Message in a Window = Instant Chat-ification, or:

DON'T TOGGLE ME!

One woman's story of how technology finally has found a way to bring us closer together — kinda, or: For the Love of Instant Messaging.

I love my career and everything, but it has changed the nature of my leisure time. In this hyperfastpaced world, everything in my life tends to be planned out, scheduled, regimented: got to move the car for streetcleaning, got to be at work by 9 am for a meeting, got to go to the gym or the grocery store, got to meet a friend for a two-and-a-half hour dinner where we can "catch up" on the major developments. No time for the minor, silly things that aren't part of a narrative. Sometimes I miss the days when I had leisure time that I didn't have to pre-program into my schedule—like in high school, or college, meeting people for lunch between classes, or on the steps after school. Just hanging out. Remember sitting around for hours, talking about nothing, laughing idiotically? Well, I'm here to tell you that it's important, and that you can live it again, even when you think you have no time for it, thanks to Instant Messaging!

I started using an Instant Messenger because of work; everyone at my office used it to communicate about work stuff. I liked that it was faster, easier and more casual than email (which is itself, admittedly, already pretty fast, easy and casual). More immediate and attention grabbing than email, my instant message would pop up on my messagee's computer, on top of any window he or she might be working in, making me enticingly impossible to ignore, whether I'd be IMing about work or not-work. IM does not discriminate.

Just so you know, in order to send and receive messages via IM, you have to have an IM program running and be signed in. All the people that you know who are online at that moment (and who have the same IM program as you), appear on your IM list. It's like an indicator of physical presence. People with office-IM often turn it on early and leave it on really really late (logging in and out from home) in an effort to get the same brownie points they'd get if they were at work all that time.

One of the zillion advantages IM has over other means of communication is that, unlike a phone call, your IM sessions can't be overheard by co-workers. Once I got wise to this, it didn't take long for me to convince some of my friends to download and install the same IM program I was using at work, and thus I am able to do plenty of gossiping and socializing on company time, all the while appearing to be an industrious worker, bee-busy, typing furiously at my computer. And this same covert atmosphere translates into the disregard of any etiquette; not responding to an IM message, or suddenly stopping a conversation in progress, or even prolonged delays between transmissions, are all acceptable behaviors in IM. Often a long silence by Heidi, a frequent IMing partner of mine, will be followed by "I had to toggle you! Boss!" There is a camraderie amongst us IMers, and these abrupt interruptions are well understood.

For instance, have you ever been talking on the phone and gotten the indignant accusation: "Hey! You're TYPING!" (No matter how quietly you try to type, too.) Indeed, multi-tasking is frowned upon in many forms of conversation. But typing, or talking to your boss, or talking on the phone and filling out a spreadsheet and then attaching it to an email and writing a concise summary of it, are all A-OK while keeping up with your IM conversation. It's a kind of lazy socializing, because it doesn't require 100% attention; it's just happening along with a hundred other things.

And that's one of the things I love most about IM. Most of the people I IM with are, like me, paid to sit in front of a computer all day. Since we HAVE to be there, our IM conversations are on again, off again, aimless, inane. Like hanging out in between classes at school, all the socializing is leisurely, happenstance, purposeless. Case in point:

lyziwyg: what's your blandest masturbation fantasy?
lyziwyg: hahahahhahha
harry: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA
lyziwyg: you probably think about DONUTS or something
lyziwyg: hahahahah
lyziwyg: that round, powdered hole....
lyziwyg: hahahahahahah
harry: ahahahahaahaah oh man
lyziwyg: hee hee
lyziwyg: or maybe you'd rather think about...
lyziwyg: a full can of frosting
lyziwyg: plunging in
lyziwyg: hahaahahahhaahahahahah
harry:ahahahahaahaah oh man
harry:what if i really had though?
harry:HMMMM?
lyziwyg: wait WHAT
lyziwyg: you have fucked a can of frosting?
lyziwyg: you RULE!
lyziwyg: that's awesome!
harry: AHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA
harry: no, donuts
lyziwyg: haahha what?
harry: hahahaha
harry: i was just saying
lyziwyg: thinking about that flirty donut hole
harry: what if i HAD thought about it!
harry: ahahahahaha
harry: AHAHAHAHAH
lyziwyg: have you!!!!!!!!
lyziwyg: just tell me
harry: ahahaha no
harry: ahahahaha
harry: i wish i had
harry: im so boring
harry: heeey wanna see your site in lynx?1

You may notice that IM conversations, just like those after-school blab sessions, are often a little raunchy. One day at work, I had a brilliant product idea, and wanted to get some feedback:

lyziwyg: product idea:
lyziwyg: a camera (digital) targeted at home pornographers
lyziwyg: called the Snatch Snapper!
lyziwyg: hahahaha
Heidi: hahaha
Heidi: you have been thinking a lot about porn lately
lyziwyg: it's the web. it makes everyone think about porn
lyziwyg: the web is making us porny
Heidi: well it's not making me porny
lyziwyg: oh. well that's good probably
lyziwyg: porn will be our downfall, as a civilization
Heidi: hahahaha
lyziwyg: hahahaha

The above exchange is a good example of how IM helps you stay on minute-to-minute terms with your friends. They're in on all the minutia, every cranky feeling, every passing whim, especially those feelings that don't require an actual email. Email is, in its own way, formal—it arrives in your inbox, your mail program makes a little alert sound or movement, you go to open the mail. There is some ceremony involved, and many thoughts and ideas don't really warrant all that; just as, in turn, many thoughts and ideas in emails would never make the cut for the effort of a real, handwritten letter, enveloped and stamped and walked to the mail box.

