How Yahoo Messenger Works

Many Yahoo users rely on Yahoo Messenger to chat online with friends.
Michael Gottschalk/AFP/Getty Images

Without instant messaging through Yahoo Messenger and other services, teens would lose a vital social communications tool, and the rest of us wouldn't have an easy way to send and receive messages quickly from our computers or mobile phones.

While Yahoo Inc. wan't the first Internet service provider to offer free instant messaging, it is one of the Web's most popular IM services. Launched in 1999, Yahoo Messenger has more than an estimated 94 million users who use to exchange instant messages with other Yahoo, Microsoft Windows Live Messenger or Lotus Sametime users [sources: Time Warner and PC World].


Once you download Yahoo Messenger software and complete the Yahoo Messenger sign in, you'll find the service also does a lot more. You can, for example, access contacts and messages anywhere from any Web browser, communicate in any of 40 languages and share photos and large-file Web video.

Before we delve further into Yahoo Messenger, let's take a quick look at instant messaging. What exactly is it? Instant messaging allows you to carry on a conversation with someone else via your personal computer. You type in a message, which then travels in digital form over the Internet from your computer through the provider's server to the other person's computer. Within a few seconds, the message appears in an IM window on the recipient's computer screen. That person reads the message and types back a response. Small, separate IM windows on the screen allow you to carry on conversations with several different people at a time. For more information about instant messaging, check out How Instant Messaging Works.

When e-mail contact isn't fast or convenient enough, Internet users turn to IM. Many teens use IM daily to talk to five or six friends at a time while simultaneously listening to music, doing homework and talking on their cell phone.

Teens aren't the only group found IM handy. This communications tool also works for business colleagues checking details with sales reps on the road, friends trying to find a time to talk at length and mobile phone users who need to check in with the office or contact each other. The number of IM users worldwide was estimated at 461 million in 2007 and is expected to reach 711 million by 2011, according to the Radicati Group, a market research firm specializing in messaging and collaboration technologies.

Next, let's see how easy it's to get started with Yahoo Messenger.


Yahoo Messenger Basics

Yahoo Messenger basics start with a visit to the Yahoo Web site. You'll need to download Yahoo Messenger software and complete the Yahoo Messenger sign up before you can use the free instant messaging service to IM your friends or colleagues, and you'll need to set up a messenger list. Here's how to set it up:

  1. Go to Yahoo Messenger, and click on "download now" to download the Yahoo Messenger software.
  2. Install the software on your computer, following specific directions for your operating system (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac or Unix).
  3. If you don't already have a Yahoo account, sign up for a Yahoo ID. You'll be asked for your name, gender, country, ZIP code and e-mail address. You'll also need to provide your birthday, since Yahoo Messenger isn't available to anyone age 12 or under. After that, you select an ID -- a name to use when you IM -- and a password. You'll also be asked to select and answer a security question (like your first car model or pet's name) that can be used for identification if you forget your password. Click acceptance of the terms of service and privacy policy, and your account will be set up.
  4. Now, you're ready to sign in. Go to, and click on the smiling yellow Yahoo Messenger button near the upper right corner of the screen. You'll see a sign-in screen next. Just enter your Yahoo ID name and password, hit the "sign in" button and you'll be signed in. If you've forgotten your ID or password, click on the statement below the "sign in" button. After you answer some questions to verify your identity, you'll be sent your ID by e-mail or given the option of selecting a new password. To sign out when you're done, just click on the words "sign out" near the upper right of the screen page.
  5. While you're signed in, you'll see your messenger list at the left of the screen. This is where you can list up to 300 friends, relatives, co-workers and others that you want to IM with. To add a name, click "Add" at the bottom of the messenger list, and then click "Yahoo Contact" or "Windows Live Contact." Type or paste the person's Yahoo or Windows Live ID in the box that opens at the top of your messenger list. To finish, type "Enter." Contacts receive an invitation with your request to add them to your list. If they say no, their names won't appear on your list. You can create groups within your messenger list by clicking on the Contacts menu, selecting "Organize Messenger Group" and then "Create New Group." Then just drop and drag contacts' names into the group.
  6. To tell whether your contacts are available to talk, check the icon that appears in front of their names on the list. A yellow circle shows they're online and available to talk, while a blank circle means they're not available.
  7. You can indicate your own availability by changing the icon near your ID at the top of the messenger list. Beyond clicking "available," you have choices like "busy," "stepped out" or "on the phone" -- or the option of writing your own message. By choosing "invisible," you can talk or work online while appearing to be offline.

