September 1, 2004

How Americans Use Instant Messaging

53 million adults trade instant messages and 24% of them swap IMs more frequently than email. IM also gains a following in U.S. workplaces

53 million American adults use instant messaging and its appeal is especially apparent among young adults and technology enthusiasts.1

Recent Pew Internet & American Life surveys reveal that more than four in ten online Americans instant message (IM). About 11 million of them IM at work and they are becoming fond of its capacity to encourage productivity and interoffice cooperation.  At the same time, IM usage varies widely across different age groups.   Instant messengers utilize IM not only as a way to expand and remain connected their social circle, but also as a form of self-expression. 

  • 42% of internet users—more than 53 million American adults—report using instant messaging. There has been modest growth in the overall IM population since the Project first started tracking it in April 2000. At that point, about 41 million adults used IM, so the growth rate of the IM population is around 29%.
  • On a typical day, 12% of internet users (or 29% of those who use IM) instant message with others. That translates into just under 13 million people using IM on any given day and constitutes a growth rate of about 9% since April 2000.

Although most IM users still use email more frequently than IM, a significant number are turning to IM more often than they do email.

Although most internet users favor email over IM as a form of communication, nearly a quarter of IM users say they instant message more than they email:

  • 24% of those 54 million IM users report using IM more frequently than email and 6% of IM users say they use IM as much as they use email.
  • 70% report using email more than instant messaging.
  • 36% of IM users say they use IM every day and 63% say they use IM at least several times a week.

IM is moving into the American workplace.

Some 21% of IM users, or approximately 11 million American adults, use instant messaging at work. At the same time, 77% of IM users use their instant messaging programs at home.

  • 32% of college graduates who instant message use IM at work.
  • 34% of Americans who IM and make more than $75,000 per year instant message from their offices. 
  • 28% of IM-ers who have more than six years of internet experience report using IM in the workplace.
  • A quarter of daily internet users log onto IM at work. 

Is IM a distraction at work that keeps people away from their tasks? When asked who they contact most often during IM sessions at work, 40% of at-work IM users indicated they generally instant message coworkers, 33% reported friends and family, and 21% interact with both groups equally. 

At-work IM users report feeling positively about how instant messaging improves workflow and the quality of the work-day. But some think that the use of IM encourages gossip, distracts them, or even adds stress to the workplace.

Asked their overall judgment about the role of IM at work, 11% of IM-at-work users say they couldn’t live without it, 68% say it is a mixed blessing, but mostly positive, 4% say it is a mixed blessed, but mostly negative, and 10% say they wish they could do away with it.

  • 40% of those who use IM at work think it has improved teamwork. Of the remaining users, 15% think IM has contributed minimally to teamwork, while 41% feel it hasn’t at all.
  • 50% of those who use IM at work believe it helps them save time on tasks. About a quarter (26%) claim IM has made no impact on saving time.
  • 47% of those who use IM at work report that IM has regularly provided moments of relief from the daily work grind. 
  • 32% say IM at work encourages gossip; 29% say is has been distracting, and 11% say it has added stress to their lives.

comScore Media Metrix data from July shows that AOL instant message service leads among users.

In July, this is how the IM universe broke down, according to comScore Media Metrix measurements:

  • AOL Instant Message (the proprietary service to AOL subscribers) was used by 37% of those who traded IMs during the month. On a typical day during the month more than 5.7 million IM-ers were using this application.
  • Yahoo! Messenger was used by 33% of those who traded IMs during the month. This was the single most popular service used at work and the average user of the application spent 423 minutes using the application during the month – the highest total among the applications.
  • AOL Instant Messenger (AIM Service) was used by 31% of those who traded IMs during the month. This application had the greatest reach among college students and on any given day there were nearly 6 million people using the application, making it the most popular application on a typical day. 
  • MSN Messenger Applications were used by 25% of those who traded IMs during the month.
  • ICQ was used by 6% of those who traded IMs during the month.
  • PalTalk was used by 1% of those who traded IMs during the month.
  • Trillian was used by 1% of those who traded IMs during the month.

