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The Effects of AOL Instant Messaging on Social Interaction Lauren Wolf November 2, 2006 COMM320

The rapid growth of the internet has revolutionized the way we interact with others. For teenagers and college students, AOL Instant Messenger is a prime manner in which to communicate over the internet, and for some it the predominant mode of communication in general. I believe that AIM1 both facilitates and inhibits social interaction between teenagers and college students, changing social interaction but neither advancing nor diminishing it. By reading research studies on the topic and by conducting thirteen interviews of students at the University of Illinois, I have been able to analyze how AIM is able to perform in this manner. America Online2 was created in 1987. Because of its user-friendly interface, it became the prime internet service provider in the United States. Members could talk to each other through instant messaging, which was a fast and convenient mode of communicating with other people who were online at the same time. America Online soon realized that a weakness of the program was that members could only chat with other AOL members. Fearing that its members would seek outside instant messaging programs, AOL created a free instant messaging program in May 1997. That year the company delivered more mail in the form of e-mail and instant messages than the U.S. Postal Service.3 AIM’s popularity has steadily increased, and in 2005 70% of online Americans were using the program. In the 1990’s a high number of American dial-up internet users subscribed to America Online, and AIM became the most used instant messaging program. Because the point of instant messaging is to communicate with others, we are almost forced to use

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AOL Instant Messenger is commonly abbreviated as AIM. America Online officially changed their name to AOL on April 3, 2006. 3 Today AIM has 42 million active users, and delivers 1.6 billion messages per day.


the same instant messaging program as our friends, whether or not it is our preferred choice.4 Although AIM is America’s most used instant messaging program, few people use it internationally. I had to download MSN Messenger to communicate with my family in South Africa and Australia, as it is integrated into the Windows operating system, and has become increasingly popular. I found it tedious to constantly leave MSN messenger open in case one of my three cousins signed online, and eventually deleted the program. I have now virtually lost all contact with these family members, and e-mail them about once every six months. Thus, in theory instant messaging facilitates social interaction, as people can communicate with those halfway across the world instantly and for free. However, interaction is inhibited by the incompatibility of different instant messaging programs. Because each program is privately owned, each company wants as many users as possible, and they are often not willing to lose users by making their programs compatible with each other. Although instant messaging is becoming more popular for all age groups, the majority of users are teenagers and college students.5 According to a study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Melon University, instant messaging satisfies adolescents’ needs for maintaining individual friendships and for belonging to peer groups.6 Although the


A main reason that some people are opposed to AIM is because of its advertisements. For example, Ted Gournelos avoids AIM for this reason, and uses Google’s new G-Chat instead. He is therefore limited to communicating only with those who have G-Chat as well, when the majority of his acquaintances still primarily use AIM. 5 In a survey done by PC Magazine, 42% of adults admitted to using instant messaging, where as 75% of teens ages 12-17 admitted to using AIM. 6 Adolescents have more friends than adults, and therefore need efficient ways to communicate with all of them. This was concluded by researchers at Carnegie Melon University in an essay titled “Teenage Communication in the Instant Messaging Era.”


study claims that instant messaging promotes social interaction among adolescents, I feel that it fails to look at the negative affects AIM has on social interactions. and I will attempt to rectify that oversight throughout this paper. By examining the physical features of AOL Instant Messenger, one can see how the various features of the program can both facilitate and inhibit social interactions. The buddy list feature allows people to keep track of their online contacts. This allows people to see when their peers are online and to track their availability. This facilitates social interaction as people do not have to memorize their contacts’ screen names and can easily see their availability, which makes chatting easier. Social interaction is inhibited in that there is a 250 buddy maximum. Thus, contact is limited and when one’s buddy list is full he/she must decide with whom they will sever regular communication. Few, if any, people actually keep in contact with 250 people. The block feature, by contrast, allows people to prohibit certain users from contacting them. This increases people’s comfort leve,l as they know they have control their contacts. However, social interaction is inhibited, as the blocked person does not get a chance to redeem themselves, or request an explanation. Because one’s block list is rarely opened, a person that is temporarily blocked may accidentally be permanently blocked, and online communication may be severed permanently. The chat feature allows multiple users to communicate all together. This facilitates social interaction as people may communicate in a group setting. However, social interaction may also be inhibited as too much reliance on group chat rooms may lead the users to lessen individual-based personal communication. There are many other features of AIM that are less frequently used.7 The two main functions of AIM, instant messages and away messages, will be analyzed later in the paper.

Profiles, icons, gaming, and the invisibility feature are also features of AIM.


