Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Decline of Instant Messaging

Remember how big instant messenging used to be? I mean, maybe it still is for some of you, but usage has really fallen off the past few years for me and my friends. Releases of new IM clients used to be big news, and interoperability between AOL IM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger was a major issue. So what happened?

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to the decline of instant messaging.

The rise of SMS
The near-ubiquity of mobile devices and affordable texting plans has driven many to consider SMS the primary means to connect with someone -- if you want a communication channel that's less intrusive than a phone call but more immediate than an email. Why?
  1. No interoperability concerns. SMS is the LCD. You know your message is going to get through no matter what "network" the receiver is on. (By network we mean not only "wireless carrier", but also "IM network").
  2. Greater deliverability probability. If you IM someone, if they're not sitting at their computer, they're not going to answer. If you text someone, chances are they're going to get it, no matter the receiver's context. (Yes, I'm simplifying ... IM can extend beyond the desktop, but work with me here).
  3. One less online touchpoint. If you already have someone's phone number, that also serves as their SMS address. You don't need to hold onto and manage yet another "address" for the receiver.
Chat as an application feature
As social networks expand to attempt to capture all of your attention, it makes sense that they would offer chat as an application feature. You're already friends on Facebook, and you're both obviously spending all your time on the site, so why leave to some other place to have a real-time conversation? Web-based applications are now technically sophisticated enough to support this as a usable feature, which leads us to...

Client bloat
Even before services started moving to the cloud, the installed IM applications were getting more and more bloated. People were no longer using the AOL client to access the Internet, for example, and the company was desperate to recage their users. So they foobar'd the client and started adding all sorts of junk: why of course you'd want the latest celebrity headlines and download the most popular ringtones! Turns out that people (well, at least this people) don't like it when you treat them like chattel to be shuttled off to the highest bidder.

Availability of other communication channels
Finally, there are just more ways to communicate, and other channels just might be more nuanced and suitable than the chat protocol. Perhaps a comment on a Facebook status update is a more appropriate exchange, or an @reply on Twitter. There are just more choices, with many choices better than an intrusive IM session.

Certainly, there's still a place for IM and chat. I still have a couple of IM accounts (one on AOL and a Google Talk account or two) and use them almost daily, but I'm generally hesistant to publicize them. Why? It feels too intrusive ... a little too synchronous. I think it's a great medium for communicating with a colleague or chatting with the family, but seeing unsolicited invites to chat from unknown contacts is too jarring for me personally.

How about you? Have you IM/chat habits changed over the past couple of years? Any theories as to why it has changed (or not change) for you?

So, for me, instant messaging represents non-public semi-synchronous communication channel for a close social circle. Put it on the map.

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