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The rise of real-time text communication, known as instant messaging or IM for short, has unleashed a torrent of typing amongst teens, co-workers and colleagues. But with so many people tapping out text in so many different ways, technology has created an electronic Tower of Babel, where miscommunication and frustration are common currencies.

To help combat these issues, The Black Table has taken it upon itself to create a guidebook so IMers can finally be of one mind on critical issues related to general etiquette, away messages, the use of personal icons and the kinds of crap that literally pops up when you're using IM. This handbook should by no means be considered the final word on IMing and is a work-in-progress that will be updated often.

Feel free to send comments to: for inclusion in future updates.



Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Basics of Instant Messaging.

Chapter Two: Instant Messenger is Not Real Communication.

Chapter Three: IM Etiquette and Sundry Interpersonal Matters.

Chapter Four: All About Acronyms.

Chapter Five: On Cybersex and IM Hookups.

Chapter Six: So, You're Away.

Chapter Seven: The Secret Life of Personal Icons.

Chapter Eight: Random Pointers and Other Remainders.



Chapter One: The Basics of Instant Messaging.

The fundamentals of IM are easy to grasp. You simply type something up and hit return and the other person can read it and respond. But even something this simple can lead to confusion, especially when some people opt for acronyms that aren't widely known, think punctuation is largely unnecessary and try to make jokes that have to be explained.

When it comes to simply typing, there are basic rules:

  • If you're a fast typist, who enjoys perfect punctuation and can keep up, by all means, let everyone know how fucking perfect you think you are.

  • Typing in all lowercase is perfectly acceptable as a rule, since it's far more efficient and is largely used as the standard. Don't be a star -- be like everyone else.

  • Never type complete thoughts in all caps, unless you want the person on the other end to think you're screaming at them. Yes, every once in a while, using all caps to stress something is fine, provided you DON'T go overboard.

Once you have a good grasp on your typing style but before you run out and pack your buddy list with people, it's wise to remember the many pitfalls of IM, namely, that it's not nearly as private as you think.

Before you type a single word: When you send something over IM, it's just as permanent as an email, which means if you had an embarrassing emotional breakdown and say all kinds of insane shit, you won't be able to take it back and then the other person could hypothetically save the string and keep it forever, or forward it around so everyone sees it and hates you. Not that this happens, just that it could.

And please do not IM like John Bonham soloing in the middle of "Moby Dick," opening and closing dozens of windows and communicating with the whole world at once. If you hit return and tell accidentally tell your boss that you want to lick his balls and cock when you get home from work, it's your own damned fault. Slow down there, hoss, and look before you leap.



Chapter Two: Instant Messenger is Not Real Communication.

Telling someone something in person is powerful, allowing for less interpretation of what you're saying. Writing someone a little note using words and letters is a much different way of communicating. Since IM involves the least amount of actual human contact, filtering all communication down to its simplest form, it's patently stupid to treat everything said over it like the Gospel. Ergo, the First Law:

The First Law of Instant Messenger: Instant Messenger is Not Real Communication.

What you write is rarely read the way you would have said it in person, especially when you're trying to be funny. This brings up the second law of IM:

The Second Law of Instant Messenger: Instant Messenger is Not a Venue for Sarcasm.

Using sarcasm over IM is nearly impossible, because most people take written language literally and cannot see you roll your eyes or make some kind of face to indicate that you're kidding. In the end, when you type "I really wish Jennifer Love Hewitt would make more CDs and movies" that's exactly what the other person thinks you mean. Explaining your sense of humor over IM is like making crepes on the backyard grill -- not worth the effort.

If you do make a joke and aren't sure someone else got it, then send a little smiley face at 'em and drive home the point. It's polite. Which brings up the third law of IM:

The Third Law of Instant Messenger: Emoticons Should Be Used Like Punctuation.

While somewhat girlish and lame, emoticons can be acceptable if used to punctuate thoughts, in the same way a sly wink is used in person. This is fine. You're not lame if you do this sporadically. Remember, there's a fine line between using the "embarrassed" smiley once in a while, and becoming a junior-high school girl who ends every sentence with one of those rainbow-double-happy-face exclamation-point things.

