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Always in Touch: A Preliminary Study of Instant Messaging
Ha Sung Hwang
Mass Media and Communication
The School of Communications and Theater
8200 Henry Ave. G-17
Philadelphia, PA 19128
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Mass Communication and Society Division
Always in Touch: A Preliminary Study of Instant Messaging
Although Instant Messaging (IM) is growingly exponentially, little research
has been done on how and why people incorporate IM into their lives. The
purpose of the study was to examine the IM phenomenon within the college
sector in terms of what gratifications they seek, how they experience a
sense of social presence (the feeling of being together), and how IM use
affects their other media uses. Open-ended survey questionnaires were
administrated to 78 college students.
The preliminary data indicated that social interaction was the most salient
gratification sought from IM, followed by medium appeal, entertainment,
interpersonal utility, and information-seeking. The data also indicated
that IM evokes social presence: a majority of college students agreed that
they felt "as if they were together" or "in the same room" with another
when they use IM. Also, the results showed that IM gradually displaced
emailing. More than half of the respondents stated that emailing or talking
on the phone declined after they began using IM. Based on the preliminary
findings, limitations and directions for future studies were discussed.
Always in Touch: A Preliminary Study of Instant Messaging
"IM isn't just about passing notes; it's a powerful communications tool."
"Instant messaging will be an increasingly important part of our society."
A thirteen-year-old girl, Brittney Cleary, who lives in Nashville, was
recording her debut as a singer. She tried to pick a song that most of her
age group could relate to and understand. Before the song was available in
stores, it was released through the Internet and caught the attention of
many teenagers. The song was called "IM Me" –that is, "Instant Message Me"
(Irvine, 2001). This online technology trend is popular not only with
teenagers but has spread and is increasingly spreading among family
members, friends, businesses and communities around the world.
Instant Messaging (IM) refers to a type of software program that uses an
Internet connection to send and receive short text messages with another
computer. This technology has established a popular mode of communication
for people with access to the Internet. Some people do not use it and never
will, but for a rapidly growing number of people IM is a useful
communication tool and for others it is a vital part of their lives. The
telephone is no longer necessary for a person to be connected constantly to
his or her family and friends. One can simply turn his or her computer on
and log onto IM. Family and friends in long-distance relationships can
maintain constant contact over the Internet as long as they use the same IM
application. IM allows users to hold simultaneous conversations without
long distance fees.
The number of IM users worldwide has been growing exponentially. Even
though there is no exact count of the global IM population and statistics
vary among research firms, most studies suggest that the number of
worldwide IM users is large and will continue to grow. For instance,
According to International Data Corp. (IDC), the number of global IM users
will reach over 500 million by 2005; they estimate that the number of
corporate and general business IM users will grow to over 200 million by
2005 and individual users to over 300 million (as cited in Disababatino
June, 2001). IDC also estimates that users sent about 900 million instant
messages on a typical day in 2000, and will send about 7 billion a day by
2004 (as cited in Lagesse, 2001). Conley (2002) reports that the number of
IM users worldwide already reached over 445 million with more than 225,000
new users per day.
In light of these facts what we know is that IM has rapidly diffused into
our society. But we know little about how this new technology affects our
daily lives. Few attempts have been made to examine how and why people turn
to incorporate IM into their lives. Although the IM phenomenon has received
much media attention, nonetheless, current IM literature is limited. Most
studies narrowly focus on IM use in work-related activities within the
business community (e.g., Hansen & Damm, 2002; Herbsleb et al., 2001;
Nardi, Whittaker & Bradner, 2000); and none of these examine why college
students are eagerly adopting IM. Consequently, the purpose of this study
is twofold: to explore how and why college students are using IM and to
explore how IM affects other existing media.
Uses and gratifications approach
The uses and gratifications approach moves beyond "what do media do to
people?" to "what do people do with media?" Based on the assumption that
audience members actively use media to satisfy certain needs, this approach
attempts to determine the functions mass communication serves for audience
members. The uses and gratifications approach also suggests that different
people can use the same media for different purposes and that multiple
gratifications can be sought and/or obtained from a particular medium.
