Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Instant Messaging's Effect on Society

Instant messaging (IM) has revolutionized the way people communicate on so many levels it truly amazes me that it wasn't widely adopted until the recent past. You see, despite the fact that AOL / Time Warner was only issued a patent for IM in December of 2002, instant messaging has been around for a long time. AOL's claim stems from its acquisition of Mirabilis, the fledgling company responsible for the creation of ICQ (an extremely popular instant messaging application), yet there are many instances of prior art a patent officer could have easily discovered had they simply taken the time to look.

Of course any UNIX/Linux user will know that the ‘talk' command certainly predates the year ICQ was released (1996) and various incarnations of instant messaging applications can be found going all the way back to the late 1960s. In fact, there is some question as to whether the founders of Mirabilis indeed had exposure to just such a system (PLATO's TERM-talk, officially released in 1974) which was installed by Control Data Israel for the Israeli Defense Force where it is known some of them had worked.

All this aside and despite more than 30 years of delay, this technology seems to have finally gotten a firm foothold and is becoming more entrenched daily. While originally the province of computer nerds, instant messaging is being heavily utilized by industry, educators, students, gamers, journalists, filmmakers, hobbyists, lobbyists, the military – indeed every aspect of society.

While its basic uses – substitution for short telephone calls, email, face to face meetings and the like are certainly obvious in their effect on the function of the populace and generally considered a boon, what intrigues me are the less apparent consequences of employing this technology on the grand scale we aspire to. 

Primarily you might suspect that one's command of the English language would improve given the more considered approach required to express oneself in textual format rather than simple speech. You would of course be entirely wrong. Certainly keyboarding skills improve vastly as a result of rapid fire chat sessions... or failing that, you won't find yourself engaged in them for long. The content of those chat sessions however often tends to be absent of stylistic or even basic linguistic considerations. Instead of challenging people on these however, you find yourself being drawn in and soon discover yourself typing all manners of abomination without a second thought.

Though you would also suspect the opposite would hold true, spelling suffers equally from constant exposure to those who clearly haven't had the inclination to learn and aren't about to now. I can't tell you how many times I have misspelled words as a result of seeing them presented incorrectly in IM daily – akin to the omnipresent persuasion of the US dictionaries installed in my word processor to ‘color' my prose. The ubiquity of IM and the dominant culture behind it seem to me yet another example of how media and modern mediums are leading to the homogeneity of contemporary cultures. Perhaps Marshall McLuhan was indeed correct, though I don't know if he would be impressed with today's message. Ah, but that is another article...

IM, despite having its own well established acronym based vernacular (lol, rotfl, brb etc.), has also spawned its own ‘elite' spelling and syntax. Originating in the online gaming world and co-opted  by the messaging world's younger set, this new mode of textual communication baffles the uninitiated and is a mark of distinction among those in the know. Perhaps I am getting too old but I find L337 5p34k aNd nErD sYnTaX extremely irritating and though I find myself becoming more accustomed to it as the days pass, please feel free to bludgeon me with a shovel should you ever see me typing in this manner (above example excluded J) .

Of course no examination of an Internet based technology would be complete without a reference to its applications in the realm of human sexuality. Well known are the video chat rooms wherein operators converse via IM with clients who request whatever sexual circus acts tickle their fancy at the moment – less so is a practice known as ‘Toothing'.

In Europe and Asia, text messaging via cellular telephone is far more prevalent than it is in North America. So, as the story goes, British public transit patrons would flirt electronically with fellow commuters via Bluetooth enabled text messaging – the purpose being to arrange an anonymous sexual tryst. For a while it was all over the tech news and then it went off the radar as these things do. Upon further examination about a year later however it was discovered that the whole fad had been a hoax!

 This is not to say that there wasn't a sudden influx of male nerds to London's tube system; unfortunately though it would seem they left less happy than they would have hoped as they probably ended up messaging eachother. There remains however, the persistent rumour that as a result of the hoax borne publicity, Toothing actually commenced – and folks wonder why Bluetooth was on my list of ‘must haves' in my last column devoted to cellular phones... hey, a man can dream.

Originally published in HUB Digital Living magazine, September, 2005, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.


For an interesting look at the history of the PLATO project which is generally regarded as the world's first online community and the birthplace of many of the communications and computing applications we enjoy today, go to www.platopeople.com.

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