[Adam here. I recently turned 39, and as much as I don't feel old physically, there are times when reading about how teenagers use technology - the stuff I've been writing about for 17 years! - make me feel simply ancient. Oh, I understand how the technology works; I just don't always get why these people - all of whom are much younger than I am - find it so compelling, to the point where a recent study found that teens use electronic media for more than 72 hours per week. I don't think I spend 72 hours per week doing anything short of breathing.
Rather than curmudgeonly harumph around about the good old days of scouring BITNET for joke files and extracting 400K floppies from Mac Pluses, I've instead recruited an actual teenager, college freshman Dan Pourhadi, to write about how and why teenagers use the technology they do. Dan last wrote about choosing a Mac to take to college on a $2,000 budget, an assignment he carried off with aplomb, so I figured he was the perfect person to explain his generation to those of us who actually remember the Soviet Union and East Germany (see Beloit College's Class of 2010 Mindset List for other facts about today's college freshmen). To kick things off, I've asked Dan to explain instant messaging to his grandmother, but I'd like to open this sporadic column up to suggestions from you. If there's something about how young people (we're talking 15 to 25 here) use technology, send me or Dan a note and we'll see what we can do.]
"Hi, Danny dear..."
"What are you doing there?"
Oh, nothing, Grandma. Just talking to my friends online.
"Hi, Danny's friend! I'm his grandmother!"
No, no, Grandma. I'm instant messaging them. We're not on the phone.
"Oh, you're typing to him? Like the emails. Who are you talking to? That girl you introduced me to yesterday? She was nice."
Yeah, Grandma. Her, and my friend Mike, and Kim, and Jennifer.
"You're talking to all of them? Right now?"
Yep, we're all having separate conversations. See, this is my buddy list on the left. That shows all of my friends who are at their computers right now. I can send messages to anyone I want, and they can respond and we can have a conversation right here in this window - it's free and there's no telephone or anything special needed. And I can talk to as many people as I want.
"That is amazing. But it seems kind of complicated."
It's a pretty great tool, really, once you get the hang of it. Imagine being able to talk to multiple people at once, while going about your other business. The more you IM, the better your typing becomes, and eventually typing messages becomes second nature - holding a conversation online feels nearly as natural as speaking on the phone.
"Crazy. What if you want to show yourself as sad or happy? How can you know what the other person is thinking if you can't see or hear them?"
Well, I'm sure that was first said about the telephone - how can you gauge emotion if you can't see his or her face? Simple: contextual clues and talk patterns. If you upset someone on the phone, they're likely to pause a few seconds before answering. Once you're a phone-speaking veteran, understanding the tone of the conversation is simple.
The same applies to text-based instant messaging. When I'm talking to my friends, we use various techniques to relay feeling and tone through the conversation. Ellipsis can mean confusion or uncertainty; a fast typist who's responding unusually slowly is probably unhappy; italics emphasize words or phrases; capital letters typically denote yelling or excitement. There are also the smiley faces that help broadcast a particular feeling.
"But how do you know they're not lying? Someone could be lying about how they feel."
Very true, Grandma, very true. And that happens a lot. But the more you talk to certain people, the better you're able to understand their real tone. It's hard to hide emotion, in any medium.
For example, I have a friend who unknowingly adds a period at the end of every message when she's upset. Most folks I know don't really use periods in instant messages (sentences are typically separated and sent in separate messages) - so when periods are used, they tend to have a special meaning.
Everything is manipulatable online. Take laughter: if you're trying to show that you're amused by something, you'll typically type "lol" (short for "laugh out loud"). If something is funnier, you might type "hahaha." The funnier it is, the more "ha"s you add. If something is freakin' hilarious, you might go all out with a bold "HAHAHAHA." Capital letters add emphasis, see?
Strategic use of speed, pauses, capital letters and italics, emoticons, punctuation, abbreviations, even word choice - an IM veteran reads and understands all of that to mean something, and that makes IM conversations as natural to them as anything else.
"Your friend sent something to you. Why aren't you answering?"
See, that's another great aspect of this whole thing: If you're talking face-to-face or on the phone, you're forced to answer right away. An IM conversation is completely controllable. You can pause a few seconds to think of an answer, type "brb" (be right back) and take a few minute break, or just a simple "g2g" (got to go) to high-tail it outta there. You tailor the conversation to your liking.