Audience activity is a central concept in the uses and gratifications
approach. This approach highlights the role of media consumers who have
freedom to consciously choose the medium they think will best satisfy their
needs. The general finding from numerous uses and gratification studies is
that the gratifications sought motivates the use of a particular medium in
an audience. Users seek gratifications through a medium based on their
individual "needs" or "motivations" (Lin, 1996). Therefore, the term,
"gratifications sought" has been used interchangeably with "motives" or
"needs" in the uses and gratifications literature, as they all refer to
reasons why people use media.
IM is an example of a medium that people actively use because it is
text-based. IM users must actively read the information contained in the
conversation window prior to responding to that message instantly. Unlike
TV channel surfing, where the media consumer indiscriminately looks for an
appealing image, or email, in which documents often go unread, IM use
--sending and receiving messages instantly--is characterized by more
purposeful engagement. Based on the uses and gratifications approach, this
study assumes that IM users make up an active audience and that IM is used
to satisfy users' particular needs.
Katz, Gurevitch, and Hass (1973) suggest that media users have essentially
the same five categories of needs: cognitive needs (e.g., information
seeking), affective needs (e.g., pleasurable or emotional experience),
personal integrative needs (e.g., confidence), social integrative needs
(e.g., interaction with friends), and escapist needs (e.g., tension release
or diverse desires). IM is likely to fulfill these needs in a convenient,
yet revolutionary way. For instance, people may use IM for gratifying
social integrative needs (e.g., keeping in touch with family and friends
and/or making new friends). Such needs would be satisfied through the
immediate feedback of IM without a face-to-face encounter.
Does the emergence of a new communication medium affect the use of existing
media? Does the new medium displace the old? Such questions have
frequently been a focus for media researchers. In examining these questions
scholars have recognized the value of the uses and gratifications approach.
For instance, Ferguson and Perse (2000) state, "uses and gratifications
offers another explanation for changes in media use following adoption of
new media technologies" (p.157).
When a new medium is introduced, time spent on traditional media becomes an
issue. Underlying assumptions are that individuals have a limited amount of
time, and if individuals increase the time spent on one activity, then they
will logically have to make sacrifices in other activities (Neuman, 1991).
The concern is apparent, if audience members perceive more interesting in
contents and/or forms of new media such as the Internet and World Wide Web
since interactivity offered by these media may lead to greater engagement
(Coffey & Stipp, 1997). Lin (1994) also notes that the audience members
abandon the old medium and replace it with the new when a new medium is
regarded as more functionally desirable than the old medium.
Many studies have examined how new media affect time spent on traditional
media use. Most report that the progressive displacement of television
viewing results from Internet use. For instance, James (1992) found that
electronic bulletin boards largely replaced television viewing. More than
half of his respondents stated that their television viewing had declined
after they began to use electronic bulletin boards. Perse and Dunn (1998)
also found that home computer users are less likely to watch television and
cable television than non-computer users. Pew Internet & American Life
(1997) found that viewing news on television declined because of online
news consumption. One-third of this study sample said that they surfed the
Web instead of watching television.
Talking on the phone, writing a letter and non-mediated social activities
seems to be vulnerable in the age of the Internet, since email offers
"greater opportunities for satisfying interpersonal needs than telephone,
postal services or face-face-face interactions" (Stafford et al., 1999, p.
663). Studies found that people who use the Internet spent less time on
using telephone. For instance, Kayany and Yelsma (2000) report that time
spent on talking on the phone slightly declined after using online
media. Computer users also spent less time with TV, books, phones, and
other leisure activities (Vitalari et al., 1985).
However, other empirical studies have provided different findings. For
instance, researchers (Atkin, Jeffres, & Neuenforf, 1998; Stempel III et
al., 2000) found little displacement effects of new media on other media
use. Rather, the studies suggest a "supplemental" relationship between a
new medium and a traditional medium, as each seems to reinforce the use of
the other (Lin, 1999). For instance, Robinson et al. (1997) found a
positive relationship between CMC and print media use. Atkins et al. (1998)
found that readership of magazines and viewership of theatrical movies as
well as videos were positively related to Internet access. Jeffres and
Atkin (1996) found that the use of online services was not generally
related to use of other media, despite positive relationships with watching
television. Stempel III et al. (2000) found that Internet users were more
likely to read a daily newspaper and listen to radio news than non-Internet
user. They suggested that those people who use the Internet as a source of
news are "information seekers." The study concluded that "clearly, the
Internet is not the cause of the decline in use of the other media" (p.71)
by emphasizing that there was no significant difference between Internet
users and non-users in watching local and network television news.
