Shooting the (Instant) Messenger

On the road from novelty to essential tool, all media technologies pass through a demonization phase. Two decades ago, parents fretted over videogames. Then in the ‘90s, it was email and the web. MySpace and other social sites were the object of parental fury last fall, and now, thanks to disgraced former Representative Foley, it is the turn of Instant Messaging.

If anything, it is surprising that it took this long for Instant Messaging to come into parental crosshairs. IM-like systems date back to the dawn of the on-line age, and it took off in its present form with the arrival of ICQ in the 1996 and its subsequent acquisition by AOL. But parents hardly noticed because they were heavy email users and not hip to IM. This started changing over the last two years with the gradual penetration of IM into business, and Foley’s follies merely crystallized an already growing suspicion that IM might be a risk.

Now that IM is in the spotlight, expect the usual ludicrous overreaction by parents and pandering politicians. IM will be declared public enemy number one in the fight to preserve childhood virtue, and we will see no end of ridiculous overreaching education. As the circus begins, we would do well to consider the history of such frenzies. A century ago, parents were upset at their children reading dime novels and so-called “penny dreadfuls.” Of course today, parents would faint with gratitude if their children read a book at all.

Meanwhile, the same pattern can be discerned with video games, as more and more titles have educational content and value. I’ll bet that in a decade or so, parents are going to lecture their children about finishing their videogames before they can go out and play. And of course IM will follow the same trajectory, but only after IM is first held up as the ruination of youth, the conduit for terrorists, and the end of western civilization. Soon some yet newer media form will arrive to distract parents — and then kids can get back to their instant messaging undisturbed.