Instant messaging is kind of a no-man's-land where etiquette is concerned, inhabited by tweens and people who type like them. And yet most of us must use it — often even for work. Let's take a look at how we can do so in a less dickish fashion.
Know your audience.
I solicited a number of IM pet peeves for today's column, and one big one was the content-free IM that says "hey, whats up." Says Dodai, "I'm not just hanging out online waiting for someone to talk to me" — if you're going to IM her, you'd better have something to say. But of course, some people are hanging out online waiting for you to talk to them. I was going to say many of them are high-schoolers, but teenagers these days are probably beaming their messages directly into each other's brains. And I'd be lying if I claimed never to have killed an hour in a GChat about nothing. Really, the key is to know who you're messaging — are you talking to someone who enjoys shooting the shit and will happily respond to your "hey wassup" with "nothin, whatsup w you? makin a sandwich"? Or is your correspondent someone who wants you to get to the point and send that cat video already? When in doubt, assume the latter. Then if your buddy starts being all "im bored" at you, you'll know you're safe to talk to them about your tea dilemmas and how you hate that it's only Tuesday.
Another important audience consideration is style. I talked to web pioneer and digital strategist Aliza Sherman of Tech With Aliza, who points out that in general, IM is pretty informal, even if you're at work. But that doesn't mean there are no standards. She says,
When using IM for business within a company, you can probably use abbreviations, acronyms, and informal language. However, when in doubt, check with your boss. Of course, if you are the boss, you can set the tone and should think about writing up some online communications guidelines including appropriate times and ways to IM.
When using IM for outside business conversations, err on the side of formalities. Watch your spelling, hold off on the slang, write in complete sentences. Then follow the lead of the other person. If they are more relaxed, you can loosen up a bit.
Just click the link already.
Sam Biddle of Gizmodo (where they know a lot about instant-messaging) told me,
I think my biggest IM pet peeve is when I send someone a link and they immediately reply "What is this?" If you want to know, click the link. JUST CLICK THE LINK AND FIND OUT. At least pretend to click the link and reply "haha." Everyone should click everyone's links and laugh at everyone's jokes, always.
If you're actually too busy to click the link, just be like "gahh slammed right now, will look later." But don't make your friend explain "it's a python eating a hippo and then exploding." He'll just feel silly.
Don't be "half-there."
Jenna says her least favorite thing about IM is "the insecurity of not knowing whether someone is actually there — or there-there, or kind of there, or around but not actually there. [...] When I have a dozen replies and the person I'm talking to is more circumspect/entirely silent I start to feel bad, like I'm bothering them. But probably they're just not there-there!"
It's not so bad when you message someone a few times and they don't respond at all — they probably left their IM open while they went to the store. Much worse is the "half-there," where the person responds just enough to let you know they're online, but not enough to seem actually engaged in the conversation. This is the IM equivalent of leading someone on, and it's incredibly stressful — says Jenna, "you are emotionally vulnerable to a disinterested party." To keep your friends from landing in this painful state, just be clear about your status. If you're too busy to talk, say so. Or ...
Use an informative away message.
Sometimes you have to be online for work, but you don't really have time for personal conversations — in this situations, a simple "work only pls" lets your friends know you're busy. Or maybe you're cleaning your house but your AIM is open — "in and out" will tell them why you're only responding once an hour. Both are more effective than the generic "away." Because they're specific, your friends are more likely to pay attention. And they also explain your half-thereness, rather than keeping people guessing.
Respect people's away messages.
This is the other side of the coin. Look, I know the meaning of the away message has degraded drastically over time. Says Sam,
The away message has lost all meaning. We're all at our computers at all times, and we all know it. I go with the red "busy" status on gchat because I think it lends some cachet, but most of the time I will reply to your IMs within seconds because I'm so desperate for attention.
I'm guilty of this too — and let's be honest, if your message just says "away," that could mean anything. But if someone says "work only pls," don't send cat videos (unless that's your job, like say if you're me). And if their message reads "on phone brb," don't send them a million pestering IMs. A simple "hey let's chat when you're done" will suffice.
Gizmodo's Brent Rose did a whole guide on IM etiquette last year, and this is one of my favorite tips: