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Instant Messaging Is Growing Up, Going to Work

"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.

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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.")

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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