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Anthropologist Looks at Instant Messaging

Techstination feature for Thursday, June 19, 2003

The world of instant messaging. The count is up to more than two billion per day. Bloomberg Boot Camp, a report on today's technology. Instant messaging has grown faster than email, according to Forrester Research... and from a teen phenomenon... its use has been expanding rapidly into the office. IDG says about 65 million people now use IM products at work... with that number expected to top 255 million within two years. No wonder companies like Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo! are doing all they can to lure users to their instant messaging clients. At Microsoft, which is just out with version 6 of its Instant Messenger adding a variety of personalization features, design anthropologist Anne Cohen Kiel says... there's a good reason why instant messaging is so popular among young people...

"I actually think it replaces a need in our culture. A need where before children had unorganized play. And I think Instant Messenger explodes among teenagers today because it allows them that space for unorganized play."

Microsoft anthropologists visited 40 families over the course of a year to study their use of instant messaging... and used the data to develop new features for the service. A fifth of online teens say instant messaging is the main way they deal with friends. Is that healthy?

"I think that the most important thing is that our culture isn't allowing as much face to face communication. Students, they get bused to different places so their social face to face time is often the bus ride home."

One of the valuable new messenger features Microsoft has added is the ability to save IM conversations.