Deep in the clutches of a sudden, ADD-induced stupor while working on a term paper last week, I unwittingly discovered that a random girl I graduated high school with was taking a shower. How did I discover this fantastic piece of information (no, I wasn’t lured to her webcam, you pervert)? I “checked” her away message on AOL Instant Messenger. “Checking” people’s away messages has become, unfortunately for me and many, many other students I’m sure, an almost automatic, and arguably obsessive, practice that can occur at anytime without warning. It always happens the same way: You’re putting the finishing touches on your psychology paper, and BAM! next thing you know, you’re wondering why your freshman-year roommate has an ode to “double Ds” displayed on the dry-erase board of the 21st century — his away message. All of this, of course, raises a fundamental question about the nature of the “away message:” Is it just an inane display or a genuine expression of personality? That I cannot answer. But what I can do is try to analyze why and when people put up what they do.
Away messages, of course, come in many different varieties and function to serve many different purposes. However, there are a handful of themes that are too often present in people’s away messages or their “profiles.” The most omnipresent is probably the theme of love. Without a doubt, there are enough googly-eyed, obnoxiously sappy poems, proverbs and quotes — written by both guys and girls — to make even the most hopeless romantic want to vomit. Here’s an example, and I shudder as I write: “Love is when you look into someone’s eyes, and see everything you want.” Somebody get a tissue. Here’s another: “If you can’t get someone off your mind, chances are they’re supposed to be there.” Taking a survey of away messages right now, I see there is enough of this gushy nonsense to make even Leon Phelps, the “Ladies Man” himself, turn gay.
Another common problem with the away message is that it is often entirely too specific. I won’t lie — I’m often guilty of this. For example, a few days ago I went to grab a bite to eat, so I put this simple but explanatory message to explain my exact whereabouts: “Subway.” Even worse, if it’s that time of the week, I’ll mindlessly display the message “shower,” just in case you really need to get in touch with me and don’t mind getting a little wet in the process. In retrospect, this all seems a bit ridiculous; who the hell really cares what I, or anyone, happens to be doing exactly at the few moments I am away from my computer? The fact is, I’m not at my computer anymore, so I can’t be reached through IM. Well, at least I haven’t yet succumbed to placing a message, as a friend of mine frequently does, flaunting the good working order of my bodily functions: “taking a shit.” I believe that the generic away message, “I am away from my computer right now” should suffice nicely in all of these cases.
Occasionally, away messages will get heated; apparently drama knows no bounds. It is infrequent but not rare that I will observe a message saying (or should I say shouting) something like: “I HATE YOU” or “NEVER TALK TO ME AGAIN.” As can be inferred, these venomous messages are pretty much exclusive to people involved in — or, perhaps more accurately, at the end of — relationships. Certainly, they are the juiciest of all away messages, practically begging the incessant away-message checker to delve deeper and determine who the person so passionately despised is. This is usually as far as the message will go, unfortunately, resulting in frustration for the away-message checker, who in all of his ignorance, knows only of one small part of the conflict. I guess while it would provide all curious souls with a bit of closure, “I’M SLEEPING WITH BILL” is just a tad too personal.
Clearly, many seasoned IM users take the away message seriously and seek to permanently display several of their messages through use of the “profile” function. Think of this as a sort of “greatest hits” of the away message. Right now one of my friends has a quote from Phish, a record of Michigan football, a statement informing everyone that he is doing winter break in Mexico, a link to his online photos (from senior year AND his semester abroad), and a “yeeeeh baby!” thrown in for effect on his “profile.” This is the same guy who just took down the previously ubiquitous — among Michigan students at least —“Kerry/Edwards” display a week ago. The basic question that I posed at the introduction of this column again comes to mind here: Is this guy utilizing a meaningful, appropriate forum of expression to display his personality, or is this just a shameless attempt at self-promotion on a medium of insignificance?
Certainly, the “away message” and the “profile” on AOL Instant Messenger are phenomena unique to our generation. Never before has someone been able to say what’s on his or her mind, and have some, perhaps even many, people at least look at what that person was saying, regardless of how idiotic or profound. All of this of course says a whole lot about me and all of those other people out there who regularly “check” away messages. I think the cold, hard truth is that deep down inside, we’re all a little voyeuristic — the AOL Instant Messenger provides with us with a totally legitimate reason to essentially pry into other people’s lives and personalities, completely without their knowing. And, on the flip side, those so intent on having the most original or cool “away message” or “profile” realize this, and work hard to make their good impression. So, the next time you find yourself on AOL Instant Messenger, frantically checking away messages, you might want to reconcile yourself with the fact that you may or may not be a victim of an obsessive habit. Now, about The Facebook …
Adam is a big fan of cheesy online dating sites, such as Wolverine Singles. E-mail him your proposals at firstname.lastname@example.org.