On IM, Keeping Tabs and Keeping Up Appearances

Kristin Washco of Annandale, 16, often attaches an explanation to the
Kristin Washco of Annandale, 16, often attaches an explanation to the "away" setting of her instant message service. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Beth Marchessault, 23, bumped into someone at a recent wedding whom she hadn't been in touch with for years. But the old friend had kept up with Marchessault's life through notes she'd posted on her instant messaging system to explain extended online absences, such as "traveling to Morocco."

Marchessault does the same thing, she said, keeping tabs on people without communicating with them. "A friend had been in China, then moved to teach at a private school in Boston," she said. "It's not seen as weird," she said of checking IM status messages. "You use it as a crutch."

IM users such as Marchessault have learned that the technology's basic tools can serve as real-time windows into the comings and goings of others. The simple icons that show whether a person is available for a chat -- a green check mark, a do-not-enter sign, an away message -- make it possible to juggle relationships or maintain social ties.

Users who know their friends' and families' online routines come to understand that the availability icon stands for something going on in that person's life. A roommate who logged off late in the afternoon must be headed home for the day, or a sibling who hasn't been seen online for a few days might be traveling.

Instant messaging, users say, makes lives more transparent than other technologies, like e-mail or cellphones.

The 313 million worldwide users of instant messages stay online an average of about 6.3 hours a day, according to research firm ComScore Networks Inc. So people's status might change several times over the course of a single session, and each time, sound signals or pop-up alerts notify other users that they have logged on or off or are no longer idle. That allows a kind of surveillance, a way to keep tabs on lives scattered in different places. At the same time, some have figured out ways to use the tool to create a safe distance from others, such as old lovers or micromanaging bosses.

That's common practice in Erin Pendergrass's office.

"People change their status for the boss to say, 'on the phone' or 'away from the desk,' " when, in fact, they're not, the 23-year-old facilities manager said.

Pendergrass, who lives in Thornton, Colo., said she actively manages her status on Yahoo Messenger and finds that if she doesn't set her status to "away" before leaving for a meeting, she often comes back to angry messages from people feeling slighted by her lack of instant response.

Generally, IM software determines whether a user is available based on whether the person is typing. But users also can set their own status, telling other messagers "do not disturb," for example. In that way, subscribers can use it as a gatekeeper for their online social network or to create different layers of intimacy for co-workers and family.

"It's very much about sharing state of mind, emotions, and it's not just 'where I am,' but 'where you can reach me,' " said Anne Kirah, a Microsoft employee and anthropologist who travels the world observing people's communications habits in their homes and at work. Microsoft, like other IM providers, is developing the next version of communications and tracking tools while keeping a close watch on such behavior.

At 24, Emily Muth is already a messaging veteran with 175 contacts on her list.

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