How to Send and Receive Instant Messages (IMs) - dummies

How to Send and Receive Instant Messages (IMs)

By Nancy C. Muir

Instant messaging (IM) is a type of instant communication that’s text-based. Instant messaging programs include Windows Live Messenger, Google Talk, Yahoo! Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).

Instant messaging is a great way to stay in touch with friends and family, especially younger generations who rarely use e-mail. IM is ideal for quick little messages where you just want an answer without writing a formal e-mail, as well as for touching base and saying hi. Texting on cellphones is similar to IM, but not exactly the same.

What you can do with instant messaging

With instant messaging, you can perform several tasks besides sending text messages back and forth. Not all IM programs allow you to perform all these same tasks, however.

  • Send photos, videos, and other files

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

  • See participants via web cameras in a video chat

  • Play games with friends within the IM window and share scores

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

  • Connect to friends on Facebook and chat

  • Group chat with several friends at the same time

  • Initiate a chat from your e-mail program

  • View social notifications (status updates)

Unlike text messages, which can be sent from one cell phone to another regardless of which carrier the sender/receiver are using, for instant messaging to work, you must use the same instant messaging program or a compatible one (in the case of IM programs that support other networks)..

The IM program you choose can often be installed not only on your laptop, but also on your cell phone, so you can chat with friends using IM wherever you are. Instant messages, by the way, do not count as text messages as far as cell phone billing is concerned, so you can use IM to save money in some cases. IM does require a connection to the Internet however.

Getting started with instant messaging

To get started with a new messaging program, you need to follow the general steps in the upcoming list. But as with any software, if you aren’t sure how to use its features, consult its Help documentation for specific instructions.

  1. Download and install the messaging program according to the instructions on the provider’s website.

  2. Set up an account and sign in; this may simply involve entering your e-mail address and a password.

Often, your instant messaging program will provide a way for you to choose your overall privacy settings when you set up your account.


  1. Click a contact to initiate chat.

    You can import contacts from your e-mail contacts list when you sign up, or you can add them yourself. manually.

  2. Type your message in the chat window and press Enter to send it.

    Your friend should respond, and if so, you’ll see their message in the chat window below yours. Type a reply, press Enter, and continue chatting!

IM programs let your contacts see when you’re online, unless you change your settings to hide this information — something that’s good to know when you’re busy and don’t have time to chat. You can choose availability settings such as Online, Busy, Be Right Back, Out to Lunch, or even display your status as Offline, even when you aren’t.

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, such as LOL (laughing out loud). Visit Netlingo for a table of common shortcut text terms. Knowing these will make communicating with younger folks more fun.