IM and E-mail: Which is more popular and why?

By: Dave Roos
instant messaging
Instant messaging offers a slight advantage over e-mail because of its immediacy.
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Those old enough to remember their first e-mail account might remember how exciting it was to discover a new, easy way to correspond with people halfway across the world. And it was lightning fast -- people began calling traditional mail "snail mail."

Researcher and blogger Danah Boyd, who studies the online habits of teens, uses the mailbox metaphor to explain young people's preference for instant messaging (IM) over e-mail. For teens, e-mail is the equivalent of snail mail. Sure, teens all have e-mail accounts, just like we adults all have mailboxes, but their real communication happens elsewhere.


When was the last time you got a really great letter in the mail? When was the last time you raced to your mailbox with anticipation? When you go on vacation, you tell the post office to hold your mail and probably don’t think about it once. But even if you’re basking on the beach in Borneo, you might make two or three stops a day to the Internet café to check your e-mail.

That’s how teens feel about IM. IM is where the excitement is and where their friends are. E-mail is fine for sending your assignment to your teacher, but real communication requires the immediacy, intimacy and ubiquity of IM.

That said, IM is slowly gaining popularity with adults as well, mostly as a workplace collaboration tool. Some office workers are sick of the spam and the “reply-to-all” junk that’s overloading their inboxes. They’re finding that office IM accounts, as well as collaboration tools like wikis and conferencing programs, can make online office life far more efficient.

So what are the main differences between IM and e-mail, and what are the factors that make someone either an IM fan or a staunch e-mail loyalist? Keep reading to find out.


IM vs. E-mail

instant messaging
Younger people tend to rely more on instant messaging than e-mail.
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The main difference between IM and e-mail is the idea of presence [source: The National Archives]. With e-mail, if you compose a message and send it to your friend, you have no idea if your friend is logged onto his computer, when he'll read your message or when or if he'll respond. With IM, however, the software tells you that your friend is logged in and available to chat. If you send your friend an IM, there's a much greater chance that he'll receive the message immediately and respond quickly.

The presence factor of IM qualifies it as a form of real-time communication, similar to telephone calls or face-to-face conversations. With IM, the other party receives your message almost immediately after you press the send button. From a technical perspective, real-time communications implies that there's a direct, open connection between the two or more parties who are talking. For telephone calls, that connection is supplied by both the wired and wireless telephone network. For IM, the Internet supplies the direct, open connection.


E-mail, on the other hand, is a store and forward technology, meaning that outgoing e-mails are stored on a server and forwarded across the Internet to a destination server (for more details, read How E-mail Works). For the recipient to receive the e-mail, she must log on to her e-mail software or webmail program and retrieve any new messages from the destination server. There's no opportunity for a real-time conversation via e-mail, because there will always be a lag between the time a message is sent and the time that it's received.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both IM and e-mail, which is why most people use some combination of both technologies. The advantage of e-mail is that recipients can read and respond to their messages at their own pace. If you're about to step out to lunch and three new e-mails arrive in your inbox, you don't have to answer them right away. The people who sent the e-mails are aware that it might take as long as a couple of hours or even a day to get a response.

Which brings us to the main disadvantage of e-mail, that you might have to wait a couple of hours or even a day for a response. For this reason, e-mail is usually reserved for messages that fall within a certain window of time sensitivity. If you need an answer by the end of the day, e-mail works fine. But if you need an answer right now, you either need to pick up the phone or try IM.

The chief advantage of IM is immediacy. Plans can be made quickly and answers found faster. Groups of people can enter an IM chat room and collaborate in real time. There's no need to e-mail multiple copies of the same idea to six people and wait for them all to respond, usually in a confusing, overlapping combination of messages.

But the main disadvantage of IM is that it doesn't work unless both parties are present. In many cases, this means that both parties need to be logged onto the same IM program, or at least two programs that work with one another. IM isn't like e-mail, which uses a standard technological protocol for sending and receiving messages. Each IM client -- whether it's AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Instant Messenger, ICQ or Google Chat -- uses a different protocol that may or may not be compatible with the rest.