Why's that, Grandma?
"It's rude! Leaving someone like that, in the middle of a conversation. Imagine!"
Grandma, what's rude on the phone or in person isn't necessarily rude online.
IM vets tend to follow certain etiquette rules that make conversations manageable for both sides. You shouldn't leave a conversation, for instance, without first saying "brb" or "g2g"; if you're not at your computer or if you don't want to respond to IMs, you put up an "Away" message - something that's sent automatically when you receive a message, like "I'm away from my computer." so your buddies know not to expect an answer.
When everyone follows those rules - which honestly are pretty common-sense - then rudeness is all but eliminated.
"That's not so bad I guess. So what do you talk about?"
I'm kidding, Grandma. We talk about anything and everything. School work, work work, regular friend stuff. As odd as it sounds, I tend to be more open talking online than I am in person. Sure, doctors may say "that's not healthy," to which I'd respond "YOU'RE not healthy!", but really, instant messaging is a lot easier for people like me. You have those extra seconds to analyze what's being said and to plan your response; you can still convey and judge emotion; you can scroll up to re-read what's been said; there are no awkward silences or odd looks or funny noises accidentally coming from your mouth.
Looking at it from a conventional, face-to-face-talking-is-the-best perspective, it may seem insincere and fake - a tailored, analyzed conversation - and it probably is, a little. But it reduces the risk of misspeaking and miscommunication, and it promotes honesty by making a conversation a lot more comfortable.
"You've thought about this a lot, haven't you?"
I have, Grandma.
"So you're talking to four people right now?"
"Doesn't that get confusing? Saying all those different things to different people?"
You'd think so, wouldn't you? It's a habitual thing, like driving. When a newbie driver gets behind the wheel, he's blown away by all the different tasks he's supposed to accomplish at once - keeping his eye on the road, measuring his speed, watching for signs and anticipating other cars' behaviors. It seems impossible to the poor sap.
But the more you drive, the more each task becomes habit, the easier it all becomes. The very same concept applies to instant messaging: At first, managing even one discussion is a hassle. But the more you do it, the more you're able to compartmentalize the conversations; you learn to take clues from context and previous messages to know where you left off. Before you know it, you're having conversations with ten or more people at once without batting an eye.
There is always the case of the mis-sent Message, though. Happens all the time: someone clicks the wrong conversation and sends a message that was supposed to go to someone else. It's not necessarily a result of confusion: just acting before thinking.
"I'd never be able to do so many things at once. How in the world do you get anything done?"
Well, that's when the Away message comes in handy. If I have work to do or TV to watch (both of which share a spot on the priority List), I'll put up an Away message, hinting that I'm busy, unable, or even just unwilling to talk. I might talk with one or two people, but the Away message keeps other people from IMing me and helps to prevent distraction. It all has to do with willpower: if IM gets distracting, you shut it off. It's not really a new concept - you probably thought that Mom talking on the phone got in the way of her homework. The solution - shutting down the distraction - is the same.
"Yes, she spent way too much time on the phone when she should have been doing her homework. But this all seems pretty neat to me."
It really is. And there are all sorts of other cool features of IMing that make it an addictive form of communication: you can send pictures and files to your buddies; you can have IM chat-room conversations with two or more people; you can stay connected with people all over the world for free; it takes very little effort to initiate or participate in a conversation, which is great for lazies like me; there's always the comfort of privacy; and it has what I call the "iPod Appeal": you can enjoy it without making it the center of your focus. It's entirely possible to have a serious meaningful conversation in the background while doing other things.
Case in point: I'm talking to you right now, Grandma, while writing a paper and talking to four of my friends. I'm obviously focusing on our conversation the most, then the paper, and then I'm answering my friends whenever they send me something. It works amazingly well. Try doing that on the phone, or even in person. I bet you couldn't.
"Nope. You kids and your 'younger than thou' attitudes."
Wow, Grandma. That'd make a great name for a column.
"I'm sure. So what about that paper you claimed you were working on?"
Sorry Grandma, g2g.
Auto-Response: I'm away from my computer right now.