The adoption of IM among college students raises some issues related to
functional or time displacement effects. As it possesses characteristic
qualities of communication such as synchronicity and interactivity, IM can
be seen as a functional alternative to traditional media in some ways. When
IM serves a primary means of communication, IM will compete with other
existing media such as telephone or even email. If IM is regarded as more
functionally desirable than these media, then audience members may select
it over the other media. Therefore, given that audiences have a limited
amount of time, media displacement or supplement effects may occur, when IM
gratifies or fails to meet audience needs that they seek from the media use.
Social Presence and CMC
The concept of presence, or "being there," has become a central issue for
many researchers. One important dimension of presence is social presence,
the feeling of "being with others" in mediated environments. Social
presence theory helps explain the relationship between the characteristics
of a medium and communication activities, and understand how media forms
function in relation to interpersonal interaction. Although social presence
was initially studied in face-to face, audio and closed-circuit television
encounters, many recent attempts have been made to redefine this concept in
pervasive Computer- Mediated Communication (CMC) environments.
Short, Williams and Christie (1976) regard social presence as a quality
of the communication medium and define it as "degree of salience of the
other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the
interpersonal relationships" (p. 65). Therefore, they insist that social
presence "affects the nature of the interaction and it interacts with the
purpose of the interaction to influence the medium chosen by the individual
who wishes to communicate" (p. 65).
However, recent communication and human –computer interaction researchers
who study social presence have begun to apply the "spatial metaphor" in
understanding the concept of social presence. As to the use of
telecommunications in education, Mason (1994) describes social presence as
the feeling that the people with whom one is collaborating are in the same
room. According to him, social presence is the feeling of "co-presence" as
individuals feel as if they are located in the same environment. In this
case, social presence is the sense of being with another in the same
location, space, or room.
Other researchers expand such a concept of co-presence to "mutual awareness."
Heeter (1992) defines social presence as "the extent to which other beings
in the world appear to exist and react to the user" in a virtual world. It
is also defined as the "level of awareness of the co-presence of another
human being or intelligence" (Biocca & Nowak, 2001). Furthermore, Durlach
and Slater (2000) see social presence as "virtual togetherness" in a
mediated environment. Put together, users are aware of the "existence of
the others" and "they are there," therefore they feel "togetherness" in a
virtual space or mediated environment.
In sum, social presence has been studied in a variety of mediated
environments, and the definition of social presence varies among
researchers. It is important to note that while most recently social
presence is seen as a variable based on users' experience, early
investigators of social presence, Short et al. (1976), view social presence
as "a quality of the medium." General understanding of social presence,
according to recent research, holds that social presence is the user's
experience of others "as if they were socially present" or "as if they were
being together" in mediated communication. In this case, social presence is
the experience of presence in a mediated environment. It is the sense that
we feel "socially or emotionally connected" in a mediated environment.
Research on the Internet utilizes the uses and gratifications approach to
examine the motivations behind the usage of different online activities
such as the World Wide Web, electronic bulletin boards, and email. Studies
that have examined motivations for Internet use in general find that, like
television viewing motivations, audiences use it to satisfy such needs as
entertainment, escape (or passing time), information seeking, and social
interaction (Charney, 1996; Ferguson & Perse, 2000; Kaye, 1998). In
addition, to satisfy the need for maintaining relationships and/or social
interaction people use particular Internet services like email (e.g.,
Stafford et al., 1999, Dimmick et al., 2000) and electronic bulletin boards
(e.g., James, 1992).
Despite the rapid and widespread diffusion of Instant Messaging systems
there is little research that explores why people use IM. One study
examined the motivations for chatting on ICQ, the first IM application
(Leung, 2001). The study found that relaxation, entertainment, fashion,
affection, sociability and escape were motives for using ICQ. Other
studies on IM suggest that teenagers primarily use IM to increase
socializing opportunities (Grnter & Palen, 2002). Following these two of IM
and other uses and gratifications studies, this present study attempts to
answer the following research question:
RQ 1.What gratifications are college students seeking from using IM?