Ultimately, there are certain words that are such poor communicators over IM even emoticons can't help them. And so, Law Four:

The Fourth Law of Instant Messenger: There's Nothing "Fine" About the Word "Fine."

Indeed, an especially problematic word is "fine," which never, ever means that you're fine with something, even if you're actually fine with something. After years of hearing people utter "fine" in a clipped, short, "I'm so NOT FINE about this" way, it's been permanently tainted with an opposite meaning. Instead use: "cool," which is peppy and indicates that you are, in fact, fine.

Because of the miscommunication and myriad meanings words can take over IM, you must obey the cardinal rule of IM at all times. More than "don't type in all caps," more than "don't speak in acronyms," more than "cybersex is for losers," more than anything else, you must remember the Fifth Law:

The Fifth Law of Instant Messenger: Never Fight Over Instant Messenger.

Don't do it! Getting mad at your significant other via IM is not useful or smart. Having that long-desired sit-down about how your roommate is a total slob will backfire horribly. Telling your family you've failed at school because all you've done is add to your buddy list is a poor choice, since they're gonna want to yell at you over the phone. All you've done is open Pandora's Box of massive misunderstandings and major miscommunication, creating a special new kind of hell for yourself.

Never forget: The emotions and sentiments expressed over IM are not real. They only read that way.



Chapter Three: IM Etiquette and Sundry Interpersonal Matters.

Now that you understand the basics, it's time to drill down on matters of personal style and etiquette.

In real life, when you're talking to someone, it's very easy to see what's going on. Both of you are invariably standing in the same place, doing the same thing -- talking to each other -- at the same exact time. But over IM, you're both in utterly different situations dealing with completely different things.

Let's say Tina works at the nuclear power plant and is IMing her boyfriend Ike, who has nothing to do all day and is trolling the Web for porn. Even though Tina wants to talk to Ike, there are moments were she can't, if only because her boss comes by and chats with her, or there's a thermonuclear meltdown in one of the reactors that is a bit more pressing than answering that blinking IM window. Ike has no way of knowing this, of course, but the proper response to an unresponded IM isn't rage, insecurity and threatening to pull off his boot when Tina gets home.

Often times, Ike would be wise to remember that Tina's lack of a response is indicative of one of the following things:

  • Tina is busy. Amazing as this might sound, Tina has a real job that takes Tina away from IM once in a while, and Tina's not nearly as bored as Ike is.

  • Tina has no idea Ike wrote a message. Sometimes, the little window doesn't blink and Tina didn't see that question from an hour ago. It doesn't mean they hates Ike, baby, or are trying to ignore Ike. Chill. Ike should find something else to do for a while.

  • Tina's got nothing to say. Maybe Tina hails from the "yes" and "no" school of IM and doesn't have much to say after Ike just spent the better part of an hour detailing all kinds of intimate details about Ike's shoe collection. Ike might need to face the fact that Ike's boring and what Tina really wants to say is that Tina's not even reading these windows. Tina's deleting them as soon as they pop up, like they're some kind of advertisement for Ike's banal, cruddy existence. Maybe, Tina don't need Ike no more, baby.

  • Tina's away. And Tina didn't put up her away message. (See "Chapter Six: So You're Away" for more details.)

Openly ignoring or avoiding someone over IM is also very rude, however, so if you find yourself being ignored, the absolute worst thing you can do is keep on writing until the other person responds. Often times, this snowballs and by the time you've calmed down, you've sent out 17 unresponded messages, making yourself look like a pathetic, lonely fool. If you find yourself writing "You need Ike, Tina" then it's time to logoff.

Here are three quick pointers:

  • Don't Warn People... Okay, okay, okay. So people who don't respond can piss you off, but in reality, there's nothing you can do about it except stop caring so much. Warning people is patently stupid. If someone's a real bastard, a warning level of 47% isn't going to be a deterrent, not when they're flaming you with a billion emails, too.

