Old Tricks for New Tools

Cross-posted on EchoDitto.Today the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 42% of online Americans use instant messaging (IM). You can read the complete report here, but don’t get too excited yet. The data in the report is useful fodder, but it’s up to the reader to draw his/her own conclusions and analysis.I am most interested in the organizing potential of internet tools like IM, so I was drawn to these stats about how IM users interact with others, buried near the end of the report:

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.

One and five people?! That’s a bit surprising when you think of all the people who always seem to have a dozen IM conversations going at once. But it also makes perfect sense that one’s “inner circle” is no more than a handful of people. You may have 100 people on your buddy list, but how many people are you regularly in touch with? (Apparently, the answer is between 1 and 5 for 66% of us.)If we were to divide our social networks into concentric rings, I suspect there would be no more than a half-dozen people in most of our “inner rings,” closest to the center. You don’t worry about spelling when you email these people, and you certainly wouldn’t think twice about forwarding a funny story or personally inspiring action request on to this group because their names instantly come to your fingers. Maybe it consists of a few family members, a few trusted co-workers, and a few close friends. These are the half-dozen people that campaign organizers are desperately hoping we’ll pass their message on to when they ask us to sign petitions or host house parties.It follows logically, then, that we would regularly IM the same small set of people, if they’re online. Organizers have been working for years to find ways to get us to forward their messages on, or to “tell-a-friend” via email. And we have tools to track all that—open rates, forward rates, etc.Now, with the high IM-saturation among young people, it’s not hard to see why instant messaging is quickly being targeted as the weapon of choice for campus organizing, and for reaching young people in general. Among internet users, the most active IM users are the also the youngest. According to the report, an incredible 62% of Gen Y internet users (ages 18-27) use IM, and every other age group is far below—from 37% of Gen X’ers to 29% of internet users over 69.Thanks to the 2004 presidential race, there are a dozen well-funded groups obsessing over the youth vote and spending money to test the organizing potential of IM. We’ll get to watch and see how one’s inability to “forward” pre-written messages and links will inhibit spread, or how the sense of personal contact (and, therefore, attention) you get with IM will increase spread of a message or idea. There’s also little to no precedent for unsolicited instant messages from strangers, which means that the organizing work has to be done the old fashioned way—through personal, one-to-one contact. No bulk mailings. The rules of engagement are different on IM because the technology is different, which means we have some exciting times ahead of us. Let the games begin!

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