IT pros on IM: Indispensable or nuisance?

This exercise started with the assumption that I'm a dinosaur in my steadfast refusal to use instant messaging. E-mail, the phone, shouting and getting off my butt work fine 99.9% of the time and I'm not taking on another distraction to grab that other sliver. So my e-mail question to the Network World staff was: "Am I the last holdout . . . or are there others here who still do not IM?"

Turns out dinosaurs are far from extinct. Most of my colleagues do not use IM or use it rarely, with a few reporting that they did IM but do no longer - recovering IMers, if you will. There are hardcore users, but nowhere near what I had suspected. Journalists are an odd lot, however, so I turned to a more reliable gauge, the members of my e-mail list called the Buzzblog Brigade. Is IM indispensable or just a nuisance to these tech professionals?

Last time we posed one of these preposterously loaded questions - "Hypothetical Death Match: E-mail vs. the Web" - it produced a lopsided response, as e-mail kicked the Web's sorry butt all over cyberspace. This time around it's e-mail's first cousin that's in for the paddling.

Out of courtesy, though, we'll begin with an IMer, albeit one with a familiar beef.

"IM is somewhat indispensable to me," says Jason Thomas. "It can be annoying at times, but it is always cool to get a quick hit/feedback/comment from a colleague. Additionally, it is a good way to stay in touch with folks you don't see that often. Granted, it will never replace a phone call or personal visit. There are things that can only be conducted by phone or in person, and for that IM is just no substitute."

"My major complaint with all of the various IM services is their interconnectedness - or incredible lack thereof. I have accounts on all the major IM platforms - MSN, AIM, Yahoo, ICQ and Gtalk. Now, I use Gaim to use all clients from one application. I also have a separate Skype application. Of course, Skype is the outlier, but you would think the other services would be interoperable - especially given that this technology is now quite mature. I also realize using an open source app like Gaim probably limits some of my functionality in some cases - file transfers being one of them. Nonetheless, it is a fair trade-off to get one client as opposed to four."

Peer pressure drove our next respondent to dabble in IM, but it wasn't enough to get him hooked.

"The only reason I used IM is that my fellow sysadmin talked me into it," says John Gog. "With all our other means of getting hold of one another, we dropped it. As a social tool for the home user, I suppose it works well; my son uses it a good bit. But even he jumps to e-mail or the phone more than he uses IM. . . . IM has become such a breeding ground for sending Trojans and links to places that will give you Trojans, adware and spyware, that it's become more risky than e-mail. In the workplace, it's just another distraction and, I suspect, seldom gets used for business purposes. Of course, since no one around here uses it for business purposes (officially), I can't say that as an absolute, but I'd be willing to bet I'm not far wrong."

One's view depends on the demands of one's job, naturally.

"I do technical support and remote installation by IM using ICQ with links to AIM, qhz, abc and every other darn IM system that matters. Some of it is very critical, time dependent or just urgent. I find IM indispensable," says Brandon Sussman. "In more humanistic endeavors, I would not consider using IM as it is a nuisance. I do not chat online. Ever."

"It depends on the organization," agrees Greg Martin. "I was part of a large outsourcing company. We weren't all on-site and my team used IM to stay in constant touch throughout the day. The back-channel conversations during conference calls helped us get to completion on the issues. At my current job, the team is local and within earshot and the need is limited."

There are those who not only hold IM at bay, but in contempt.

"IM is just a phone call that gives your fingers cramps," says Doug Murray. "When I can coordinate a schedule with someone, I'd rather talk. If I'm in class, church or a meeting, I'm there for a reason and would rather pay attention to that, so e-mail me. That would still be true even if we didn't block IM at work."

"Ah, instant messaging," adds Bill Dotson. "The new-age water cooler, where your buddies can find out what you did this weekend without ever having to actually talk to you. Personally, I don't need any more interruptions. If the message is that important, call me or stop by my desk. Professionally, even though we have had a few requests for instant messaging and despite the media hype, I have resisted IM as a legitimate corporate technology. I have yet to see a valid explanation of how this technology would benefit our business. . . . There are lots of intrusive technologies, and IM has to be one of the most intrusive. But riddle me this: If I can reach you anywhere, anytime on your cell phone, or I can send you an e-mail that you can reply to at your leisure, why do I need instant messaging? Sometimes, just maybe, you might want to be unavailable."

We're going to run out of supporters fairly quickly, but here's another.

"I wouldn't call it indispensable; after all e-mail, e-mail delivered to mobile phones/PDAs, SMS text messaging and telephone calls all can accomplish similar functions," says Fuat Baran. "However, in a distributed work environment with co-workers scattered around the globe, I find instant messaging to be a very useful tool. It allows you to quickly ping someone and see if they are available; it allows you to quickly send information, such as a URL during a voice conversation; it allows for some back-channel communication during teleconferences (yes, this is a two-edged sword, as it can also be a distraction); and it accommodates idle chitchat with remote friends."

Next up we have a former two-pack-a-day man who's cut down to the occasional smoke at happy hour. "In the past I used IM every day, but it seems I have not used it very much at all in the past year," says Chris Sloop. "Maybe once or twice a month nowadays. I could very easily do without it."

Here's another ex-user who's kicked the habit - even though IM dramatically changed his life.

"IM is a nuisance I don't need, but ironically, it is how I courted my wife," says Derek Rainwater. "At about the time of AOL's popularity peak ('96-'98), as an entertaining distraction while working for a small software development firm, I developed an entirely online relationship with the young lady who eventually became my wife. After two years, we finally met in person, and our use of IM to communicate was completely eradicated, for obvious reasons. Now, because we're married (five years) with child (2 years), I have neither the time nor need for this particular distraction."

Aw, a happy ending.

There's plenty more from other Brigade members in my blog.

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