  • ...Block People You Don't Like. Whoever you dislike can't IM you anymore, or even see when you're online. But keep in mind that psychotic exes will have multiple screen names and they will know what you are up to by constantly checking your away message and using their buddy list to conduct full scale investigations of your online social life.

  • IM Stalking is Fine. There's nothing wrong with cyber-stalking, otherwise, AOL would never allow you to save the name of your first girlfriend from high school in your buddy list and have it alert you every single time she's online, usually for four minutes between 4 and 5 p.m. almost every day. If you're actually pinging someone with an IM every single time they log on in a vain attempt to reconnect, you've taken stalking to some kind of Michael David Chapman level and should probably rethink that handgun purchase.

Hopefully, by this point, you're typing in all lowercase in something resembling complete sentences, understanding that people don't always respond that fast and are blocking the assholes of the world instead of warning them. But even with these rudimentary steps nailed down, it's possible to miscommunicate, if only because one person's an overeager typist and the other's a preoccupied hunt-and-pecker.

  • Don't interrupt. On newer versions of IM, they have this neat little feature that says when the other person is typing. When that is on, you might want to consider not writing anything until the other person responds, otherwise you're a rude, interrupting asshole, just like in real life. If you've asked a question, wait for the answer, numbnuts.

  • Don't get fancy. Some people have slow, fucked up computers, where AOL is running over a modem on gum and paperclips. You get cute and our shit crashes. So, just send the whole damn link by cutting and pasting it, don't try and hyperlink it or make us click on anything to get there.

  • Don't be an idiot. Self-expression is fine, but when you're throwing teeny red Comic Sans on a green background, people are simply ignoring your messages on principle.



Chapter Four: All About Acronyms.

IM isn't the kind of medium that requires perfection at all times. It's this ability to use shorthand and send it in real time that makes IM far more efficient than writing out a letter in longhand and mailing it off with a stamp. But while there's some leeway on full sentences and even spelling, talking in code, using only acronyms is highly frustrating, and at times, rude.

Don't go off with the acronyms. Peppering the world with crap like "l8r" and "b4" and "np" will only make other people think you're a teenager, typing out your messages from the your cell phone in a mall food court. For lack of a better word, acronyms are gay. Prince isn't cool anymore for a reason.

That said, people will continue to use acronyms, so you might as well have a good understanding of them.

BRB stands for "be right back." Why use this instead of an away message? Well, sometimes you're only gone for a minute and don't really need to put up a full-scale wall. Sometimes, you just gotta pee in the little trash-can under your desk, because the stupid temp agency doesn't give you any breaks, ever.

BTW means "by the way" and is one of those acronyms that not only useful, but addictive as well, up there with FYI on a list of shorty short short words you should use liberally.

IMHO, using "in my humble opinion" isn't such a bad thing.

LOL means you "laughed out loud" and guffawed audibly, making everyone in the room jealous because you got "something good" from the Internet. That's the only redeeming quality. When you type "hahaha," it means you thought something was funny, not that you actually laughed like a goon. It's internal, see?

LMFAO or LMAO is an acronym meaning "laughed my fucking ass off," which sends the message to others that if you were drinking milk, it would have blasted all over the place, sending you running to the bathroom with piss running down your leg. It was just that fucking funny.

ROFL means you were "rolling on the floor laughing" and is an overstatement along the same lines as LMAO. Some brave, deluded fools have take this to extremes, creating the ROFLMFAO juggernaut acronym, which should never, ever be used. Ever.

WTF stands for "what the fuck?!" and is probably preferable to swearing like a sailor over IM, just in case someone's boss is walking by. The word fuck tends to attract attention, whether it's said or typed.

Now, there are billions and billions of acronyms out there, but moving too far beyond this list is utterly foolish, since you'll have to explain what they mean and spell them out anyway. (If you're really into them, this site seems to have an assload of useless ones.) Yeah, you might think you've got some kind of abbreviated coolness going, but in the end, you're just a big dork pecking shit out on the Internet all day.


Chapter Five: On Cybersex and IM Hookups.