Several studies have found displacement of traditional media use by
Internet usage. In particular, those studies found a negative relationship
between TV viewing and Internet use (Akins et al., 1998; James, 1992; James
et al., 1995, Negroponte, 1995; Perse & Dunn, 1998). Vitalati et al. (1985)
found that computer users spend less time with TV, telephones and other
leisure activity. Similarly, James et al. (1995) found that the use of
electronic bulletin boards reduced time spent with television viewing,
talking on the telephone and other consumption (e.g., reading a book or
writing a letter).
Email also has an impact on use of traditional media. Stafford et al.
(1999) state, "many people mentioned that email provided greater
opportunities for satisfying interpersonal needs than the telephone, postal
systems or face-to-face interaction" (p. 663). Email can be also affected
by IM use. Rasmus (2002) reports that the use of Instant Messaging has
surpassed email use. Based on the literature discussed above, the following
research question is proposed:
RQ 2. How does college students' IM use affect other media use,
specifically, do they report the use of IM affects email and phone use?
Social presence is growing in popularity as an important factor for
understanding the effects of new media (Biocca, Harms, & Burgoon, 2003).
Researchers have examined social presence in various types of communication
technologies ranging from low bandwidth interactive text technologies
(e.g., email, bulletin board) to high bandwidth audio-visual technologies
(e.g., video and computer teleconferencing systems). These technologies
have created "interactive virtual environments" in which people interact
and, in some cases, experience social presence. For instance, Towell and
Towell (1997) examined the users' experience of "being with others" in
text-based virtual environment (e.g., MUD). Their survey result indicated
that 69% of 207 users reported that they felt a sense of presence with
others when they use this technology (see also Garramone et al.,1986;
Perse, et al.,1992; Tu, 2002 for other technologies)
Tu (2002) examined the relationship between social presence and the various
types of CMC such as e-mail, bulletin board, and real time discussion. The
results indicated email is perceived to possess the highest level of social
presence, followed by real-time discussion and bulletin board. Such
different degrees of impact on social presence, he insisted, "not only come
from the attributes of CMC systems, but also the uses and various
perceptions of CMC systems" (p. 21). Attributes of CMC systems (e.g.,
asynchronous and synchronous), typing skills, use of spell checks, speed,
and accuracy of messages are critical factors that affect students'
perceptions of social presence in CMC environments.
Other studies suggest that social presence affects the outcomes of CMC use.
Some find that social presence is a significant predictor of the user's
satisfaction with interactive television classes (Hackman & Walker, 1990)
and text-based computer conferences (Gunawardena & Zittle,1997).
Such findings have an implication for the present study. It is possible
that one-to-one text-based Instant Messaging might create social presence,
as email or bulletin board do, and that this feeling of social presence can
lead to heavy usage of and satisfaction with IM.
Based on the literature discussed, the present study attempts to answer the
following research question:
RQ 3. Do IM users experience a sense of social presence? More specifically,
how many students report that they feel a sense of "being together" or
"being in the same room" with another through using IM?
Sample and procedure
Because to my knowledge no scholarly surveys of IM users and non-users had
been attempted before, a pilot study was conducted in November 2003. It was
necessary to test some preliminary ideas of how and why students use (or do
not use) IM.
College students were chosen as the target sample because they have grown
up with the Internet, can easily access the Internet in a wired campus, and
are regarded as active IM users, according to the previous reports.
The open-ended survey questionnaires were administrated to a random sample
of students at two large universities in the United States. Participation
in the study was voluntary, and the final sample was 102 with 78 IM users
and 24 non-users. The majority of the participants were female (58 %) and
most students were freshmen (52.7%) followed by sophomores (34.2%)),
juniors (9.6%), seniors (2.2%) and graduate students (1.2%). For the
analysis, however, only responses from 78 IM users were included.
IM behavior: to assess college students' IM behavior, respondents were
asked to report (1) how long they had been using IM, (2) how many hours
they used IM on a typical day, and (3) whom are the people that they chat
with the most through IM.
Gratifications sought from IM: to identify the gratifications sought from
IM use among college students, respondents were asked to report the top
three reasons why they use IM.
