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Lesson 2: Chat and Instant Messaging

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Introduction

Screenshot of GmailA conversation using Gmail's built-in chat

Chat and instant messaging (IM) are short messages sent and read in real time, allowing you to converse more quickly and easily than email.

Chat and IM are generally used when both (or all) people are online, so your message can be read immediately. By comparison, an email message won't be seen until the recipient checks his email, meaning that chat and IM are better for quick messages and conversations.

Chat vs. IM

The terms chat and IM are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they can have slightly different meanings:

Screenshot of Skype Friends ListA Friend List in Skype
  • Chat often occurs in a virtual chat room, which can include many different people who may or may not know each other. Many chat rooms focus on a particular topic or interest.
  • IM usually includes a list of your contacts, called a Buddy List or Friend List, which allows you to see who is online. IM is especially suited for one-on-one communication, but it's possible to send messages to multiple people at once. IM is technically a kind of chat, and some IM services use the term "chat" instead.

Pros and cons of instant messaging

Will chat or IM work for your needs? Review some of the pros and cons to help decide:

Pros:

  • It's instant; you don't need to wait for the other person to check his email.
  • It's great for quick messages, questions, or notifications.
  • Compared to email, it's easier to carry on a conversation (or even multiple conversations).
  • You can stay logged in while doing other things on your computer, which makes it easy to multi-task.

Cons:

  • If someone is not online, you may have to contact him another way.
  • It's not as convenient as email for lengthy or complicated messages.
  • It's not always instantaneous: If your friends are busy or away from the computer, it may take a while for them to respond.
  • Since people may type quickly or use abbreviations, messages could be difficult to understand. Also, as with email, it's possible to misinterpret someone's tone.

Where to find chat and IM services

There are numerous chat and IM programs you can download, including Skype, ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), and Yahoo! Messenger (all of these can also perform voice and video chat). In addition, there are many browser-based services that don't require downloading. For example, Facebook and Gmail allow you to chat with your contacts whenever you're signed in.

If you have a smartphone or mobile device, it's possible to use chat or IM when you're away from your computer. Popular mobile chat services include IMO and eBuddy.

If you want to know more about using chat and instant messaging, we have tutorials on the following:

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