The term Instant messenger took shape in the 1990s with the likes of MSN and Yahoo Messenger, and since then, social networking sites such as Facebook have developed their own instant messenger service.

But what makes an IM service different to email? It's instant. We can see when someone has read our messages, and we can see when they're composing them. Unlike emailing, which is reminiscent of physical letters (and mailing!) IM breaks down the barriers of formality.

The advantage of messages being sent and received instantly means that we can talk closer to how we would in real life. IM can adopt a chatty, informal tone.

How does this happen? You might find yourself using filler words, like, um, more than you usually would. You might forego full stops, and in place hit 'send' each time you finish a thought or, like, take a breath

As if you were talking aloud

So that you're not sending huge messages

And so the other person can, like, talk too


But how just real-time can we get? Whilst still demanding quick responses, IM is unlike phone or video - or real -- conversations in that responding to someone immediately so as not to offend them is not a huge priority. We can hide behind our screens; we don't have to give someone our full attention.

And since we are behind screens, we limit our extent to communicate. The other person can't see you laughing, or crying and can't hear how your voice sounds if you're upset.

You must have typed 'lol' to someone before. This informal abbreviation most commonly stands for 'laugh out loud' and can show someone that you, behind your screen, are laughing out loud - or that something is just funny.

And how can we show someone that we're upset? Full stops have adopted a different usage to their regular function of ending a sentence. When line breaks are used to separate pieces of conversation, full stops are used less for their original purpose. But why? Perhaps their feeling of finality shows that someone doesn't want to speak.

Like seriously. They're fine. Really.

Perhaps the most powerful way of conveying how we feel is with pictures, and IM services are fully aware of this. Emoticons - small pictures of facial expressions created by a combination of characters - have been present since the days of MSN. For example, a colon followed by a closed parenthesis resembles a smiling face.


See? Technology is always growing, however, and the rise of the emoji has taken precedence: a huge selection of ideograms including facial expressions, technology and food. This larger number of expressions allows us to capture each nuance, each particular feeling with a picture rather than a sentence explaining how we feel.

It's more instant, and a picture speaks a thousand words. Maybe. I guess.

Explore the ways we present ourselves online, and how we communicate in the digital age as part of our current exhibition, Follow.