Are You Always/Never Available?

IM has been a fixture in the home and in enterprises for well over a decade. One of the nice, possibly underhyped, features of IM is presence, i.e. letting your contacts know when you’re free to chat and when you’re busy.

I suppose invisible is also a presence state, but from the would-be chatter’s perspective, it isn’t.

ThinkGeek's binary doormat

I’ve often wondered how vigilant and transparent people are about their presences. I generally let the chat application set mine, turning my status to away when the host machine is inactive, but often, when I’m actually leaving my computer, I will set my status to away to let people know that I’m not available. Of course, this isn’t really true, since the people who need to can get me on my cell.

I know, who uses a phone for phone calls anymore?

But still, for IM purposes, I make a decent effort to reflect my presence at the machine. Unfortunately, I often forget to reset my status to available when I return.

There exists a subset of IM users who always have the same status. I’m sure you’ve met them. They’re either always away or always available, regardless of their real state at the machine, essentially negating the status. The invisible user is a member of this subset too, which can be surprising, if you happen to notice that person isn’t online, then presto, s/he IMs you.

Are you one of these people? If so, why do you avoid using the status. Most IM applications set status based on in/activity by default, so it seems this decision was made with a reason.

I guess a larger question is, do people really check status before chatting? Do you? If you run into someone with a constant away status, do you hit them up anyway? There’s an interesting set of online manners at work here.

Anyway, I’m not judging here; I’m genuinely curious to know the motivations and reasons behind the use of presence. This is something that has interested me for a long time, and it’s always informative to get real perspectives behind observed behaviors.

Find the comments, if you’re available.




  1. I typically let the machine set it…unless I’m slammed, then I go dark (invisible). The one place I did change it was the phone, I can’t stand IM on the phone…just too clunky for me. Doing so made me miss messages too, say if I didn’t have GMail open on my computer.

    I rarely set it to busy (personal), but I will set it to DND at work which disallows people from sending me anything (MS Communicator).

    As for IMing others, I try to keep it to a minimum. Most of the frequent stuff is with colleagues, who are expecting it.

  2. Let machine set it (away after 1 hour idle). I do check other statuses but I’ll send a message anyway. Even if you’re offline. Seems kinda more personal, probably influenced by my heavy use of Twitter maybe.

  3. Glad I’m not the only one who hates IM on the phone. I thought you ran Ubuntu, what’s this about MS Communicator? We use IM all the time, and it’s weird to run into people who don’t, must be a cultural thing.

    I will say that I hate having conversations over IM, meaning when it gets involved and descriptive, I need to talk. I’m sure Rich and Anthony dislike this tendency 🙂

  4. I have taken many approaches to IM over the years. When using desktop/laptop clients I would invariably wind up appearing in the wrong state for actual conditions. Many people I know — even to this day — will first inquire whether I’m actually there/here before messaging. One such friend sends “boo!” and expects “eek!” back in acknowledgement. 😉

    But as I transitioned to smart phones — starting with my first Tréo — I learned the joys of mobile IM. As you aptly point out, we are very nearly an always on society. But I find that I actually do — at least 90% of the time — update my presence. But here’s the kicker: it’s /my/ status, not my presence at a computer or other fixed location.

    I do find, though, that the lowest common denominator of presence is on/off-line. It gets to be too much work to remember to set away, busy, or custom states. I’m either available to talk or I’m not. (shrug)

  5. I do try to reflect my availability with IM status. In my previous job there was a lot of communication using IM and it was almost an unofficial sign to say I was ‘on the clock’. It is funny you mention the ‘Are you there’ syndrome, It happens to me all the time.

  6. Interesting. I’m surprised you used more specific presences than un/available, but I guess it makes sense if you’re carrying IM on your phone too. Away has a less applicable meaning. Even presence is a funny word given that IM can go with you now.

  7. I never use IM on a phone. What’s the point – I’m on the move – and it’s a  phone. Call, leave a VM, email or text (SMS) me and I’ll respond asynchronously (is that a word?)..

  8. I like IM on my phone for when I’m away but know that I’ll have downtime like sitting in a waiting room or standing around a booth at a conference. 

