Instant Message Organization

Instant messaging has become pretty common place now. As more people I know get accounts, managing the number of contacts starts to get a bit daunting. Trillian, which I mentioned earlier, helps maintain some sanity with their meta-contacts and merging of the four major IM protocols. Still, I don’t like deleting contacts (anyone that might be able to see if I’m online, I should be able to see is my logic) so I have 416 contacts as of this writing to manage.

So I needed some way of organizing the contacts.

There are a few common ways of organizing contacts that I have seen:
1. Function: “Work”, “Friends”, “School” or sometimes more detailed than that such as “Team”. Sometimes, people organize by where they met the person, which in my mind is still closer to this organization than the next one.

2. Geography: I used to use this because I meet people all over the place but it becomes meaningless when a) everyone moves so much and b) the location is irrelevant for many people I meet.

3. Protocol: If you’re using Trillian, this is a default. ICQ, AIM, MSN and Y! are all separate folders of contacts. Needless to say, this is probably more useless than not sorting at all.

4. Not sorting at all: Not practical for 416 contacts.

I’ve tried variations of these and they generally don’t work. As Trillian permits subfolders, I tried combinations of these as well and that worked a little better but also caused maintenance to be even more difficult. So I looked at my usage patterns and came up with this.

The core of this is the Alpha, Beta and Omega. Contrary to popular belief, this has nothing to do with how good a friend you are to me. Rather, it’s a measure of how frequently I message the person. Normally, I keep Alpha and Beta expanded and Omega collapsed. You’ll notice that Omega is also split into geographical subgroups which I had earlier criticized. For the past year, all my groups had this split because it was easier to find people and Trillian didn’t have type-ahead search. Now that they do, I could arguably do away with groups altogether but I’m taking this approach first.

The advantages of this method are many. The people I contact often are always at the top. Sometimes, I want to send an interesting link and that’s always to people in Alpha or Beta. The one problem I had was that there were some who rarely or never come online but whom I’d like to chat with if they were online. So the categorization became “how often I’d IM with them if they were online”. This differs from how close a friend they are because someone I might be working with would make it up to Alpha for the duration of a project but then slowly drop off to Omega.

Finally, I have the exception “!Familia” which is for family members. Really, this needn’t exist either and is a legacy. They’d mostly be in Alpha or Beta.

How do you organize yours?


  1. Audiophile · 1 Dec 04

    I use a hybrid of function/geography. For the most part it’s function, but I occasionally do things such as look for someone to go eat with. The “!Austin 1″ and “!Austin 2″ groups work well for that. wrt ordering, I always prefix the group names with a 2 digit code. That seems to be the best protocol/client-independent way of sorting my groups. I use Miranda, but I occasionally fall back on the “official” clients.

  2. Joshua Kaufman · 5 Dec 04

    I have two groups. One is “Frequent,” the other is “Infrequent.” So my system is almost the same as yours except I use words that make sense. ;) However, I guess when you have more than two groups, it becomes more difficult to use semantic labels. “More Infrequent” seems kind of long.

  3. mfk · 8 Dec 04

    When I was on IM, I used (funny enough) an almost identical scheme, just labelled: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary. I think I was inspired by computer architecture.

    For frequency based methods, I think the optimal number of tiers depends heavily on the structure of your communication space (for lack of a better term). At the time, if I grouped the contacts by frequency, it followed an exponential distribution — as I suspect most people’s communication space would. From this I could assign two thresholds, which partitioned by contact’s list accordingly.

    I remember briefly considering KC’s additional subcategorizations, but felt it took away from the mathematical purity of the original scheme. :)

  4. Riposte · 16 Jun 05