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You can tell a lot about a person from his or her Instant Messenger (IM) away message. Where he is—not here. What sorority she decided to join—Kappa Gamma Forever. Even what kind of mood he’s in—life blows.
As America has become an increasingly wired nation, the time we spend chatting on IM, checking others’ away messages and obsessively posting to our Live Journals, has multiplied. IM has gone from being a device sixth graders use for gossiping to one of the most important modern forms of communication. Used compulsively by practically every college student in the country, IM is not just a forum for posting party notices but is a distinct social world in and of itself.
College students spend countless hours immersed in this world. Walk into a Harvard dorm room on a weeknight, and you’ll more than likely encounter someone who’s sort of listening to downloaded music, sort of doing a paper but mainly typing instant messages. IM has so thoroughly pervaded college social life that even whole relationships are defined by it.
While many may view the phenomenon of instant messaging as a positive development—after all, it allows people across large geographic areas to stay connected—no one can deny its harmful impact on normal, day-to-day human interactions. Why go out and meet people who go to your school when you can hang out in your dorm room and watch DVDs while chatting to people you’re already friends with?
The advent of IM has had a particularly devastating effect on Harvard’s social dynamic. Because of its urban location and large institutional structure, Harvard naturally lacks that sense of college community that other schools have in spades. Students in years past were forced to cope with this reality by forming their own communities. However, the rise of high-speed Internet and Buddy Lists has impeded those types of community-building efforts. Students nowadays can attain the illusion of being part of a community while sitting in their rooms.
Instant Messaging is an addictive habit that must be broken if the true purpose of this college is to be achieved. The real education that you get from Harvard does not come from the aloof professors or $100 course packs, but rather from the weird and interesting conversations that you can have with weird and interesting people. When you look back on your college years, you’re not going to remember the time you sent you’re friend a funny link to a gay porn site. You’re going to remember that three-hour argument about whether fish actually sleep or that time you got high and talked about the philosophical implications of the space-time continuum in Donnie Darko.
—Brian A. Finn is a business editor.
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