultaneously IM-ing with a friend in England and one a few miles away about the plight of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "It's more efficient."
Employers may take a different view. Perhaps more than any other digital technology, instant messaging enables users to be in one place physically while mentally and emotionally participating in an entirely different universe. IM relationships have been known to break up marriages and spark new ones among subscribers to AOL, where the seductive technology was first introduced.
Some employers are blocking instant messaging entirely. Others are rushing to install more secure versions of instant messaging software that in some cases limit contacts to within the company. AOL, Microsoft, IBM and others are competing to provide such services, while also hoping to find fresh ways of making money from their large user bases.
David Beckman, an attorney at Beckman & Hersch, a law firm in Burlington, Iowa, said he installed instant messaging with some trepidation because he needed to stay in contact with an employee who was working from a different location.
"I have teenagers," Beckman said. "I came at instant messaging like this was going to be horrible. But honestly it's the most productive thing I've ever seen."
Clients, Beckman said, appreciate the ability to receive an instant reply to a quick question, rather than playing phone tag, and he likes being able to see which of his partners and employees are available at any given time.
And the etiquette of IM does not require the preliminary niceties that eat up time on the phone: "One thing about the telephone is the first thing you're supposed to say is 'How's the wife and kids?' " Beckman said.
"With instant messaging you can just say, 'I want this.' "
Not everyone is so enthralled with that. Shelia McAllister-Greve, 39, said she has felt more pressure to respond immediately to questions from supervisors and colleagues in her public relations job at a community college since she let it be known that she had installed an instant message program on her computer.
"There's less time to prepare your answer," said McAllister-Greve, who has taken to using the software's blocking feature, to make herself appear offline to people who would otherwise bombard her with IMs. "If it were an e-mail, even if it was 10 minutes, you'd have time to find the information. But with an instant message, there's less patience."
Nor does McAllister-Greve enjoy the often disjointed cadence of IM conversations, where one person is often typing about an entirely different subject as the other answers a previous question.
Whatever the downside, the medium is proving to be immensely popular.
Companies like Siemens are scurrying to expand on the concept of online presence with tools that will allow employees within a company to see whether someone is on the phone as well. Online business meetings are becoming commonplace, as is the acceptance that participants will be IM-ing with each other rather than devoting their full attention to the proceedings.
And in the crowded workplaces so common at Wall Street investment banks "where you sit on top of each other so you can't have an audible conversation about something you're not supposed to, it's pretty useful," said one banker, who admitted to having recently learned that TTFN means "Ta-ta for now."