Now that you're signed up, signed in and have some contacts in your messenger list, let's look at how you can send and retrieve instant messages.


Using Yahoo Messenger

Using Yahoo Messenger to send or receive messages is easy to learn. Yahoo offers a straightforward process and even has online help to provide tips on message formatting, sending files and other parts of the IM process. Let's go through the basics related to messages themselves.

Sending an instant message

To send a message to someone on your messenger list, start by clicking on their name in the list or typing a few letters of their ID in "Find Contacts." Click their name from the list that appears, type your message in the space below the conversation window and click on "Send" or hit the Enter key.


For someone not on your list, type the ID in the "Find Contacts" box, press "Enter" and type your message the same as before. However, you won't be able to exchange messages if the person doesn't have Yahoo or Windows Live.

To send the same message to more than one person, hold down the Control key while clicking on names in your messenger list that you want to receive the message. Then click on the Actions menu, select "Send an Instant Message" and type and send your message as usual.

If you send an IM to someone who is offline, the message will pop up as soon as they sign back in.

Formatting a message

Why just send straight text when you can be more creative? Yahoo Messenger offers you options like sending messages in different fonts and colors. Pull-down menus below the conversation window let you format the text and message for the look you want.

You also can add emoticons for emphasis in the text. These are faces made of type that can express emotions ranging from happy to sad to puzzled. Just place the cursor where you want the emoticon in the text and then click on any of the 25 options from the pull-down menu.

Receiving a message and responding

You'll hear an alert sound when someone sends a message. Type your response as before and click on "Send" or hit "Enter." You can mute the alert by clicking on the speaker icon above the conversation window.

Sending a file or photo

To send a document or a photo, just drop and drag the document into the conversation window. This works even if the person is offline. The person receiving the file will be asked to save or decline it. Another option during a conversation is to click the Actions menu and then choose "Send a File." You can send a file as big as 1GB (or 2GB with Yahoo Messenger 9.0).

For up to 300 photos, you can use photo sharing. Yahoo Messenger will ask if you want to start a session and invite the other person to join in. If the other person accepts the files, the images will appear in a side panel for both of you to see.

Message archiving

Yahoo Messenger allows you to save, store and search your instant messages. The encrypted archives you create can only be viewed with your Yahoo ID on your computer. To set up a message archive:

  • Click on the Messenger menu, select "Preferences" and click on "Archive."
  • Choose one of the options for archiving messages.
  • Click the "OK" button.

To view the messages later, choose the "Contacts" menu and select "Message Archive." Once the message archive for your ID appears, pick the folder you want to view.

To learn about more features of Yahoo Messenger, go to the next page.


Yahoo Messenger Features

Yahoo Messenger extras like imvironments allow users to customize the appearance of their messenger screens.
Image courtesy of Yahoo

With Yahoo Messenger features, Yahoo gives you options beyond the basics of instant messaging. You can set Yahoo Messenger to alert you of incoming messages or e-mail. You can protect your privacy, personalize with IMVironments and avatars or add webcam features. Here's more about each of these features.


Alerts let you know when you receive an IM, when someone on your messenger list comes on or goes offline, when you receive e-mail, or when your calendar shows an upcoming event. To set an alert:


  • Go to the Messenger menu, select "Preferences," click "Alerts" and select "Enable Alert Sounds."
  • Pick when you want an alert, using the Event menu.
  • Choose the type of alert you want for each event. This can be a sound from the menu or one you add yourself.
  • Close the window to finish.


