Understanding Instant Messages (IMs) - dummies

By Nancy C. Muir

Instant messaging (often called just IMing) used to be referred to as real-time email. It used to be strictly synchronous, meaning that two (or more) parties could communicate in real time, without any delay. It still can be synchronous, but now you can also leave a message that the recipient can pick up later.

Instant messaging is a great way to stay in touch with younger generations who rarely use email. IM is ideal for quick, little messages where you just want an answer without forming a formal email, as well as for touching base and saying hi. Text messaging on cellphones is largely the same phenomena: This isn’t a tool you’d typically use for a long, meaningful conversation, but it’s great for quick exchanges.

Depending on the IM service you use, you can do the following:

  • Write notes to friends, grandchildren, or whomever.

  • Talk as if you were on the phone.

  • Send photos, videos, and other files.

  • Use little graphical images, called emoticons (such as smilies or winks), avatars, and stickers (cartoony pictures and characters), to add fun to your IM messages.

  • See participants via web cameras.

  • Get and send email.

  • Search the web, find others’ physical location using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, listen to music, watch videos, play games, bid on auctions, find dates, and more.

  • Track the history of conversations and even save transcripts of them to review later.

Instant messaging programs vary somewhat, and you have several to choose from, including the Skype app that’s included in Windows 10. Other messaging apps include Yahoo! Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger, also known as AIM. Gmail also has a built-in IM feature.

IM is one place where people use shortcut text. Some of this will be familiar to you, such as FYI (for your information) and ASAP (as soon as possible). Other short text may be less familiar. Visit pc.net/slang for a table of common shortcut text terms. Knowing these will make communicating with younger folks more fun.

Consider what you’re saying and sharing in IM and how you’d feel if the information were made public. IM allows you to store your conversation history, which is super-useful if you need to go back and check something that was said, but it has its downside. Anything you include in an IM can be forwarded to others. If you’re at work, keep in mind that many employers monitor IM (and email) conversations.

If you run across illegal content — such as child pornography — downloading or continuing to view this for any reason is illegal. Report the incident to law enforcement immediately.

You can send IMs from a computer to a mobile phone (and vice versa) and from one mobile phone to another. If you include your mobile phone number as part of your IM profile, anyone who can see your profile can view it. This is useful information for both friends and criminals, so it’s important to consider whether you want your number exposed — especially if you have many people on your Contacts list whom you don’t personally know.