IM use differs markedly among age groups.  Most notably, younger Internet users employ IM in greater numbers and more ardently than older generations.

Within the instant messaging Gen Y (18-27 years) age group, 46% report using IM more frequently than email. In contrast, only 18% of Gen X-ers (28-39 years) instant message more often than emailing.  In older generations the percentage is even smaller. 

  • 21% of IM-ers in each of the Gen Y and Gen X age groups log onto IM several times a day, followed by 17% of Trailing Boomers (40-49), 15% of Leading Boomers (50-59), 10% of Matures (60-68), and a mere 9% of the After Work (69 and older) age group.
  • 35%, or the largest portion of those who IM for about an hour are Gen Y-ers.  In contrast, the greatest percentage of instant messengers who IM for less than 15 minutes consist of Trailing Boomers (26%). 

The July figures from comScore also show that women as a group spend significantly more time online than men. During the month, the average woman IM user spent 433 minutes trading instant messages and the average man spent 366 minutes. In addition, the figures indicated that those living in lower income households were more ardent users of IM than those in upscale homes. That was also the case for households with children in them. They were more active users of IM than those that had no children.

IM-ers are multi-taskers.

A majority of IM users say they do other things on their computer and online at the same time they are participating in IM sessions.

  • 32% of IM users say they do something else on their computer such as browsing the web or playing games virtually every time they are instant messaging and another 29% are doing something else some of the time they are IM-ing.
  • 20% of IM users say they do something else off their computer such as talk on the phone or watch television virtually every time they are instant messaging and another 30% say they do other things offline at least some of the time they are IM-ing.

Instant messengers often utilize special features to enhance their ability to communicate and stay connected with other IM users. Yet, they do not spend a great deal of time using the exclusionary features, such as blocking and removing buddies.

About 45% of IM users – close to 24 million people – post “away” messages on their IM programs that allow those who access their accounts to get information about where they are, what they are doing, or read a message of some kind, such as an amusing quotation. In addition, 34% of IM users have created profiles that others can see.

  • Of those IM users who post away messages, 63% have used the standard messages provided by their IM program, while 45% of away message users post a specific message about what they are doing or why they are away. 
  • 54% of IM users say they remove people from their buddy list from time to time, but that does not happen very often. Some 37% do it less often than “once every few months” and many IM users (44%) say they never remove anyone from their buddy list.
  • In contrast, 74% of IM users say they add someone to their buddy list at least every once in a while. Some 34% of IM users say they add a buddy less often than “once every few months.”
  • Of those who have created IM profiles, 42% have posted inspirational or funny quotes, 33% have posted their contact information such as phone numbers or email addresses, 18% link to interesting or funny web sites, 12% link to personal photos, and 9% post important personal news.

In addition to chatter, IM users are becoming fond of the other features IM programs offer.

  • 31% of IM users report using IM to send links to friends and colleagues about articles or web sites.
  • 30% of IM users pass along photos or documents to other IM buddies.
  • 14% use IM to link buddies to streamed web content or videos.
  • 5% use IM to share music or video files. 

Below are some other key findings. 

  • The IM universe of most users is very modest: 66% of IM users say they regularly IM between one and five people. Only 9% of IM users say they regularly IM more than 10 people.
  • 15% of IM users say they use a wireless device such as a phone or wireless laptop to send and receive IM messages.
  • 17% of IM users use different screen names to contact different groups of friends or colleagues.
  • 24% of IM users say they have IM-ed a person who was in the same location as they were – such as their home, an office, or a classroom.
  • 51% of IM users say they have received an unsolicited IM from someone they didn’t know.

How Americans Use Instant Messaging: Summary of Findings at a Glance

  1. Note: These figures were obtained from the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s May-June 2004 Tracking Survey. The remaining figures contained in this report come from the February 2004 Tracking Survey.