By using stealth settings and ignoring unwanted contacts, you can help ensure your privacy and security. Stealth settings allow you to appear offline to some contacts and online to others. To set this, start by right-clicking on the group name or contact. Select "Stealth Settings," and choose online, offline or permanently offline. Click "OK" to finish. You'll know you appear offline to a certain contact or group if their name is in italics in your messenger list.

You can block messages from a single contact or up to 100 by ignoring them. You'll always appear to be offline to them. First, though, you have to delete the contact from your messenger list. Here's how you can block, or ignore, someone.

  • Click on the Messenger menu, select "Preferences" and then "Ignore List." Choose "Ignore only the people below."
  • Click on "Add" and enter the Yahoo ID of the person you want to ignore.
  • To finish, click "Ignore" and "OK."
  • To later stop ignoring the person, enter the contact's ID and click "Remove."


Avatars, audibles and IMVironments (themed IM window backgrounds) let you make Yahoo Messenger your own. An avatar is a character that you can personalize by changing its physical appearance, clothes, accessories and backgrounds and then show as your personal icon on Yahoo Messenger.

To create and customize your avatar, go to To display the avatar in IMs and the messenger list, follow these steps:

Go to the Messenger menu, select "Preferences" and click on "Display Image." Click the Avatar box to show your avatar, and select "Enable display images everywhere" to see pictures and avatars from your contacts.

Audibles are talking animated characters you can send in an IM to comment or make a joke. Click the lips icon below the conversation window to access the audibles. Click the Send button above the one you want to send. Click "More Audibles" to see them all.

An IMVironment (IMV) is a themed conversation window that you select. You and your contacts can see your IMV every time you IM. Your messages print over IMVs like Fishtank, which is animated with swimming fish. The Doodle IMV lets you and your contact draw in color on the same canvas, while other IMVs let you play interactive games together.


Webcam capabilities let you view a contact's webcam video or send your own. Viewing someone else's webcam is easy. Just click "Contact" in the IM window and select "Contact Options" and "View Webcam." Sending your own is more complicated. For specific requirements, see Yahoo Messenger's Webcam Help section.

Yahoo Messenger also offers tools to simplify instant messaging -- and make it more fun. Go to the next page to learn more.


Convenient Tools for Yahoo Messenger

Yahoo Messenger users can chat with video capabilities.
Image courtesy of Yahoo

Convenient tools for Yahoo Messenger make instant messenging even faster and easier. Yahoo Messenger offers keyboard shortcuts, voice chat, parental controls and more. Keep reading to learn about each of these.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Typing key commands can make Yahoo Messenger faster to use. You can, for example, type "Control + F" to find contacts in the messenger list. The drop-down menus show keyboard shortcuts for commands.


Flickr for Photos

Available in Yahoo Messenger 9.0, Flickr lets you share photos in a side panel during IM. All of the images are shown in a thumbnail strip below the photo being displayed. A slider lets you change from one displayed image to another. Click the arrow left of the slider, and you can turn the photos into a slide show to view with your contact.

Video and Map Preview

If you have the Web address of a video or map, you can watch it with a friend in the conversation window of Yahoo Messenger 9.0. Copy the URL of the video or map into the window where you type messages, and it will open in the conversation window. To watch a video with your friend, click "Watch with Me."

Yahoo Chat and Voice Chat

You can type or talk with voice chat in Yahoo Messenger chat rooms. To join a chat room, click on "Messenger," "Yahoo Chat" and "Join a Room." Select an alias to use for the chat, check out the rooms available and double-click on one you want to enter. Chat room visitors must be at least 18 years old.

For voice chat, you'll need a Windows operating system with Internet Explorer, plus a microphone, sound card and speakers. To use voice chat, click the voice icon after you enter a chat room. Hold down the green "Talk" button to start talking. When you're done talking, release the button.


Plug-ins are mini-programs that plug into Yahoo Messenger. Conversation plug-ins let you share activities -- like shopping, playing games or checking a flight schedule -- during IM conversations. Tab plug-ins give instant information, for example about important activities on your calendar or the status of an online auction bid.