Instant messenger allows adolescents to keep in touch with friends. Although many of the college students I interviewed admitted that they would rather have long, personal conversations with close friends on the phone, there are various situations in which they feel more comfortable talking online.8 During online conversations, people know that they are probably not the other person’s main priority or source of attention– the person may be talking to several people or multitasking with AIM open. People have more time to think of things to say, and breaks in conversation are not considered “awkward.” Those surveyed also agreed that AIM was more practical if they just want to have a quick conversation. It is socially acceptable to ask someone a question on AIM, and say thank you when they reply, with no further conversation. If the question had been asked on the phone, however, a more in depth conversation would be required, and a quick conversation could be interpreted as rude. Because online communication is less personal that face-to-face contact or talking on the telephone, many people feel that they can say things in instant message conversations that they would not feel comfortable saying otherwise. Often people will talk to those of the opposite sex online, as it makes them feel less vulnerable.9 The other person has time to think about how to respond, and if they respond in a negative way, the original comment can be played off as a joke, as the tone is always subjective.10 Shy people often prefer to communicate online rather than on the phone or in person. C. Nathelie Yuen and Michael J. Lavin studied the link between shyness and internet dependency. It was found that lonely, shy, low sensation seeking college students

Nick Vissat, an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, majoring in Advertising., admitted that online there “is less awkward silence or pointless conversation.” 9 Because you are unable to see the other person’s body language or hear the tone in their voice, the fear of rejection is lessened. 10 This can also, of course, lead to arguments and misunderstandings.


are more likely to develop a dependency to the internet. Those who showed high levels of shyness in face to face situations were less shy online. This is because “the internet provides a safe haven where feelings of discomfort are alleviated. Online use eliminates the negative and undesirable feelings that accompany face to face situations.”11 I fully agree with this statement, but draw a distinction between those who are dependent on the internet and avoid face to face contact all together, and those who use the internet as a supplementary tool. The article states that many shy college students become completely dependent on the internet. I believe it is more realistic to say that shy college students use instant messaging to build an initial relationship with someone, and when they feel comfortable enough with them online, might feel more comfortable with them in person. Hence, it is clear that instant messaging facilitates social interaction, as it helps shy people build relationships and helps them to feel comfortable talking to their online contacts in face to face situations. However, this social interaction is inhibited, as when people become too dependent on online communication, they may cling to the medium and not expand their contact into face-to-face communication. Another interesting aspect of instant messaging is the fact that males and females communicate on AIM in different ways. Research shows that online conversations between two female college students were longer than online conversations between males.12 These findings mirror general gender differences. Females generally communicate with each other more than males do, and are more willing to show emotion. Women are more meticulous with their grammar, treating instant messaging as a form of

For more information on this study, see Internet Dependence in the Collegiate Population: The Role of Shyness, by C. Nathelie Yuen and Michael J. Lavin. 12 According to See You Online: Gender Issues in College Student Use of Instant Messaging by Naomi S. Baron, females also used fewer contractions, treating IM more as a written medium. Females were also three times as likely to show expressions of smiles or laughter.


written communication. Men, on the other hand, just want to get their message across, regardless of grammar. A key way that social interaction has changed through AIM is by use of the “away message.” The majority of the time that adolescents are signed on to AIM, they are not actively talking to anyone. Broadband internet connections allow people to be connected to the internet twenty four hours a day. This has led to the increased popularity of the away message, as many adolescents are connected to AIM constantly. For example, Emma Miller13 spends 15-18 hours online, and is “away” 13-15 of these hours. When asked why she uses away messages instead of signing off, she responded: “I like to let people know where I am. Sometimes I like to put up a quote or song lyric that describes what kind of mood I am in. People can leave me messages that I will be able to see later.” Like Emma, I use away messages for the same purpose. My friends can see where I am and call to meet up with me. My quotes can tell people exactly what mood I am in. Sometimes, if something interesting happens, my away messages will tell a story. Thus, elements of personal interaction are eliminated, as stories can be shared without targeting specific people. One can read anyone’s away message without their knowledge. The majority of people on my buddy list are people I do not ever talk to, but do not want to delete because I check their away messages regularly. One may not realize that certain people are checking their away messages, but these people are still able to gain insight into the person’s life. Although the people are not interacting per se, they can still keep up with each others lives. Away messages also lead to other forms of social interaction:


Emma Miller is an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in Media Studies.


people often leave their phone numbers or whereabouts in their away message, making it easy for people to call or meet up with them. Interaction is also inhibited by the use of away messages, as some people view being away as a sign that the person does not want to be disturbed. Often people have their away messages up but are really at their computers screening their instant messages. With the new feature that allows people to send instant messages while still retaining away message, they can pick and choose to whom they respond. Although other forms of internet communication are becoming increasingly popular, AIM is still the quickest and easiest form of online communication. These new media forms initially seem different, but when analyzed, the main purpose of them all is to communicate with others while keeping a safe distance.14 The internet has dramatically changed the way adolescents interact, and in my opinion this is a good thing. We are not forced to use internet communication, but having more options in the way we communicate gives us the opportunity for social development. Because social development is best measured over long periods of time, it is unclear exactly how instant messaging is helping our generation grow, but I am optimistic about its effects.


Facebook, Myspace, message boards, and blogs are all ways that adolescents communicate online.