YOU SHOULDN'T GO AROUND criticizing something you know nothing about. That's what I'm thinking. You shouldn't get on your soapbox and bemoan something you haven't even tried. That's what I'm thinking, and that's why I'm here, about to IM someone for the first time in my life.

IM stands for instant message. Anyone with an Internet connection probably knows about it by now, although it used to be just us America Online users who had to deal with it. IMing is getting so popular that it has entered the vernacular, as in, "I IMed you yesterday and you didn't answer!" That's usually what people are saying to me. Because I hate getting IMed. I think of myself as anti-IM.

Basically, it works like this: You're online, doing some serious research about the number of frogs left in the rain forest or something, when all of a sudden your computer lets out a tinkle-tinkle noise and a box appears superimposed over your research, with the news that someone has an instant message for you. In other words, someone out there has noticed that you are online, and this person wants to talk to you right now. You can choose whether to accept this message. Usually you don't want to. But you also don't want to be rude, so you click "Yes."

Invariably, the IMer turns out to be someone you haven't spoken to in a long time, often for a reason. "Hi!" the person says, expecting you to answer. And you sit there thinking, "Would he believe it if suddenly I lost my Internet connection?"

No, he would not. Because the IMer can see that you have been logged on for the last 125 minutes -- a little box tells him so, at least with the most popular software -- and really, that's a pretty solid connection.

So you sit there exchanging idle "what's new?" small talk with the intruder, completely losing track of that idea you just came up with for saving the rain forest frogs.

Recently I got IMed by a former student who wrote to say: "I'm noticing that you're spending a lot more time online these days. What's up?"

This made me nervous. This made me wonder how many other people out there are watching me go on- and off-line. Apparently, there's a setting in my AOL software that allows me to block out IMers, but, really, should I have to go hunting for this? Should the default setting of my Internet life be such that virtually anyone who knows my screen name has access to my private online time?

This reminds me of the old days -- I mean the old old days, when phone lines were still party lines. I can remember as a kid picking up the receiver and hearing the neighbor lady screaming at a repair man. I didn't want to know this about the neighbor lady. I can remember, later, the joy in my mother's eyes when the phone company announced that we would finally get our own private line. Wow!

And now? Doesn't it seem that, privacy-wise, we're heading in the wrong direction?

But then again, I have never IMed anyone. So maybe I'm missing something. I click on the IM icon. I am instructed to compose a list of the people I want to, well, spy on. Anyone on AOL is fair game; those using other services have to create special IM names. A little box appears. Apparently, if I just stare at this little box, I'll be able to see when my "buddies" enter cyberspace.

Okay, here's my first victim. It's . . . my agent. Hmm. Maybe he's answering the e-mail I sent him, like, two weeks ago. Why hasn't he answered yet? Is he too busy e-mailing people he likes better than me?

Next it's . . . my husband. What the heck? I thought he was having appointments this afternoon. I dash off an IM: "Hi there! I am IMing you. How does it feel?" As I wait for his response, my friend Vince logs on. "Hey!" I write to him. "Have you ever been IMed?" Vince IMs back immediately, saying he's sorry but he can't IM now. Harrumph. I tell him that I am just experimenting with my new power. And it certainly is power. I am definitely getting that omnipotence feeling.

Whoops, now here's my dad. And here's Nancy! And why hasn't my husband IMed me back? He's been online for six minutes now. How come all these people are online and no one is paying attention to me? God, omnipotence can be . . . depressing. I send another IM to my husband, adding a lot of kissy-kissy things. Nothing. I IM him some more brazen kissy-kissy things. Hello? Husband?

Thunk. My computer lets out a noise that sounds like a door shutting. This turns out to be the sound of my husband logging off.

I dial the phone. Because now I'm mad. How dare he ignore me? When he answers, he has no idea what I'm talking about. "Computer," I say. "Online," I say. "Kissy-kissy?"

He tells me his client has just finished borrowing his computer. "She needed to check the weather in Cincinnati."

"Oh," I say, wondering if the stranger I've just been batting my eyes at had the common decency not to read my husband's IMs.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is