Academic Advising Resources


Instant Messaging: Powerful Flexibility and Presence

Authored By: Wes Lipschultz and Terry Musser

The Pennsylvania State University

In a 2005 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project about teens and their use of technology, teenagers were found to prefer new technology, such as instant and text messaging (IM), for communicating with friends and family (Lenhart, 2005). They also state that email is still very present in teens' lives, but that they use it as a more formal means of communication. Carnevale reports similar findings in his article E-Mail is for Old People (2006) in terms of student use of e-mail only to communicate with professors. While many colleges and universities use email as an official means of communicating with students, the salience of IM in students' lives as more than just a distraction really hit home for us when one of the best students we have ever encountered (a 4.0 student majoring in biology who was president of our student council) said she plans her life around IM. Perhaps the draw of IM is in its unintrusive immediacy coupled with the ability to see when a friend’s or relative’s “consciousness” is present or away, and what the person is doing when they are away (see 'Definitions & Features' below for more on 'presence information'). IM, then, represents another case study in the potential evolution of our profession; if advisors want to engage students, to build meaningful relationships with them, then they must come to understand the methods of communication that students naturally find engaging.

How we define an advisor's understanding of IM is what is crucial. Understanding does not mean mimicking student use of IM, nor does it mean harnessing IM as a kind of online walk-in system. Such examples hint at a taxonomy of how IM is being used in higher education, and while such a taxonomy describes useful facets of the phenomenon that may be perfectly relevant in some advising settings, it does not capture the full scope of IM and its potential. To capture this essence, advisors need to learn what IM is technologically, what its features are, and what is known about it as a communications modality. The reward for these efforts is to be able to use our expertise as educators coupled with a sound grasp of IM to control and justify if, when, and how IM should be incorporated into an advisor's specific advising context.  This article attempts to lay groundwork for such endeavors. This approach is consistent with a long-standing view advocated by the authors on how to go about incorporating technology into the profession of academic advising (Lipschultz, 1999, Lipschultz & Musser, 2006, Lipschultz & Leonard, 2007).

Definition & Features of IM

Instant Messaging is a type of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), which falls within the domain of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT, formerly described as IT). This simply means that IM is a method of communication that enables users to share digitally-based  information (text, audio, video) with each other over a network of computers (such as the Internet). All CMCs have in common that they are place-independent, that unlike a face-to-face conversation, the communicators do not have to be in the same place to communicate. People can also use different CMCs for similar purposes (you can, for example, make plans to go see a movie using IM, email, or chat). What distinguishes CMCs from one another, then, are their predominant patterns of use along a few key dimensions:

  • time e-mail is asynchronous (one person sends an email at 3 a.m., the recipient responds at noon three days later) while IM is synchronous (see 'IM as a communication modality' for details)
  • number-e-mail and IM involve one person communicating with others, chats and bulletin boards involve more than one person talking with multiple people
  • familiarity-you can negotiate identity before accepting an instant message, chats are often designed to be anonymous, and identity cannot typically be negotiated before receiving an e-mail (though some universities have tackled this problem by having their own e-mail systems).

Human beings have a remarkable capacity for adapting tools to new uses for which they were not originally designed, so email, for example, can be used in a synchronous fashion, and bulletin boards can be used for one-on-one communications.  In the case of CMCs, such adaptations can often be less than elegant, however, because users are then not capitalizing on the strengths a particular medium affords; using email frequently for synchronous communications would be like using a Volkswagon Beetle to transport a junior high soccer team to away games for an entire season. The strengths of IM at first glance, then, come to bear in synchronous one-on-one communications where the communicators know each other. A closer examination of the features of IM, however, reveals it to be a CMC that is elegantly adaptable, perhaps the most flexible mainstream CMC created to date.