Much of the advantages and disadvantages of IM and e-mail depend on what you want out of your electronic communication. And what you want depends heavily on who you are. In the next section, we'll look at the popularity of IM and e-mail and who uses them.


IM vs. E-mail with Different Users

Older adults tend to use e-mail more than younger ones.
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Personal preference for IM or e-mail has a lot to do with age, according to statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The communications divide between teenagers and adults is getting wider every year. In short, teens are using IM while most adults are sticking with e-mail.

Nearly 30 percent of teenagers send IMs on a daily basis compared with merely 10 percent of adults [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. And according to a recent AOL survey, 70 percent of teenagers say they send more IMs than e-mails, while only 24 percent of adults can make the same claim [source: AP, AOL].


For teens, IM is part of a wider culture of connectivity. Teens and other members of the Net Generation like to remain in close, near-constant contact with friends. This is why instant messaging and its cell-phone cousin text messaging (SMS) are so popular. The messages themselves are short and sweet, but they create an air of constant presence, even when friends are separated by classrooms or even continents.

E-mail, for teens, is a much more formal mode of communication reserved for school or exchanging messages with adults. For teens, e-mail is just too slow and too confined to a fixed location, like home or the library. Now that it's possible to send and receive instant messages from cell phones, one in three teens IMs on the road (source: AP, AOL].

E-mail use in adults has remained consistently high since the turn of the 21st century. In a March 2000 survey, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 91 percent of online adults had ever sent or read e-mail. In December 2007, that number had moved to 92 percent. The rise in daily e-mail use was slightly more dramatic, from 52 percent of online adults in 2000 to 60 percent in 2007.

But the more interesting statistic has to do with IM use in adults, which has actually dropped as a percentage of total users. In 2000, 45 percent of adults had ever sent an instant message compared with only 39 percent in 2007. Daily IM use was also down from 12 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2007.

The one area where IM seems to be gaining with adults is at work. AOL found that 27 percent of adult workers said they used IM at work and that half of them felt it made them more productive (although 79 percent admitted to sending personal IMs from work) [source: AP, AOL].

Researchers have found that strategic use of IM in the workplace can greatly improve productivity and collaboration. Let's say you need the latest sales numbers from your sales manager. You could walk down the hall to his cubicle, but then you might run into six different people on the way, each with a question. You could send an e-mail, but who knows when you'll get an answer? Or you could call him, but then you'd have to exchange pleasantries before getting down to business.

IM, on the other hand, has none of that etiquette. It's meant to be fast and direct, which is helpful in certain business situations. IM is also free of the self-editing and endless carbon-copy lists that plague interoffice e-mail conversations. The speed of IM allows for more honest, open dialogue and the free sharing of ideas that make for truly effective collaboration. According to the AOL survey, 19 percent of office workers now say they send more IMs to coworkers than e-mails [source: AP, AOL].

For even more information about electronic communications and related topics, visit the next page.


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More Great Links

  • Associated Press, America Online. "AP-AOL Instant-Messaging Trends Survey: Mobile IM Use Up." Nov. 15, 2007. survey-mobile-im-use-up-2399/
  • Boyd, Danah. "What I mean when I say 'email is dead' in reference to teens." Apophenia. Nov. 7, 2006.
  • BusinessWeek. "E-mail is So Five Minutes Ago." Nov. 28, 2005.
  • Lenhart, Amanda et al. "Writing, Technology and Teens." Pew Internet & American Life Project. April 24, 2008.
  • Ohio State University Research. "Instant Messaging Proves Useful in Reducing Workplace Interruption."
  • Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Daily Internet Activities." Feb. 15, 2008.
  • Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Internet Activities."
  • Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Teens Forge Forward with the Internet and Other New Technologies." July 25, 2005.
  • Suarez, Luis. "I Freed Myself from E-mail's Grip." The New York Times. June 29, 2008.
  • The U.S. National Archives. "Frequently Asked Questions About Instant Messaging."
  • Zelenka, Anne. "Why Instant Messaging is a Better Collaboration Tool than E-mail." Web Worker Daily. Jan. 6, 2007. better-for-collaboration-than-email/