What is Instant Messaging?

An instant message (IM) service is a type of communication platform that enables users to chat online in real time. It’s similar to a live phone conversation, but it uses text-based instead of voice-based communication.

History of instant messaging

The first widely used GUI-based instant messenger was ICQ, which was launched in 1996. IQC enabled users to communicate one-on-one or in chat rooms and share files with one another over the Internet. Before then, most instant messaging took place in the context of bulletin board systems (BBS) and modem-based text messages through services like MIT’s Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), Quantum Link, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

The next year, America Online (AOL) launched its instant messaging software, AIM. It added more user-centric features like the Buddy List, user profiles, and custom away messages. Several technology companies started launching competitive programs of their own and the instant messaging market was quickly saturated by vendors including Yahoo, MSN, and Pidgin.

In the 2000s and 2010s, vendors including Apple, Google, Skype, MySpace, Meebo, Facebook, and Slack began offering instant messaging services that were also paired with video and voice features. This meant a user could call, video conference, and chat with other users from the same platform. Instant messaging has also become an integral part of social media use. In fact, nearly all of the major social media platforms have some sort of private messaging function that allows users to communicate without publishing content publicly. This has led to most modern instant messaging functions to be used interchangeably with direct messaging (DM) and private messaging (PM).

Instant messaging vs. other types of messaging

Although instant messaging is very similar to other types of text-based communication (email and SMS), there are a few distinctions that are worth noting:

Instant messaging

Email

SMS

Formal/informal language?

Informal

Formal

Informal

Intended audience?

Friends/family

Business contacts

Friends/family

Accessible via the Internet?

Yes

Yes

No

Cellular network connection required?

No

No

Yes

Recipient identification method?

Username

Email address

Mobile phone number

Device restricted?

No*

No

Yes (mobile phones)

Platform-neutral?

No

Yes

Yes

Cost per message?

No

No

Yes

Ideal message length?

Short

Long

Short

Speed?

Fastest

Slowest

Moderate

 

*excludes Apple iMessage

Examples of instant messaging services

As mentioned above, there are many instant messaging services available for free and as a licensed product for professional users. Some of these include:

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Kaiti Norton
Kaiti Norton is a Nashville-based Content Writer for TechnologyAdvice, a full-service B2B media company. She is passionate about helping brands build genuine connections with their customers through relatable, research-based content. When she's not writing about technology, she's sharing her musings about fashion, cats, books, and skincare on her blog.

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