What's the Difference Between "Chat" and "Instant Messaging"?

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While the terms "chat" and "instant messaging" are often used interchangeably, they can actually mean two different ways to communication on the internet. While you can chat while sending instant messages with friends and colleagues, an instant message is ultimately not a chat, per se.

What is instant messaging?

In short, instant messaging is a one-on-one conversation in which your computer is connected to another for the purpose of exchanging text, images and more.

Instant Messaging typically refers to the process of having a conversation on a computer or mobile device, with another individual. It generally refers to one-on-one conversations, as opposed to conversations involving groups of people. Instant messaging dates back to the 1960s, when MIT developed a platform which allowed up to 30 users to log in at a time and send messages to each other. The concept grew in popularity as technology advanced, and now we take instant messaging for granted and consider it a part of our everyday lives. 

Some popular instant messaging platforms include: 

Facebook Messenger

Snapchat

WhatsApp

Meanwhile, a chat usually refers to a chat room, a digital forum where multiple people can connect with others for the purpose of sending text, images, and more to everyone at once. While the concept of a chat room hit its peak in the late 90s, and has since declined, there are still applications and platforms which enable people to participate in chat rooms.

While instant messaging was born in the 1960s, chat followed in the 1970s. The ability to chat with groups of people was developed at the University of Illinois in 1973. At its beginning, only five people could chat at a time! It was an early precursor to an activity which would be adopted by millions.

In the late '90s, a technological advancement occurred that would forever change the digital landscape: AOL began offering internet service for a flat monthly fee. Prior to this, using the internet was a costly proposition, and in most cases charges were incurred based on the length of time one spent online. Once AOL made staying online affordable, people realized they could stay online as long as they wanted, and chat rooms flourished. In 1997, at the height of the chat room craze, AOL hosted 19 million of them

Some popular platforms that offer chat rooms are:

Twitch (similar to a chat room in that you watch videos and talk about them together)

Nimbuzz 

Migme

Whether you use instant messaging, chat, or both (let's not even get started on the definition of "group chat"!) it's mind-boggling to think that neither of these options existed less than 60 years ago. Thanks to innovations at MIT and the University of Illinois, we have access to technology which has changed how we communicate, and indeed, changed our lives.

Updated by Christina Michelle Bailey, 9/7/16