WASHINGTON — Beth Marchessault, 23, bumped into someone at a recent wedding whom she hadn't been in touch with for years. But the old friend had kept up with Marchessault's life through notes she'd posted on her instant messaging system to explain extended online absences, like "traveling to Morocco."
Marchessault does the same thing, she said, keeping tabs on people without communicating with them. "A friend had been in China, then moved to teach at a private school in Boston," she said. "It's not seen as weird," she said of checking IM status messages. "You use it as a crutch."
IM users such as Marchessault have learned that the technology's basic tools can serve as real-time windows into the comings and goings of others. The simple icons that show whether a person is available for a chat -- a green check mark, a do-not-enter sign, an away message -- make it possible to juggle relationships or maintain social ties.
Users who know their friends' and families' online routines come to understand that the availability icon stands for something going on in that person's life. A roommate who logged off late in the afternoon must be headed home for the day, or a sibling who hasn't been seen online for a few days might be traveling.
Instant messaging, users say, makes lives more transparent than other technologies, like e-mail or cellphones.
The 313 million worldwide users of instant message stay online an average of about 6.3 hours a day, according to research firm ComScore Networks Inc. So people's status might change several times over the course of a single session, and each time sound signals or pop-up alerts notify other users that they have logged on or off or are no longer idle. That allows a kind of surveillance, a way to keep tabs on lives scattered in different places. At the same time, some have figured out ways to use the tool to create a safe distance from others, such as old lovers or micromanaging bosses.
That's common practice in Erin Pendergrass' office.
"People change their status for the boss to say, 'on the phone' or 'away from the desk,' " when, in fact, they're not, the 23-year-old facilities manager said.
Pendergrass, who lives in Thornton, Colo., says she actively manages her status on Yahoo Messenger and finds that if she doesn't set her status to "away" before leaving for a meeting, she often comes back to angry messages from people feeling slighted by her lack of instant response.
Generally, IM software determines whether a user is available based on whether the person is typing. But users also can set their own status, telling other messagers "do not disturb," for example. In that way, subscribers can use it as a gatekeeper for their online social network or to create different layers of intimacy for co-workers and family.
"It's very much about sharing state of mind, emotions, and it's not just 'where I am,' but 'where you can reach me,' " said Anne Kirah, a Microsoft employee and anthropologist who travels the world observing people's communications habits in their homes and at work.
Over time, companies such as Microsoft say they expect to pair location information with instant messaging, making it ever more possible for buddies to pinpoint a person's physical and technological accessibility. AOL's AIM system, for example, already shows whether a person is logged onto instant message on a mobile device. Skype users with Web cameras can post icons to alert other users of their ability to video conference.
"People get to know one another's habits pretty quickly," said Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University who has studied college students' uses of IM. Knowing that gives them a greater sense of control in relationships, she said.