The first feature of IM a new user learns about is the screenname. Each user must come up with a unique screenname by which she/he will be identified when communicating with another IM user. If choosing a commerical IM package such asAOLInstant Messenger (AIM), new users often must be creative in coming up with a unique name, as the user base for a major commercial IM package can number hundreds of millions of people. A screenname can express a personality (bikergrl23, angstboy15) or an actual name (Lipschultz55). With a screenname for identity, a person can then IM other people, but to do so, another feature comes into play - the buddy list. IM users typically need to share their screennames with others or have other screennames shared with them in order for an interaction to begin. A buddy list is a kind of ad hoc directory of all of those people a user has either sent an IM to or received an IM from. Users interacting for the first time have the choice of accepting or rejecting an IM, similar to a handshake, and once the users have 'shook hands' then they appear on each other's buddy lists. Buddy lists can be sorted into categories (friends, family, coworkers), and people can be deleted from a buddy list and their screenname blocked from interacting with the user.  Some IM software packages even allow users to add cell phone numbers as buddies; users can IM the phone number, and the IM is translated into a text message on the recipient's cell phone (this then becomes a cross-platform communication rather than an IM session). Whatever the combination of cell phone numbers and other IM users in a person's buddy list, that person also has the capability of holding IM sessions with more than one buddy at the same time.

The negotiation of identity and power to block and control interactions afforded by this buddy list system stem perhaps from another defining feature of IM, its most unique attribute: presence information. Just as when we are aware of someone's presence when they physically enter a room, when users look at their buddy lists, the lists indicate which buddies are 'present' online and which are offline, and noises can signal when a buddy's presence comes online or goes offline. Even when a person is typing an IM response is able to be indicated to the other IM user before that response is sent, indicating not only the presence of the other person, but that the person's consciousness is attending to your message. Relatedly, users can remain online but set away messages stating where they are, what they are doing, how they are feeling, etc. So if angstboy15 is a buddy who happens to be online but set an away message, pointing to his screenname on a buddy list would cause his away message to display ('I am at lunch' or 'I am wondering why I am here'). Users can also set up profiles for their screennames, and these profiles can be associated sounds, backgrounds, graphics, quotes, and even avatars (computer-based visual representations of a user's virtual persona). When such rich multimedia profiles are coupled with presence information, IM users can maintain fairly tangible psychological connections with those people who are on their buddy lists.   

IM as a communication modality

There are many IM software packages (AOLInstant Messenger, Skype, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, to name a few with large user bases), but the features previously described can be considered features defining the medium rather than proprietary expressions of it.  These features, taken in sum, paint a picture of a mode of communications that represents 'a new style of linguistic discourse' (Baron, 2005A, p. 14). Baron, a linguistics professor at American University interested in CMCs since the 1990's, conducted an analysis of 26 IM conversations between undergraduates (and recent graduates) of American University involving 2185 IM transmissions and 11,718 distinct words.  She concluded that IM language looks more like speech than writing, but that speech within IM communications manifests itself very differently than in face-to-face conversations; the norm among IM users in college in the USis for IM conversations to be peripheral rather than central - IM users are multitasking, doing a variety of activities, while holding IM conversations (2005A).

Furthermore, the presence information feature of IM adds a unique dimension to the analysis - presence information allows what typically is considered a synchronous form of communication to become asynchronous (Baron, 2005B) on the fly. Users set away messages not knowing who among their buddies will read them or when, but they are nonetheless read.  One undergraduate stated to Baron that 'even if they are not chatting [on IM], you can still know all about someone's life by reading their away messages' (2005B). Nardi et. al. (2000) describe the IM space as a communication zone, one that can be flexed from realtime to an extended period of time, depending on the availability of those on a person's buddy list. IM then, as a communication modality, is unique in its extreme flexibility along virtually every parameter relevant to communication between people.  Nardi et. al. state that IM 'redresses the fundamental communication asymmetry in informal communication.  Instead of conversations taking place at the convenience of the initator, IM allows genuine social negotiation about whether and when to talk' (2000 p. 84). For these reasons, Baron calls IM 'language under the radar' (2005A), meaning it is potentially ever-present background communication over which the 'volume' can be raised and lowered. To throw our hats in the ring, we found 'opportunistic communication' to help capture the essence of this unique dynamic.