You might be thinking that there is nothing "important" about the above IM conversations, and you'd be right. But friendships falter when they are based only on "important" moments. Human lives aren't numbered in such a way, unless you think in terms of summary like a history book. Consider this: when Heidi learns about my latest brilliant product idea via IM, she is, at that moment, the most up-to-date on What Liz is Thinking of anyone I know. Which is a bit odd, since Heidi lives 3,000 miles away from me, reducing our laze-about-and-talk-out-of-our-asses time to none. Yet because of these kinds of daily exchanges I don't miss her as much, because she's not really in New York. She's working at the next desk, kind of, or meeting me for lunch every day. In a very real sense she and I are hanging out.

IM, though it is well-suited to shooting the shit and such, is not limited to lightness. It is good for crisis moments, too—for "checking in" when something bad has happened. Below is a good example of this: a friend of mine gets wind of the current crisis through the grapevine and pops up to console me.

princess: psst!
lyziwyg: hey!
princess: hi. I am so so so so sorry!
lyziwyg: ME TOO
lyziwyg: god
princess: I am sort of dumbstruck. I don't know what to say, but I feel awful for you
lyziwyg: i feel awful too
lyziwyg: at least i found out early
princess: as bad as yesterday?
lyziwyg: but not so early that i'm not mini-heartbroken
princess: yes. I'm sure you'll get over it faster, but jesus. what a let down!
lyziwyg: I KNOW
princess: ok I have to go, glad you are ok. let's IM later?
lyziwyg: ok bye!

The rest of the substance of this event is, of course, none of your business; suffice it to say, my friends are there when I need them.

But even though life's heavy stuff can be conducted over IM, the very best kind of IM, I think, is the drunken IM. Below is a treasured drunken IM that illustrates the hilarity, the comraderie and the you-had-to-be-there-(even-though-you-weren't)-ity, that can't happen any other way when it is late and you are alone.

lyziwyg: listen, i am rubber and you are glue
lyziwyg: thjat
lyziwyg: that's all i have to say
lyziwyg: hahahahhaahah
steve: haahah yah ahahha
steve: i am rubber, you are regusrgitated semen
lyziwyg: i mean
lyziwyg: it's
lyziwyg: WHAPAHJ
lyziwyg: WHAOHGA
lyziwyg: jesus
lyziwyg: hahahahhahahaha
lyziwyg: okay
steve: WHAPAHJ!! AHAHA what the fuck was that?
steve: ahahaha WHAPAHJ!
steve: ahahaahaa
lyziwyg: hey that's like arapahoe language!
lyziwyg: for "what the fiuck"
steve: "WHAPAHJ!" is my new favorite language
lyziwyg: hahahhahahahaah
steve: what the fluck!
lyziwyg: hahahhahahahahahahahahaha
lyziwyg: hahahah
lyziwyg: okay!
steve: ahha
lyziwyg: so i am DRUNK!
lyziwyg: a,ele fimn
steve: fuck me, these fonts are so dumb
steve: AHAHAH are you? haahha!!
lyziwyg: make fu n 0f ke
lyziwyg: hahahahaah
steve: shahahahahahahahahaha
lyziwyg: i'm snorting
lyziwyg: weith laughter
steve: HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAA!!
lyziwyg: hahaaahhahaahah
steve: you're a mess Dunn
lyziwyg: oh yeah!
lyziwyg: so!\
lyziwyg: jeeeejheke

As with many drunken exchanges, this is all much funnier to the participants than it is to an outsider. That could also be said of any joke or funny experience friends have together—sometimes (maybe always) the best humor is far from sophisticated, and, actually, with some kinds of humor maybe the humor is beside the point. The laughing hilarity comes from sharing some time with a good friend, and developing all those "unimportant" references and jokes that keep the friendship afloat when it faces its more "important" moments.

Of course, IM does not replace a person-to-person encounter. But it is something, especially in a world full of adults who are overworked, often isolated, sometimes lonely, always seeking friendship. IM is the hanging-out-on-the-school-steps of adulthood! More intimate and immediate than the phone, less structured than email, it's the freshmaker! It fulfills the promise of technology to bring us all closer together, so we can swap poo stories and gossip in real time, even on the clock!

You can watch Liz Dunn hard at work (or IMing) at http://www.spotlife.com/users/liz/webcam/

Footnote: IM, because it is written, is saveable—you can right-click on the window and save the entire exchange (which is why you are lucky enough to be able to read my real-life IM transcripts!). I sometimes go back to an IM transcript and re-read what was said; after all, brains don't always register the full range of topics at first exposure. In fact, it's pretty common for me to get lost in the whirling letters appearing on my screen; but I can always scroll up, re-read, figure out what I missed and drop back into the exchange.