Displacement effects: to assess the impact of IM on other media, such as
telephone and email, respondents answered the question, "Do you think this
technology (IM) has affected your usage of other media? (e.g. decrease
email use, increase phone use, etc.).
Social presence: to assess how students experience social presence through
IM use, respondents were asked to state their level of agreement with two
statements: (1) I feel a sense of being in the same room with others when I
am using IM and (2) I feel a sense of actually being together with the
person I communicate with when I am using IM. A 5- point scale was used
(1=strongly disagree; 5=strongly agree).
In terms of IM usage behavior among college students, respondents reported
that they have been using IM from six months to seven years. 68% of the
respondents reported they been using IM more than five years. Respondents
reported they spent an average of 2.36 hours (range= 30 minutes to four
hours) on a typical day. As for the people with whom they chatted most
often when they use IM, the majority of respondents reported that they
chatted with friends (67.8%) followed by classmates/colleagues (19.1%),
boyfriends/ girlfriends (5.8%), family members (4.2%), and anonymous (3.1%).
Gratifications sought from IM use
Regarding the first research question concerning what gratifications are
most likely to be sought through IM use, 198 responses were content
analyzed and subdivided into five major categories: social interaction,
medium appeal, interpersonal utility, entertainment, and information
seeking. These five factors are reported in Table 1 along with frequency
The most common single area reported by IM users was social interaction
(43.9%). This category signaled that college students used IM as an
"interpersonal communication" means. More than one-third of the total uses
mentioned by the 78 respondents included such phrases as "keep in touch" or
"talk to" people in different categories. For instance, respondents
frequently mentioned they used IM to "keep in touch with friends" (21.7%)
and "contact family" (4.5%).
Table 1. Motivations for IM use
1. To keep in touch with friends/ boyfriend/girlfriend
2. To have more relationships with others
3. To contact with family (e.g. sister, brother)
4. To meet new friends/ romantic relationships
5. To maintain relationships/ feel involved what's going on with my
friends/ to see what others are up to
6. To contact people living far/ talking to friend moving away
7. To communicate the person that I want to talk/ can block out some one
that I do not want to talk
87 (43.9 %)
1. Convenient to use/ Send and receive files and photos easily.
2. Fast/ quick response/instant feedback
3. Cheap/ free charge/ avoid long distance fees
4. Easier than email/ To talk without using phone/ more comfortable than
phone/ avoid using mobile phone during the day
5. Can do many things at once/talk to many people at once
6. Can stay home/ don't have to go out
1. To get personal advice/ to talk about personal matters
2. Feel comfortable to express feelings
3. To open private things
Entertainment/ Pass time
1. For fun/ curiosity/ Just like to use it
2. To overcome boredom/to relax
3. To pass time/ killing time
1. To follow/keep up news
2. To exchange files and info with friends/To pass info/news to friends
Respondents also reported that IM was used to "maintain relationships"
(6.1%) with "people living far" or "friends moving away" (2.5%). College
students also used IM to "have more relationships" (5%) and to "make new
The second most cited category of reasons by respondents was "medium
appeal" with a total of 29.8% of the total responses. This category
represents IM characteristics that make it unique and desirable to its
users. The category "medium appeal" characterized IM as a "convenient"
(7.6%), "fast" (6.1%) and "inexpensive" (3.5%) communication medium that
allows users to multi-task (5.6%). Respondents reported that IM is "easy
and more convenient than phone and email" allowing "instant feedback" with
The third most cited category of reasons by the respondents was
"interpersonal utility" with 14.6 % of the total reasons mentioned. Most
frequently mentioned was the need to "get personal advice" and to "talk
about personal matters" with 9.6 % of the total uses. Similar reasons
mentioned are "feel comfortable to express feelings" (3.0 %) and "to open
up private things" (2.0%).
Entertainment was the forth category. Within this was, the single most
popular use mentioned with 8.1% was general entertainment-- "for fun and
curiosity" (3.5%). Other similar reasons cited in this category are "to
overcome boredom" (1.5%) and "to pass/kill time" (1.0%)
The least mentioned reason for use of IM among the college students
was "information seeking" (6.2 %). However, the most popular reason
mentioned in this category with 4.3 % was "to exchange files and
information with friends" and "to pass information to friends".