Finally, both Nardi et. al. (2000) and Baron (2005B) ascribe a social connectedness function to the presence information feature of IM that appears to be unique among CMCs (but is perhaps more central in social networking spaces that include CMC elements, such as 'facebook' and 'myspace'). Nardi et. al. interviewed adults using IM in work settings, and one participant epitomized the idea: 'To me it's just fascinating to know that someone else is somewhere else doing something while you're doing something. You feel like you're in this world together so this creates a little universe.' Think of the relationship some people have with their grandmothers. They talk to their grandmothers when they can, but even when not talking, they know when grandma is going to the doctor, when she is travelling to see her brother, etc. How grandma is treated in this example is a socially accepted means of being fairly close with someone without being physically near them much. For those IM users who do choose to use away messages to reflect their status, both when they really are away from the computer and are still at it, IM is a subtle yet powerful tool for fostering a level of social intimacy from a distance that would otherwise be thwarted by geography. Speaking as users of IM ourselves, this presence information makes IM feel instantly and intuitively far more personal than email, yet because it is 'opportunistic communication,' it does not feel intrusive at all. 

Using IM in advising settings Instant messaging (IM) is already in use in many higher education settings and for several different purposes. In light of IM as a flexible, opportunistic, and personal CMC. Here are some ideas on both current uses of IM in advising and new ideas to try. This list is by no means exhaustive: 

Advisor contact with other professional staff

  • Quick advisor-to-advisor conversation-in our unit, an internal (IM) system (synchronous communication) has allowed our receptionist to announce a student's arrival or quickly find someone (presence information) for an appointment or telephone call.
  • Consistency of advising information between offices-IM is especially helpful in larger advising network system because it allows advisors from various locations to contact each other quickly to verify informaiton, give other advisors a heads up on referrals, or just to keep in touch. In smaller settings, IM could be shared between faculty and professional advisors.
  • Interrupting busy administrators without interrupting them-deans, department heads, advising directors, etc. may have time-sensitive information and/or answers advisors need when working with students. They may be on the phone or in meetings, and IM can be used to make them aware of the need for information/answers without directly interrupting the flow of their interactions (language under the radar).
  • Project planning-we have even conducted NACADA business with colleagues across the country via IM (place-independent, multitasking).

Student initiates contact with an advisor

  • Intake or quick questions with students-a current popular approach has been th have an advisor assigned to answer IM questions within specific virtual 'walk-in' hours. Given what we know of presence information and that IM is viewed opportunistically, perhaps rotating times which can be modified on the fly based on advisor availability would work just as well; if the walk-in advisor screenname was on students' buddy lists, they would know when the advisor was available based on presence information.
  • Accessing a student's assigned advisor-advisors can include their IM screenname on their advising syllabi, Web pages, business cards, Facebook profiles, etc. Because of presence information, away messages, and the opportunistic nature of IM, students can know when their advisor is online and free to talk, when their advisor is online but busy, and when their advisor is not online. Even if an advisor forgets to post an away message and would not be able to respond to an IM or would take time to respond, student IM usage patterns would suggest they would not necessarily be offended; students assume multitasking is occuring during IM use, and those other tasks my have preluded the ability to respond to IM.
  • Advising chatterbots-according to Wikipedia, 'a chatterbot is a computer program designed to stimulate an intelligent conversation with one or more human users via auditory or textual methods. "SmarterChild is an example of an AOLInstant Messenger chatterbot with which anyone can have a quasi-conversation, but it is primarily useful for disseminating factual information. A techno-savvy advisor could degin an advising chatterbot for students to IM for answers to simple advising informational questions (ex. when the drop/add period ends).

