Beyond the Screen: How Instant Messaging Works

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What Happens After You Sign In?

How Instant Messaging Works
Image/Brandon De Hoyos, About.com

From popular instant messaging programs, including AIM and Yahoo Messenger, to web-based and mobile chat applications, IM connects millions of people each day across a variety of platforms. But, while writing and sending these messages is instantaneous and relatively seamless, there is a lot more than meets the eye.

If you have every wondered what it takes to connect with friends and relatives over an instant messenger, you are in the right place. In this step-by-step guide, we will explore how instant messaging works, from signing in to your favorite IM client to sending and receiving a message across the network.

Choosing an Instant Messaging Client

When you first set out to join an IM network, you must choose a client, a software application designed to create a connection between your computer and the network's server.

There are six types of IM clients, including single-protocol, multi-protocol, web-based, enterprise, mobile app and portable IMs. Regardless of which type you choose, they all connect the same way.

Next: Learn How Your IM Connects

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Step 1: Verifying Your Account

How Instant Messaging Works
Image/Brandon De Hoyos, About.com

Whether you connect to an instant messaging network with a client installed to your computer, to your phone or mobile device, on a flash drive, or with a web messenger which does not require a download, the steps necessary to connect you to your buddy list are the same.

Using your computer or device's Internet connection, the IM client will attempt to communicate with the network's server using a protocol. Protocols tell the server specifically how to communicate with the client.

Once connected, you will enter your user ID, also known as a screen name, and password to log in to the network. Screen names are typically created by users when they first sign up to join an instant messaging service. Most instant messengers are free to join.

The screen name and password information is sent to the server, which checks to ensure the account is accurate and in good standing. All of this happens within seconds.

Next: Learn How Your Buddies Know You Are Online

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Step 2: Getting Your IM Started

How Instant Messaging Works
Image/Brandon De Hoyos, About.com

If you are a long-time member of the instant messaging network, the server will send your buddy list data, including notification of which contacts are signed in and available to chat.

The data sent to your computer is sent in multiple units called packets, smaller bits of information which leave the network server and are received by your IM client. The data is then collected, organized and presented as live and offline friends on your contacts list.

From this point, the collection and distribution of information between your computer and the network's server is continuous, open and instantaneous, making the lightning-quick speed and convenience of instant messaging possible.

Next: Learn How IMs are Sent

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Step 3: Sending and Receiving IMs

How Instant Messaging Works
Image/Brandon De Hoyos, About.com

With the buddy list now open and ready for chat, sending an instant message seems like a breeze. Double-clicking a contact's screen name tells the client software to produce an IM window, addressed to that particular user. Input your message in the text field provided and hit "Enter." Your job is done.

Behind the screen, the client rapidly breaks up your message into packets, which are delivered directly to the recipient on their computer or device. As you chat with your contact, the window appears identically to both parties, and messages appear within a split second of being sent.

In addition to text-based messages, you can also transmit video, audio, photos, files and other digital media quickly and directly using their favorite client software.

If you have IM logging enabled on your client, a history of your conversation is written to files stored either directly on your computer or to the network's server, in some cases. More often than not, finding IM history within the software and account files on your computer hard drive can be done with a simple search.

Next: Learn What Happens When You Sign Out

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Step 4: Signing Out

How Instant Messaging Works
Image/Brandon De Hoyos, About.com

At some point, as the conversation wanes or you must leave your computer, you will sign out of your instant messaging software. While you may be able to perform this action in two simple clicks, the IM client software and server go much further to ensure you no longer receive messages from friends.

Once the buddy list closes, the client directs the network server to end your connection because you have signed out of the service. The server will stop any incoming data packets from being transmitted to your computer or device. The network also updates your availability to offline on the buddy lists of friends, family and colleagues.

Incoming messages which were not received are stored as offline messages on most IM clients, and will be received when you sign back into the service.

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