Instant messaging is a technology that enables computer users to quickly exchange brief typed messages. The messages are sent over the Internet or another computer network. Instant messaging is often referred to simply by the abbreviation IM. Instant messaging differs from e-mail in that IM communication occurs in real time—that is, while multiple users are online and can conduct a back-and-forth conversation. IM is similar to text messaging—that is, the sending and receiving of short text messages via cellular phones or similar handheld devices. Many messaging programs combine real-time functions with functions that are not real-time and that work on phones, blurring the distinctions between IM, e-mail, and text messaging.
Early versions of IM enabled each user to see what the other was typing, one character at a time. But IM users today see each line only when completed. The computer screen displays a running record of the messages, forming a “script” of the conversation.
IM can take place among users anywhere in the world, as long as they are using the same IM service or compatible services. Most IM services allow users to send files to one another in addition to text messages. Many IM services also enable users to engage in voice or video communication. Some IM services require users to install a program on their computers. Such programs include AOL Instant Messenger (also known as AIM), Skype, and Yahoo! Messenger. Users can create “buddy lists” of people they know, and the program displays when other users are online. Other IM services simply work through Web-based e-mail or through social networking websites. These services enable instant communication between e-mail contacts or friends on social networks.
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