It is 3 a.m., and School of Communication junior Pat King of Winfield, Ill., needs to do two things: sleep, and write an eight-page essay on the precarious nature of the Indonesian economy. As late night turns to early morning, it becomes clear that neither task is anywhere near completion. Instead, the red-eyed, permanently sidetracked Northwestern student sits at his computer, eyes and brain unfocused, glaring into the blinking, beckoning screen.
Desperately searching for someone — anyone — to talk to, he compulsively right-clicks his mouse, checking away messages he’s read 10 times before and scanning personal profiles he can recite from memory. And it’s not like he needs anyone else to talk to — his unfinished essay and heavy eyelids notwithstanding, he’s currently carrying on six simultaneous, trivial conversations with friends from his ever-growing “Buddy List.”
Welcome to the world of the IM junkie, a new breed of college student seen all around campus.
Instant messaging, or IM for short (everything to do with IM has some kind of abbreviation — see glossary to the left), allows users to send text messages to each other’s computers, hand-held PDAs and cell phones with LCD screens. And it is popping up on college computer screens everywhere, including Northwestern University dorm rooms and classrooms.
“Instant messaging is a modern, high-tech version of passing notes in class behind the teacher’s back,” associate professor of sociology Bernard Beck says of the latest campus craze. “Students in general have always been seeking covert forms of communication in a rigid environment where they were supposed to be taking care of business and doing work.”
Innovative and ultra-easy, this fast-growing phenomenon creates as many problems as it solves. Its free, user-friendly format is as alluring as the sweet song of the sirens, but its addictive and always-available-when-desperate-for-a-distraction qualities can leave students shipwrecked. IM offers the convenience of typing to a friend down the hall. But IM also offers the drawback of, well, typing to a friend down the hall.
“It’s such a convenience to stay comfortable with people far away,” says IMer Anna Ingenthron, a Communication sophomore from Chesterfield, Mo. “But it is frustrating when some people don’t want to walk down a hallway for a serious conversation.”
With downloadable programs available from America Online, MSN, ICQ and Yahoo!, it’s no wonder 80 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds on the Internet use some form of instant messaging, according to a June 2003 America Online survey. But IM’s popularity does not mean that old forms of communication are obsolete, says associate professor of English Jeffrey Masten, co-editor of Language Machines: Technologies of Literary and Cultural Production (Routledge, 1997).
“New technologies of writing and language don’t fully displace old technologies but rather tend to accrue and mix with them,” Masten says. “I think this holds true for instant messaging. Rather than displacing writing or e-mail or conversation, instant messaging is a language technology that incorporates the conventions of all these things into a new hybrid.”
Inseparable in high school, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Carol Sweeney of Memphis and her hometown friend Amanda found themselves at a crossroads when college sent Carol to Evanston and Amanda to New York. Looking for a way to replace the hours they spent every night at each other’s houses or on the phone, Sweeney viewed IM as the best way to keep in touch on a college budget and schedule.
“Instant messaging has been the most convenient way for me to keep up with Amanda,” says Sweeney. “I can talk to her for no cost without having to wait for free nights and weekends on her cell phone.”
Aside from keeping in touch with friends and family, many Northwestern students cite planning events with fellow Northwesterners as a primary reason for IMing. Once formidable tasks, midnight trips to Burger King, spur-of-the-moment football games on the lakeside campus and last-minute study sessions are arranged effortlessly through IM.
“It’s easier and more convenient than telephoning, primarily because you can talk with multiple people at the same time, which makes organizing events involving multiple people a lot easier,” says Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences sophomore John McGlothlin of Austin, Texas.
Unfortunately, laziness can transform IM from a useful tool to an out-and-out time-wasting obsession. Though it looks innocent enough, that 3-by-4 inch window on the computer screen is a portal into another dimension — one of beeps, blinking icons, dawdling and procrastination. And once you enter, it’s almost impossible to go back, say IM-obsessed students.
“IM is very addictive because its convenience on your computer screen makes you think you can keep it on while accomplishing other work on the computer,” Ingenthron says. “But when I’m working on a paper at 2 a.m., I usually find my meaningless IM conversations less daunting than explaining the monastery education in Sri Lanka.”
In addition to the conversations, equal time and energy are spent contemplating clever away messages — “sorry I missed you” greetings — and personal profiles — highly scrutinized messages meant to appear spontaneous that include user contact information, funny quotes, top 10 lists or links to favorite Web sites. Students often check away messages for updates every few minutes, follow Web links posted on their friends’ profiles, and revise their own messages, knowing their friends will be checking as compulsively as they do.
In the end, Beck says, instant messaging “sacrifices the richness of human contact for instant access.” Without the nuances of face-to-face interaction, every message has potential for misinterpretation.
McGlothlin says his only complaint about IM is the lack of voice inflections. “Not having these occasionally makes relatively simple sentences very hard to understand,” he says. “Is this person being facetious or truthful?”
IM’s closest approximation for vocal variation and physical cues are “emoticons,” facial expressions created by specific keystrokes that often add as much ambiguity as they remove. Intended to add tone to plain text on a computer screen, these “smileys” are, as King puts it, “get-out-of-jail-free cards that let you say ‘the previous statement was a joke/come-on/angry diatribe.’” And the same emoticon, placed strategically, can mean all three things.
For instance, take the phrase “I hope you had a good time last night.” Coming from a friend, this is simply a genuine sentiment, but from a jealous girlfriend who was left behind for a guys’ night out, it is loaded with subtext and becomes a bitter, sarcastic jab.
Beck says new generations of IM users will become adept at sending and receiving subtle information from nuances in text alone and adapt to IM the way previous generations adapted to the telephone.
“Now we consider it an impoverished life when you can only be social with those people you have physical contact with,” Beck says. “Sometimes we may be nostalgic for it, but in the end we don’t go back.”
At moments of nostalgia, students just might turn off their computers and pick up the phone — or better yet, seek people out for a little face time. And, of course, there’s that schoolwork to be done.
“IM is a sometimes-useful tool,” King says. “But
as time goes by I’m getting warier and warier of it, and, frankly,
I think I’d do just as well without it.”
Mike DePilla (J04) of Park Ridge, Ill., and Kate Johnson (J05)
of Pendleton, Ind., are editorial interns at Northwestern magazine.