The lack of words in this chapter should not be a measure of importance, merely that the lesson is so obvious that all you need to know can be summed up in a single thought.

Cybersex is retarded.

Sure, cybersex may seem enticing, but when the Internet is awash in pornography, opting to do the jerk-and-type while IMing with another man pretending to be a woman should raise red flags about the level of loserdom you've slipped to.

Honestly, real women -- the kind with offline vaginas and boobies and all that -- don't perform cybersex, unless you've had real sex with them already. And the ones who are willing to type out that they want to hypothetically suck you off even though you're a stranger are not the types of women you'd like to have real sex with. That's because they're either 13-years-old or in prison.

That's all you ever need to know. Cybersex = retarded. Don't do it. Call a phone sex line, download some porn or write yourself a little pornographic note and hide it, so you can pretend it came from someone else when you find it later on. It's just about as good as pretending someone else wants to blow you over the Internet.


Chapter Six: So, You're Away.

Every once in a while, you need to step away from your computer, but don't want to totally sign off and miss a message from someone important. Luckily, IM allows you to customize your away message to let the world know you'll be right back.

It goes without saying that you should use your away message if you're away. That's what it's there for. You don't want to be that guy who has been online for 1 day, 17 hours and 19 minutes. No one really believes you've been online that long, and if you have, well may god have mercy on your soul.

One of the best things about away messages is that you can have a billion different ones that allow you to fake out your boss and tell them you're in a meeting, when in fact, you just took a two-hour lunch. Furthermore, you can let people know to call you on a cell phone since you're not on IM at the moment, or tell them that the night's plans have been changed.

But for fuck's sake, stop using the default message already. It's like refusing to take the plastic film off the face of a watch, because you don't want to scratch it. Break your shit in. It's pretty obvious you're away from your computer right now, or you wouldn't need an away message.

When telling the world you're away, use some common sense. Away messages targeting one person are fine, if you want everyone else in the world to know, too. So when you're writing that in-joke to the guy you boffed last week, letting him know you'll be in the lobby of the Hilton in Midtown for your special rendezvous, you better make damned sure your boyfriend isn't going to check in to say hey that afternoon. Or one of his friends. Or your mother. Or anyone else.


Chapter Seven: The Secret Life of Personal Icons.

One of the best things about IM is that it can be personalized so that it totally reflects your own sensibilities. And no where is the urge to customize more apparent than in the miniscule little window set aside for an icon, some graphical message you'd like to send to anyone you're talking to.

Now, deciding on an icon can be a tricky thing, since you can't see your icon, but everyone else can and it's real easy to forget when you've got something patently offensive up there and it's time to wish Gramma a happy 87th birthday. In order to avoid massive gaffes, here's a handy guide to icons.

  • It's a picture of your face. A little picture of you. Next to a box with written words you just typed. Like a little mini-you all chilling on my desktop. Totally creepy. Stop it. Make it go away.

  • It's vulgar or gross. Fine, it's totally acceptable if all you do is IM your cretin friends all day long, but once you enter the workplace, some people can be a little repulsed by the little chainsaw man who hacks up 15,000 stick people and spells out your name in blood. Not good in this economic climate.

  • It's an advertisement. What the fuck is wrong with you? All day we're closing pop-up windows and dodging ads and then you gotta *join* the enemy. You're not even getting paid! That's insane!

  • It's animated. Not only is your IM window flashing and blinking and pinging with all the noises and the dinging and the donging and the monkeys running in circles -- you have an icon that is moving and jumping and singing and dancing and making heads spin. It's a bit much.

  • It's your favorite… Whatever. Do you still wear little pins of my favorite bands? When was the last time you sewed an Iron Maiden patch onto a jean jacket? How much do you love bumper stickers?

  • You don't have one. How wise.


Chapter Eight: Random Pointers and Other Remainders.

Sigh. It's a wonderful, expressive, amazing word to use over IM. Use it.

A fun practical joke that gets people every time: Randomly adjust your font size so it's super huge and write something like, "FIRE ME! I'M FUCKING AROUND!" on it. People love that.