So, I had to do a sociology assignment for class about “finding the strange in the familiar.” Basically, this means taking an event that is very familiar to you and analyzing it for things that are strange. So, for my topic, I picked “talking over instant messenger.” I realise that this has nothing to do with the rest of my blog, I just thought what I wrote was sorta funny. It’s sorta long, but it won’t take more than 2 minutes to read. Check it out.

Instant messaging has become an increasingly popular medium of communication since the rise of the World Wide Web in the early 90s. Beginning as simple graphic user interface based messaging systems, instant messenger applications now include many other interactive features. Though frequent users of instant messengers tend not to question their usage of this platform as a method of communication, one may wonder why this is so. Instant messaging, in retrospect, is actually a fairly strange idea.

One of the strangest facets of instant messaging that users do not think to question is the ability of people to engage in more than one distinct conversation at a time. Prior to instant messaging, there was no form of communication that allowed for this sort of conversational multitasking. This is the equivalent of maintaining three different conversations with three different friends, who are arranged around you in a triangle and speaking simultaneously about completely unrelated topics. This sounds like an odd idea, however, this is common amongst instant messenger users. In addition, since a user’s attention is divided, this often leads to a prioritization of conversations. Users will perform a subconscious ranking of their conversations and place priority on the ones that they find more important or more interesting, often neglecting other conversations and electing to reply with a generic “lol” or “yeah, that’s true.” This is not a concern when utilising other methods of communication, where there is only one ongoing conversation that a person is engaged in at a particular point in time. Over the phone, for example, there is only one topic of discussion at a given moment. Bar a few exceptions, a party must focus his/her full attention on the topic being discussed. Replying with a generic answer or simply laughing at everything that the other party says could lead to awkward silences and frustrated conversational partners. This, however, is not the case when using instant messengers. Many times users will simply accept that a conversation has died or they will assume that their conversational partner has left the vicinity of their computer and forgot to notify them of his/her absence. Much less awkwardness exists when users can hide behind their computer screens.

Another peculiar characteristic of instant messaging that users do not often question is the impersonal nature of instant messengers. This is shown by the difficulty that instant messenger users have when attempting to express emotion within their instant messaging conversations. In other forms of real-time communication, emotion is easily conveyed. For example, in face to face interaction, it is easy to see a person’s facial expressions and over the phone, one can easily hear their conversational partner’s vocal intonations. When using instant messengers, however, this is not the case. Users are forced to show their emotion through text alone. This can become a difficult matter when one factors in the misinterpretations that can occur. To lower the risk of these, users will use crude “emoticons” and abbreviations like “lol,” providing their conversational partner with a picture of the emotion they are currently feeling or informing them that they are “laugh[ing] out loud.” With a lack of ability to convey emotion, a harmless sarcastic comment like “Yeah YOU REALLY need to go on a diet,” could be taken literally and be interpreted in a way that was not intended. The impersonal nature of instant messengers allow for an event like this to occur.

If any event is examined for its oddities, it will inevitably seem strange. Instant messaging is not as strange as the preceding paragraphs would have you believe. Of course it seems odd when compared to traditional methods of communication, but so do all innovations when compared to their predecessors. By providing a platform on which users can have multiple conversations at once, instant messengers allow users to keep in contact with a greater number of people than most other forms of communication. Also, instant messaging allows multitasking and bas been adopted into the professional environment. Overall, instant messaging has revolutionized the way in which we communicate, personally and professionally.