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The Psychology of Away Messages

Posted Nov 23 2009 12:00am
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Are there psychological implications of chat status in GChat or iChat or AIM?  Think of them as today’s answering machines. They are an opportunity to express some aspect of yourself.  Sort of like vanity plates without the level of commitment or having to stand in line at the DMV.

Away messages vary (one hopes) depending upon whether the chat account is used for business or personal, but all messages display shades of personality and technological expertise.  Their brevity demands that you tap into existing social metaphors if you want to deliver a message, such as obtuse references and in-jokes that only certain people will get or that evoke a commonly accepted stereotype.   Nevertheless, our personality does dictate how we interact with the world.  Why should status messages be any different?

If you use the supplied away messages and you’re young(ish), it means you can’t be bothered with something so trivial as customizing your chat status message and besides, you send messages to your real friends on Facebook anyway.  If you use the supplied status messages and you’re old, it means you don’t know they can be customized but that you feel very good about figuring out how to work chat at all.

Often, the content is about the type of content more than the content itself.  For example, sensitive-types post depressing lyrics from Indy music so you’ll know they are deep.away

Introverts keep their away message up all the time because the people who know them, know they might be there even if the status indicator says they are away.  They will send a chat anyway.  On the other hand, if the introvert doesn’t want to answer, he/she can claim they really were away.  It’s okay to set personal boundaries.  This is one way of doing that.  It’s sort of high tech call screening.

Extroverts (and Narcissists) always want to be available even if they’re not.  Extroverts post constant updates about what they’re doing so you can be involved in their every activity.  They can’t believe you can possibly NOT want to know what they’re doing.  It’s sort of a slow-moving Twitter thread without obnoxious promises about making money or getting followers.

Intellectuals post thought-provoking and erudite remarks often involving other languages or quotes form Nietzsche or Kafka drawing on the standard “I’m an intellectual” stereotype.

Humorous and quirky off-the-wall status messages mean that you are supposed to remark on the author’s cleverness or at least respond in kind.

Invisible is for eavesdropping in a stealth and stalker kind of way.  That positive way to think about this is that it’s a great chance to emulate positive social interactions (social learning theory kind of stuff).  The negative is, well, it’s just stalking and kind of a power trip.

Status messages provide context for the message-receiver from the message-sender.  What tools we select and what we choose to say is mostly dependent on whom we’re talking with.  Both sides of the equation matter for communication to happen at all.

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