Post-Secondary Students Prefer IM to Email for Personal and Social Communication

Virginia Wilson


A review of:
Lancaster, Sean, David C. Yen, Albert H. Huang, and Shin-Yuan Hung. “The Selection of Instant Messaging or E-mail: College Students’ Perspective for Computer Communication.” Information Management & Computer Security 15.1 (2007): 5-22.

Objective – This study investigates college students’ perceptions of instant messaging (IM) and e-mail for conveying emotions, aiding in relationship building, ease of use, and reliability.

Design – A survey consisting of 59 questions was administered to 1,000 college students, resulting in 545 usable responses.

Setting – The research took place at a midwestern university in the United States.

Subjects – 1,000 Management Information Systems (MIS) college students.

Methods – A 59-question survey was distributed to 1,000 MIS students during the 2005 academic year. 545 usable responses were returned. Participation was voluntary. During the pre-phase of the research, four categories were determined: emotion, relationship, usage, and reliability. Questions were then written for a pilot study using Likert scaling. The post-research phase involved evaluating the questions linguistically to ensure proper word usage, comprehension, and lack of bias.

Main Results – The questions in the section on conveying emotion dealt with how well the two technologies (e-mail and IM) communicated feelings and emotions. While both technologies were acknowledged as being able to communicate more than merely text, IM was clearly preferred for expressing emotion. Fifty-two percent of the respondents strongly agreed or agreed that they used emoticons (originally symbols created with letters and special characters; later evolving into graphical images produced and made available by IM companies) to express emotion in IM, while fewer than 11% agreed or strongly agreed that they did so in e-mail. More than 70% of the respondents strongly agreed or agreed that their friends used emoticons in IM, while fewer than 14% strongly agreed or agreed that their friends used emoticons in e-mails. More than 75% of respondents agreed that it is easier to convey emotions in IM than via e-mail.

Analysis on the questions that dealt with the technologies as useful relationship builders again showed a preference for IM. IM was preferred by a greater number of respondents for fostering friendships, improving relationships with friends or team members, building relationships, social interaction, and social networking. This section also found that more than 75% of the respondents felt that IM was more useful than e-mail when interacting with friends. However, when asked about interacting with co-workers specifically, only 44% were in agreement. Nearly 32% were neutral on this point, while 24% were in disagreement. It appears that IM is preferred over e-mail for fostering social and friendly relationships, but is not preferred when the interaction is work-related and more professional.

In terms of use, both technologies were considered easy to learn and use by more than 90% of respondents. In terms of preferred use, more than 60% of respondents use IM for personal and social interaction, while less than 1% uses IM for work-related activities. Nearly 80% of respondents preferred using e-mail for work, and nearly 75% preferred using IM for social interaction. Sixty-three percent of respondents did not agree that IM is just as effective as face-to-face meetings, while nearly 75% did not agree that e-mail can be as effective as meeting face-to-face.

In the areas of reliability, security, and privacy of IM and e-mail, respondents perceived e-mail more favourably. Sixty-four percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that IM is very reliable, while 80% of respondents felt the same way about e-mail. Just over 30% of those questioned agreed that IM is very secure, while more than 50% felt that way about e-mail. However, the gap is narrower when users were queried as to whether or not they worry about security: 13% strongly agreed with the statement that users do not worry about their security when using IM, while 15% strongly agreed with the statement as it pertained to e-mail. The same types of questions were asked about perceived privacy. Nearly 50% agreed that their privacy is protected with e-mail, while just under 35% had the same belief about IM. More than 60% of respondents reported that they do not worry about privacy when e-mailing, while about 53% of respondents do not worry about privacy with IM.

Conclusion – IM was perceived more favourably than e-mail in 3 of the 4 categories: conveying emotions, building relationships, and ease of use. In the reliability category, e-mail was perceived more favourably. However, there is a division between social interaction and professional communication. IM is preferred for personal and social relationships, while e-mail is preferred for work-related communication. Neither of the technologies is as desirable as face-to-face meetings.

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