New software reveals popularity of ‘away’ messages on college campuses

By Sarah Mansell
February 12, 2004

Instant messenger systems are one of the most popular ways for college students at Wake Forest University and at schools across the country to communicate with friends and family – even when they are away from their computers. Two Wake Forest students are banking on that popularity and making the instant communication even more efficient with software they created called BuddyGopher.

“Away” messages, notes created when someone is away from their instant-message screen, have become the newest obsession on college campuses with the average person posting five or more updates a day. Current instant-message systems require users to click on each person in their address book, or buddy list, in order to read their away message. With buddy lists that reach into the triple digits, the process is time-consuming and clumsy, says Wake Forest senior Nick Gray. He and Ryan Farley, a graduate of Wake Forest and a current computer science graduate student, created BuddyGopher ( so that instant messenger users can read the away messages of everyone on their buddy list simultaneously.

The program is used by a majority of Wake Forest students, and other college students across the country are signing on thanks mostly to word-of-mouth advertising. Farley estimates their cluster of 14 computers processes approximately 200,000 away messages a day and gains nearly 1,000 new users a month. About 6,500 people are currently signed up for the service, which is still in the development stages.

“It is a guaranteed want among people in our age group,” said Gray, a business major from Atlanta and a recipient of the university’s presidential scholarship for entrepreneurship. An informal survey conducted by Gray and classmates for a business project revealed that 97 percent of Wake Forest students use instant messenger and away messages on a daily basis. Page West, director of the university’s Center for Undergraduate Entrepreneurship, was Gray’s advisor on the project.

“There is a definite business interest in the intense social interaction on college campuses created by instant messenger systems,” says West, Benson-Pruitt Associate Professor of Business in the Calloway School of Business and Accountancy.

The fascination with away messages is an interesting phenomenon, adds Ananda Mitra, associate professor of communication at Wake Forest. He says the popularity of away messages and the BuddyGopher program shows a growing demand for people to exist in both the virtual world and the real world at the same time. He wrote “From Cyber Space to Cybernetic Space: Rethinking the Relationship between Real and Virtual Spaces” for the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication on that topic.

“With an away message, you continue to live in the virtual world even when you are away doing real-world activities,” says Mitra. “In essence, college students and others are living in a cybernetic space, or a combination of the virtual and the real.”

Signing up for the free service requires users to add a BuddyGopher name to their buddy list, then type in the names of the friends they would like to track. The buddy, which only works on AOL Instant Messenger, can then retrieve the away messages of all the friends on the list with one click. Although the concept is simple, the programming is complex. It took Farley three months to build the original software that powers BuddyGopher, and an additional semester to bring it to its current state. The program has been live for about four months. John Wigle, a freshman from Texas, is helping with maintenance of the program.

Jay Dominick, assistant vice president for information systems, says the university’s comprehensive technology program fosters an ideal environment for entrepreneur projects like BuddyGopher. The Information Systems department and the Calloway School provided physical space, computer resources and mentoring for the venture. The team works from a remodeled basement office in the university’s Reynolda Hall that is serving as temporary space for the Center for Undergraduate Entrepreneurship. The center will soon move to Kirby Hall in the Calloway Center for Business, Mathematics and Computer Science and benefit from a recent $2.16 million Kauffman Campus entrepreneurship grant from the Kauffman Foundation.

“The university’s commitment to supporting technology and entrepreneurship in the liberal arts was fundamental to our ability to support this idea,” says Dominick.

Gray and Farley are talking with outside companies about funding and possible partnerships for the venture. The two have pulled from their own time and resources to get BuddyGopher off the ground.

“Away messages are the most common online extension of your campus social life,” says Gray, who also maintains his own blog, or online journal. “They’re not just messages about what you’re doing anymore; people post their favorite quotes, their personal philosophy and daily problems. It’s a desire to always be connected, even when you’re not online or with your friends.

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