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

Instant messaging offers a slight advantage over e-mail because of its immediacy.
Instant messaging offers a slight advantage over e-mail because of its immediacy.
Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

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.