Donald Norman wrote a few lines in his book, Emotional Design, about Instant Messenger. He proposed that the main function of IM is to provide emotional connection between people and not to communicate specific information. Most of the IM traffic around the world can be summed up with the following exchange:
Person A: Hey.
Person B: Hey.
Person A: I think you are worth talking to.
Person B: I think you are worth responding to.
Person A: That makes me feel good to be listened to.
Person B: It makes me feel good that you wanted to talk to me.
I have looked through my IM history and think this conversation accurately reflects a huge portion of my traffic. In fact, there were sometimes when I opened up an IM window to someone and literally could not think of anything to say to them. But I wanted to talk to them anyway. This fulfills an emotional need and not a functional one.
I also think IM is like ESP. I think a thought, touch a few keys and the other person is immediately “aware” of my thought. One day we wont need the keyboard.
Donald Norman also pointed out the importance of “Presence Awareness”. Knowing someone is online and available to talk to is very reassuring. Instant Messenger is great.