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Instant messaging (also called IM or I-chatting) is

[a] popular method of Internet communication that allows for an instantaneous transmission of messages to other users who are logged into the same IM service.”[1]


Instant messaging is one of the fastest growing services on the Internet. IM combines the immediacy of a telephone call with the network presence of electronic mail to create an instantaneous system for exchanging messages between users. In its simplest form, IM applications are used for the synchronous exchange of text messages. However, recent developments in IM technology allow for users to exchange files, images, videos and even voice messages.

Note also that IMs are often used in conjunction with chat rooms — a user in a chat room can send an IM to someone else in the chat room (because he or she sees the other party's screen name or "handle"), thus establishing a private communication.


Most IM services require users to download and install a small program on their computers. Most services require a user to establish an account and create a screen name or nickname.[2] Once an account has been established, a user has a number of options available to find other individuals to communicate with online. People can initiate contact through disclosing their screen names or can search for others by characteristics described in user profiles.

Using these means, the user creates a personal directory of "buddies" (called a "buddy list"). The IM software alerts a user when one or more of the user's "buddies" are online and available to chat via instant messaging. Users then send an invitation or a short message to that person to initiate a discussion. IM is more expeditious than e-mail because the message appears immediately on the person's screen. In contrast, e-mail messages are stored on a central server until the recipient decides to check and download the messages.

Earlier forms of synchronous chat technology, such as the Unix "talk" features and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) predated Instant Messaging. Originally noted for its entertainment value, IM was seen as a way for younger users, often using unusual screen names to communicate. However, as IM has grown in popularity and functionality, it has become an important business tool as well.


  1. GAO, File Sharing: Selected Universities Report Taking Action to Reduce Copyright Infringement 38 (May 2004)(full-text).
  2. The user information provided when creating the account may be falsified. However, some message services log the Internet Protocol (IP) address that was in use at the time the account was created.

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