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How do I use instant messaging (IM)?

A man and a woman using their laptop computers to chat

You’ve just got the hang of email and surfing the net, and suddenly someone asks if they can ‘IM’ you. You haven’t got a clue what they’re on about! Don’t worry, we can explain all.

WebWise Team | 10th October 2012

The internet has clearly made near-instantaneous communication a very easy thing to achieve. Voice and video communication is relatively simple and people no longer ask whether you have an email address, they assume you have one and ask what it is.

How it works

Using instant messaging (IM) is simple. Go to whichever IM service you want on the web, and sign up for an account. You can now send instant messages to anyone who is online at the same time. Use a company you trust - ones that have been around as long as, say, Microsoft and AOL, aren’t going to abuse your details. They will allow you to download a piece of ’client’ software, which is like a web browser just for IM. It shows you the messages and gives you a box into which you can type your reply.

It then works like an extension of texting on the phone, but with a proper keyboard. Some people actually use it on their phones. People you’ve allowed to IM you (they have to ask first, you get a little note and have to tick the box to confirm you know them) will be able to see you’re at your computer (again, you confirm you’re online when you log on).

You can then send messages back and forth. You can either keep the messages or delete them, depending on what it is. If it’s a business conversation and you decide something important, you’d better keep it. If it’s something trivial, don’t worry.

Remember to log off when you leave your PC. It’s easy to leave IM on while you nip out for a while. But you’ll come back to messages from irate friends who think you’re ignoring them because they can see you’re there but you’re not replying.

Useful tie-ins – and odd hiccups

Frequently, the instant messaging you can get will be tied to other things. Internet phone company Skype offers it, as long as you take a (free) voice and video account as well. Microsoft will give it to you free as part of MSN, AOL offers it to AOL members and anyone else who wants to sign up. Social networking sites such as Facebook also offer messaging services.

The difficulty is that they don’t all talk to each other. So, if I was using AOL’s AIM, I might need a sort of software bridge to talk to MSN members.

One solution is to sign up to a load and then use something like Adium, which is client software that works across a number of different networks. But seeing as it’s just as easy to reply to an email, another option is to consider asking people to contact you by email instead…

The WebWise 'W'

WebWise Team

WebWise was first launched in 1998 and since then has helped people of all ages to learn about and love the internet.