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Instant messaging clicks with Net users

Do you IM? If so, you've got something in common with millions of other Internet users, according to a new study.

As avid users know, IM is an abbreviation for instant messaging, a method for exchanging short messages in real time over the Internet or other network.

The software that makes instant messaging possible has been around for years, but a new study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that the messaging technique is increasingly popular.

The study found, for example, that in the United States 53-million adults use instant messaging to communicate online. That figure represents about two out of five Internet users. Many instant messaging fans use the system more frequently than e-mail.

On a typical day, the Pew study found, about 12 percent of Internet users send or receive an instant message.

If you're not familiar with instant messaging, the concept is akin to a kind of online chat room that is available constantly on your desktop. IM users create a list of friends, family and colleagues _ known generally as "buddies."

When you connect to the Internet, your instant messaging software lets you know if your buddies are online at that moment. If so, you can send them a short message and they can reply in chatlike fashion.

Instant messaging programs also offer users a handy way to share documents, Web links and music files.

The most popular form of instant messaging comes from America Online, which has an in-house system for its subscribers and a companion AOL Instant Messenger program for other Internet users. Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger and a program called ICQ (for "I Seek You") are popular alternatives. All are available for free downloading.

It's hard to overlook the attractions of instant messaging for some types of communication.

Teenagers love instant messaging because it creates a virtual party-line experience that lets them talk simultaneously with several people _ either in one common session or in multiple and separate chat windows.

Some businesses have started using instant messaging. A computer help desk might use instant messaging to offer real-time technical support to employees. Members of a project team might use IM to share information about their progress.

About 11-million people use instant messaging in the workplace. Eleven percent of them say they couldn't live without IM.

Other times, however, instant messaging can prove to be an annoyance. An instant message, after all, calls for an instant response. But not everyone wants to interrupt their concentration to reply to chat requests.

Nine percent of workplace users say they find IM to be distracting, and 5 percent said they think it adds to their stress, the Pew study reported.