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Question: What is instant messaging?

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Helen Purves Helen Purves | 11:21 UK time, Monday, 16 May 2011

There are so many different ways of communicating with your friends over the internet that it can get very confusing very quickly.  Once you've mastered the ins and outs of email, you might think you've pretty much got to grips with everything you need - and many would agree that you're correct.

However, there is a much faster way of communicating with people than email which can be quite surprising at first.  You might have seen it before - you're on Facebook, or using a friend's computer, when all of a sudden a little message pops up at the bottom of your screen that looks like it's from a real person - perhaps one of your friends.  So is it spam, or a pop-up, or what?  Well, it's probably someone sending you an instant message.

It all seems horribly complicated, but what instant messaging really involves is typing messages into a box.  The very moment you hit send (usually by using the Enter key on your computer) your friend can see that message - sometimes they can even see what you're saying as you type.  It's just like using a telephone, except you're typing instead of speaking.  In fact, it's a lot like using text messages - except unlike text messages, it's free!

You can either use instant messaging supplied by websites (like Facebook, eBuddy and Meebo), webmail providers (Yahoo, Gmail and Ymail all do this, as do many others) or download special software (like Windows Live Messenger, AIM, Skype or ICQ) - so there are a lot of options! 

Some software will even let you make voice and video calls, often through your webcam - check our our article on setting up your webcam for more details.  For more information on instant messaging, have a look at the WebWise guide.

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