You'll find tab plug-ins below the messenger list and can click "Add Plug-ins" for a list. Conversation plug-ins are above the conversation window. Click the Plug-ins button to see the list. To find more plug-ins to add, visit Yahoo Gallery.

Parental Controls

Yahoo parental controls let you restrict the places your children go online and the people with whom they communicate. You also can receive weekly report cards showing Web sites visited, e-mails sent and received, and IMs completed with Yahoo Messenger.

The Web filter can block types of Web sites or specific sites. You can limit e-mail pals to those you approve, and you can limit when and how long your child stays online. You also can access your child's account to view and change inaccurate personal information.

To activate parental controls, you have to set up a Yahoo family account with sub accounts for all family members. You'll also need to install a program on every computer your family uses. Once you have a Yahoo account for yourself, go to the Member Center and look for information under "Sub Accounts."

Yahoo recommends that youths represent themselves with an avatar rather than a photo, use an alias, set their online status as invisible and archive all IM conversations. For parenting guides, Internet safety suggestions and a parent forum, visit Yahoo Messenger Safety Guide.

Next, let's look at how you can use Yahoo Messenger anywhere, including from smartphones or PDAs.


New Innovations for Yahoo Messenger

Yahoo Messenger users can even chat using their mobile devices.
© Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Innovations for Yahoo Messenger reach beyond your own computer to allow you access to IM services wherever you are. For example, Yahoo Messenger for the Web provides instant messaging from any browser when you're away from home. Yahoo Messenger also provides free PC to PC phone service and IM services for your mobile device.

Yahoo Messenger for the Web

Log into Yahoo Messenger for the Web to IM from any browser -- with access to your contacts and message archives. You can add contacts, change your online status and save and search messages. You also can show your avatar and use your block list and stealth settings. But you won't be able to change any of these until you're home. And you won't be able to transfer files or use features like chat, voice, IMvironments, plug-ins or audibles.


To use Yahoo Messenger for the Web, go to Yahoo Messenger for the Web and sign in with your Yahoo ID and password. Once you're signed in, you'll see the usual screen display with your message list at the left. You can send and receive messages as you would at home.

PC to PC Phone Calls

Using your computer to call someone else on theirs is simple, easy -- and free. Yahoo Messenger's call feature uses voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology for worldwide computer-to-computer calling. You and the person you're calling will need Yahoo Messenger with Voice, a Windows operating system and sound card, a microphone and speakers or a headset.

Before you make a call, you can make sure your microphone and speakers are set up right by clicking on "Actions" and then "Call Setup." To call someone on your messenger list with a phone number listed, click first on that person's name, then the phone icon and finally "Call (Person's) computer." You'll hear a ring, they'll answer and the call starts. When you're done, click "End Call."

To call someone while the two of you are IMing, just click the phone icon above the conversation window. To call someone who's not on your messenger list, type the computer phone number in the "Type a Yahoo ID" bar above the messenger list.

Yahoo Mobile Messenger

You can sign into Yahoo Messenger from your mobile device when you're away from your computer and receive your IMs as text messages. You also can access your messenger list and change your online status from your cell phone, smartphone or PDA.

Start by registering your mobile phone number. Click "Forward" above your messenger window. Then click "Add a phone number" next to "Forward offline IMs to" and register your number. After that, IMs will automatically be forwarded to your mobile device when you sign out of Yahoo Messenger on your computer. A phone icon in front of your name on your contacts' messenger lists will show you're mobile.

To send a text message from your mobile phone with Yahoo Messenger, click the Actions menu and then "Send an SMS Message." Enter your contact's mobile phone number, type your message and click "Send." You also can start by clicking the text message icon in the address book, or clicking on the contact name in the messenger list and then selecting "Send an SMS Message."

While we've tried to give an overview here of Yahoo Messenger, there's plenty more. For lots more information about Yahoo Messenger and instant messaging, go to the links on the next page.