Advisor initiates contact with student

  • Outreach with at-risk students-if a student does not show up for an advising appointment, the advisor could check to see if the student is online and send a quick 'What happened? Is everything alright?' If the advisor does not have the student's screenname, the IM could still be sent to the student as a text message if a cell phone number was on record.
  • Social pressure to stay on task-there are some students who benefit from regular meetings to help them with time management; some first-year seminars even require students to journal their time. It might be worth becoming IM buddies with students, and aksing them to use their away messages to determine how they are spending their time.
  • A kinder, gentler, more personal electronic newsletter-for universities who send announcements to students via e-mail, an alternative or additional way to introduce information to students' consciousnesses would be for an advisor to post information and/or links to information in her/his away messages (ex. 'access this Web site: to set up an appointment with me')


Our goal in providing the information in this article is to put the horse before the cart-what you should research and consider BEFORE diving in to this relatively new communication modality with students and colleagues-as well as some ideas for how you might attempt to use this medium. We end with a few practical logistical considerations to consider if you decide to implement IM using in your own advising setting: 

  • Develop your personal or unit philosophy about using this form of communication either with colleagues or students. In other words, think through the possible pros and cons BEFORE getting started.
  • Determine who you will share your screenname with and/or how you will 'connect' screennames from students or colleagues. Will you email your screenname to those you want to IM thus allowing them to decide if they want to IM you? (They respond by IM'ing you or by simply sending you their screenname-or not!) Will you pilot this with a sub-set of colleagues or students?
  • Establish parameters in terms of your own availability to students and the type of discussions that will be permited.
  • Set boundaries concerning writing style if that is important to you. Will you accept abbreviations like lol (laugh out loud), misspellings, and no punctuation, or would you prefer a more formalized writing format?
  • Decide how to manage the documenting of your IM conversations if that is required at your institution. You can copy and paste entire conversations or you can paraphrase them depending on your own record keeping system.
  • In our experience using IM with advisees, we do find it necessary to ask the student to come to in to talk in person if the discussion is too complex for IM or free time is short. However, there are also times where all immediate business with the student can be concluded via this format. Perhaps examples of successful IM advising sessions could be shared and discussed with colleagues.
  • Advisors who use IM in their personal lives may wish to have a different screenname for advising purposes to keep the two uses separate and more easily manageable. Relatedly, advisors could recommend that students do the same, but this may erode students' natural use of this medium.
  • Consider security and confidentiality issues. How will you identify who you are IM'ing? We simply ask 'Who is this?' if we don't remember the screenname. You may not wish to disclose information over this medium, but what about discussing confidential issues disclosed to YOU via IM?
  • Experiment with it. You can download most IM software packages from the internet for free. AOLInstant Messenger (AIM) seems to be the most popular package used by students and can be downloaded at this site:


Baron, N.S., (2005a) Instant Messaging byAmericanCollegeStudents: A Case Study in Computer-Mediated Communication, Conference Paper Presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science,Washington,DC, February 17-21.

Baron, N.S., Squires, L., Tench, S., & Thompson, M. (2005b).Tethered or Mobile? Use of Away Messages in Instant Messaging by American College Students, in R. Ling and P. Pederson, eds. Mobile Communications: Re-Negotiation of the Social Sphere. Springer-Verlag, pp. 293-311.

Carnevale, D. (2006).E-Mail is for Old People. The Chronicle, 53 (7). p. A27,October 6, 2006.  

Lenhart, A., Madden, M. & Hitlin, P. (2005). Teens and Technology: Youth Are Leading the Transition to a Fully Wired and Mobile Nation. Pew Internet & American Life Project. July 27, 2005.  

Leonard, M. & Lipschultz, W. (2007). Using Technology to Enhance the Advising Experience, in Hunter, M.S., McCalla-

Wriggins, B., and White, E.R.. Eds. Academic Advising: New Insights for Teaching and learning in the First Year. Joint

Monograph,NationalResourceCenterfor the First Year Experience and Students in Transition and the National Academic Advising Association.

Lipschultz, W. & Musser, T. (2006). IM 101: An Introduction to the Use of Instant Messaging in Academic Advising. Presentation at the National Conference of the National Academic Advising Association,Indianapolis,IN. 

Nardi, B., Whittaker, S., & Bradner, E. (2000). Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action.Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work(CSCW '00)(pp. 79-88).Philadelphia,PA.New York: ACM Press.

Prensky, M. (2001).  Digital Natives, digital immigrants. On the horizon, 9 (5). RetrievedMarch 15, 2007, from

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