    What I don’t like is that I have 3 places I can use IM–my laptop, my iPad and my phone.  Every so often someone tells me my status is something different than what it is on the device I’m on and I have to figure out which device is feeding my status indicator.

  9. Work XP VM…I can’t escape it even if I wanted to.

    I agree with with the phone call part…it’s that or a gotomeeting (WTF do you call that?), which I love, especially when a developer is trying to talk to a businessy person, sometimes it’s just best to see it.

  10. Sounds like you’re a tablet user in the making, i.e. tablet uses include killing time in the top few use cases.

    You pointed out one of my peeves with IM clients. If you use more than one, your presence is spread across many clients, causing more work. Another reason I don’t do IM off the computer.

  11. I’ve found most people don’t look at the status, which is usually fine, since as I say, I often forget to change it back if I’ve set it manually.

    It’s tough to get real presence indication due to the number of clients on various devices, people’s different presence-setting behaviors, etc.

    There’s definitely a universal presence itch to scratch; I’ve pondered that before, but never with a clear idea on how to solve it simply.

  12. I never touch my work IM settings, so they’re automatically set by computer idleness or by the integrated calendar. Of course, if a meeting ends early, the IM is inaccurate. I only receive IM’s from a few people at work, so it’s not a huge priority.

  13. IM is dead in the water on a phone. “Kids” will SMS, “adults” will Tweet. And at some point the two meet…

  14. Dunno about that based on how many people in this thread alone rock IM on the phone. Plus, I’ve found IM to be one of those features that people insist they need pretty much everywhere. Whether or not they use it is another matter entirely.

    As long as SMS/MMS costs money, IM will thrive. It’s free and private and not necessarily controlled by any company.

  15. I wholeheartedly agree. Twitter fails here mostly because managing DMs
    is annoying and no one who wants followers has an extended private convo
    in public mentions. SMS/MMS fail because of massive overcharging and
    frequently delayed or non-delivered messages — oh how we suffered THAT
    this past weekend in Vegas. For near-live, private conversations there
    really isn’t anything to truly replace IM yet. And there are just some
    times that you just can’t call, facetime, or skype — that is, openly talk.

    As with all things, it’s using the right tool for the right job and the
    individual circumstances of the user. Declaring a technology dead
    because it’s not personally relevant ignores the value it has for
    others. I know a Verizon employee who (to this day) considers smart
    phones lunacy… “Why do I need a keyboard when I can just /call/ them?”

  16. Most of the time, unless traveling. 2 X iOS, 1 X Android, 1 X RIM. I like to compare the UX in the real world. It will wear off eventually. No intention of WIndows 7 phone though.

  17. Ah, but declaring something dead draws out its users. Maybe Ultan should write it up here and open the flood gates 😉 /me stirs pot

  18. I also forget to mention that Oracle’s Beehive has a nice feature that will automatically set IM status as Busy during planned calendar meetings.

  19. That is an interesting assumption.  I probably do more IM during meetings than when I am not in a meeting and trying to focus on a specific task.  Maybe reflective of the type of meetings I attend.

  20. I find that confusing. Are you there or not? If so, are you ignoring me because you’re busy or you just don’t want to talk to me?

  21. It just struck me as a total IM anti-use case.  As I typed it in, I thought “no one cares, that’s a fail” and went elsewhere.  Life goes on, day later I see two dozen replies, one must strike while the irony is hot.  For any who don’t get the we do not use reference:

    I find it generally annoying, with the possible exception of a webex where it can be recorded for later perusal.  I’m of the general “use good english” school of internet communication, though if img insertion is available I’ll abuse it as much as possible. 

  22. Maybe I don’t want to chat with you, just know if you’re at your computer so I can call you on the phone. I get your boolean system, and it would work *if* other people followed it. The frustrating bit is that people handle presence in various ways, making it difficult to figure out if they’re really there or not.

  23. Agree that IM and texting have destroyed English communication. I saw that ZOMG made it into the dictionary, which is kind of cool, but also kind of sad. It’s not even an acronym. When IM universal clients started appearing with chat logs, IM got a lot more useful for me. 

  24. Do you still see me as always online?  I’ve “unset” that setting for quite a while.

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