Table 2. Impact of IM on other media use
Responses (# of respondents providing that answer)
Do you think this technology (IM) have affected your usage of other media?
(e.g. decrease email use, increase phone use, etc.)
Not changed: 28 (37.3%)
Decrease email use: 21 (28.1%)
Decrease phone use: 15 (20%)
Increase email use: 11 (14.6%)
Not answered: 3
Table 2 summarizes the results of the impact of IM on other media use. When
respondents asked to respond to the question "Do you think this technology
(IM) has affected your use of other media? (e.g., less email use, more
telephone use, etc.)", many respondents mentioned frequently that email has
been affected by IM use. Interestingly, the results showed both positive
and negative relationships between IM use and email use. 28.1% of the
total respondents reported that their email use decreased due to IM use,
while 14.5 % of the total respondents mentioned that their email use
increased. Telephone use also has been affected by IM use. 20 % of the
respondents reported that their telephone usage decreased after IM use. It
is also notable that 37.3 % (more than one-third of respondents) indicated
that their IM use has not affected any other media use.
Social presence and IM use
The results show that many college students experience "social presence"
when they interact with others through IM applications. This experience has
been described as a sense of "being together" or " being in the same room"
during IM use. As can be seen in Table 3, a majority of college students
felt a sense of being in the same room with others when using IM.
Table 3. Experience of social presence
Strongly disagree (1)
Strongly agree (5)
I feel a sense of being in the same room with others when I am using IM
I feel a sense of actually being together with the person I communicate
with when I am using IM.
67.7 % (the percentage of those answering with either "strongly agree" or
"agree") stated that they felt a sense of being in the same room with
others when they were using IM. Additionally, more than half (56.4%) of
the respondents reported that they agreed with the statement "I feel a
sense of actually being with the person I communicate with when I am using
IM", while 14.1% disagreed. These findings suggest that Instant Messaging
evokes social presence—a feeling of being with others. Therefore, college
students perceive that they are together in the same room with their
partners when they chat through IM services.
Conclusion and discussion
One purpose of this study was to discover the reasons why college students
use IM. The results reveal that social interaction, medium appeal,
interpersonal utility, entertainment, and information seeking were the
primary motivations for college students' use of IM. That the findings
suggest that college students use IM mainly for "keeping in touch with
friends," corroborates the fact that maintaining relationships can be
facilitated by the convenience of IM. Many students consider IM as a
convenient, fast, inexpensive interpersonal medium that allows
multi-tasking activities (i.e., doing many thing at once). Such convenience
that the medium provides decreases the popularity of telephone and email
among college students. Along with the preference of IM over email, the
findings show that some college students use IM to avoid talking on the phone.
The study also examined the impact of IM on other existing media. Results
show that email seems to be vulnerable in the age of IM. Email is being
gradually displaced by IM in college students' lives. Many college students
reported that their email use decreased because of IM use, though a few
students indicated an increase of email use after using IM.
Finally, the study explored to what extent college students experience the
feeling of social presence—a sense of "being together" or "being in the
same room" with another when they use IM. The findings indicate that
college students feel as if "they were together" even as if they were "in
the same room" with their partners while chatting.
Although findings reviewed here provide important and useful preliminary
data for IM research, there are several concerns regarding the
interpretation of these findings.
The most obvious limitations of this study are the sample and the
methodology employed in its selection. Along with small sample size,
self-selection of students in paper-administered survey method is
acknowledged as restricting the generalizability of this study.
However, this study aided in the identification of several motivations for
the use of IM among college students and thus offers valuable research
directions for the next step. Future research should attempt to extend the
exploration reported here. First, it should increase the sample size and
the diversity of populations from which the sample is collected. Second,
future study should address and correct problems that were uncovered in
pilot study measures and procedures. Finally, Future research should make
specific predictions of IM use among college students by testing with
various types of statistical methods what kinds of needs are related to IM
consumption and how these needs are fulfilled through IM use.
Currently, based on the preliminary findings reported here, the author is
conducting empirical research in order to uncover important predictors of
IM use. The study suggests three factors—gratifications sought,
gratifications obtained, and social presence—that draw college students'
attention to IM. Because the study distinguishes gratifications sought from
IM and gratification obtained from IM, it will provide us with a clear
understanding of the way IM is used and its unique role in college
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