Appearing Offline on MSN/Windows Live Messenger: Game Theory Analysis

Peek-a-boo!
Creative Commons License photo: jenn_jenn

A few years ago, Microsoft introduced the ability to “hide” on Appear Offline on MSN Messenger and to keep talking to people. This is quite a useful feature for the anti-social types who really don’t want anybody to talk to them!

I’ve noticed some interesting trends since this feature has been introduced. The people who used to have their status stuck on “away” now use appear offline. This is perhaps frustrating when you then end up calling or texting at extortionate rates your friend instead whilst you’re actually both sitting at your computer!

The reason why people use “appear offline” is so they can be selective about who they talk to. Fair enough. But when other people also use “appear offline”, it doesn’t work. This could be illustrated using a bit of game theory.

Appear Offline

Initially, lets say that both persons A and B gain 2 units of utility from being online in MSN Messenger. This utility could be in many forms: pleasure gained from sharing gossip, money saved in not having to text or time saved. The exact form of the utility isn’t important.

Let’s go into hiding… 

grandmaster FLAX ~ II
Creative Commons License photo: striatic

Now lets say Person A decides to “Appear Offline” but Person B is still “Online”. Person A will only talk to Person B when it is beneficial to him. Person A will still gossip with Person B but only in times convenient to himself and when he’s stuck on his particle physics essay, he can still see when Person B is online and get help from him. For this reason, Person A’s utility increases from 2 to 3.

But Person B won’t derive any utility. When he needs somebody to talk to, or has run into a brick wall upgrading to Service Pack 3, he won’t be able to get through to Person A on MSN Messenger. Instead, he might end up calling or find a more sociable person to talk to! Hence Person B derives no utility from this arrangement.

Notice that the payoffs are symmetrical. If Person B decides to “Appear Offline” but Person A doesn’t, Person B will gain 3 units of utility whilst Person A will gain nil.

The fourth possible situation is when both Persons A and B decide to “Appear Offline”. Neither persons derives any utility from this arrangement as they’ll never talk to each another. They might as well actually be offline.

The best arrangement 

Holy Rollers
Creative Commons License photo: J. Random

As we can see, in this analysis the best possible outcome is that both persons A and B are online. They both derive 2 units of utility from this arrangement and 4 units of utility are gained in total.

Person A or person B could seek to increase the utility they gain by appearing offline. This increases their own utility to 3 units. Would they do this in reality? Rationally, probably yes.

If person A decided to stay “online”, person B would gain 2 units of utility from staying online and 3 units from appearing offline. So in this situation, person B should appear offline to maximise their own payoff.

If person A decided to “appear offline”, person B gains no utility either way. So it really doesn’t matter whether person B stays online or appears offline. But they don’t lose any utility by appearing offline.

By considering all the possible outcomes, person B will rationally choose to appear offline to maximise their payoff. As the situation is symmetrical, person A should also rationally choose to appear offline. The outcome? Both persons A and B “appear offline” and nobody gains any utility.

Back to the real world…

In this discussion and game theory model, I’ve abstracted from reality. Of course, it isn’t true that everybody on MSN Messenger appears offline these days. But I will say that amongst my contact list, I know quite a few people do and it has lead to some annoying situations. I’m even guilty of “appearing offline” on many occasions without realising the person I want to talk to is also appearing offline and waiting for me to come online.

22 thoughts on “Appearing Offline on MSN/Windows Live Messenger: Game Theory Analysis

  1. Is there a way to find out if other people are appearing offline, like a ‘cheat’ website, surely someone must’ve found a way?
    REPLY.

  2. well, those people who hide its their circumstances. for me, if anything, i dont like someone online or wot, i’ll jusk delete them. and yea, perhaps, block them.

  3. People the question is SIMPLE! Is there or isn’t there a way to find out if the person appears Offline. I don’t know it YET also if anyone knows if there a way to find out when was the last time they logged into msn to chat.

    • On my Windows Live Messenger, if you talk to someone who is truely offline, the time appears alongside your screen name in the chat box whenever you type and send something. When someone is 'Appearing Offline' the time is NOT shown.
      Hope this helps

      Source: WikiAnswers

  4. umm this may sound retarded but if u want to talk to a person and u think they’re appear offline just talk to them normally E.G say Hi 2 solutions A) they really are offline which = no reply (no harm done there) OR they are online and appear offline and you say hi, viola u know the truth duh if they reply(what can u lose haha 2secs maybe??).

  5. there s something I realy want to understand ,there s one of my freinds always apear offline to me and she s not I am sure because she s appearing online at the same time to another freind,so how to be online to them and offline to me at the same time,and this isnt blocking because the block checker see her too offline.there s another trick I dont know about it
    do anyone know it?????

  6. dude, your friend is blocking you!!! there is no other way 🙁
    Is there any way to see if someone is “appearing offline” ?????????????????

  7. OK HERE IS A HINT:open a chatwindow to the person you think is online using offline status
    say hello and send the message
    when you receive the message’ x is offline he will receive your message the next time he signs in’ , the contact is really offline, if there’s no message so he is online with offline status

    when you know he’s got webcam just look if the webcam icon is shown, if the contact is offline and you can see that cam icon he is online using offline status
    p.s it only works on windows live

  8. Send them a email, with a receipt request when they open the email.
    If you get a immediate receipt response. Then send them a email
    asking them to chat.
    Hotmail does not give email receipt request, but I know my outlook
    at my work does; so you may have to fiddle around to figure out
    how to do this.

  9. guys u can’t know cause everytime we find a hole the other day msn servers block the plugin we make….there’s is only one way to know if a contact deletes u and that is under Linux when using amsn…. msn servers are inaccessable

  10. hello every one .. in fact I know a program that can be used to find out if ur friends are offline .. it’s called discovery messenger .. u can check it on google then u can download it in ur PC .. good luck for every one

  11. and i want to ask u people .. if i don’t want any one to annoy me when I have a serious conversation with one of my friends ,and one of my friend use that program (discovery messenger ) ,so he knows that I’m online appears offline !!, and he keeps telling me ( I CAN SEE U ) , how can I still have my own privacy on the messenger & Without the other puts me in an awkward position ???

  12. People who want to know if someone appears offline are people with to much time on their hands. And have messed up priorities. If someone's offline, they just want to look who's online and not be bothered by others.

  13. well…………….i just want to know whether there is a way to find out if a person is appearing offline……like a software or a code or something….

  14. Most of you are missing the point. Unless you’re an infant then you’re a grown up and grown ups enjoy privacy. We need to be able to hide our online presence from some, while allowing others to see us. When I say others its typically just one person at a time while remaining invisible to others.

    Get a life all of you. We obviously need moments in private. We aren’t all children eager to let all their friends know we are online. Let me give you the grown up version: we meet dozens of hot people in other programs but want to cam with them privately in msn. Yes, msn has much better video than Skype that constantly pixelates. So you need to be able to enjoy peace and quiet times with just ONE person and not all of them. The 2011 version apparently allows us to do this. I say move on and upgrade. You’re bound by Microsoft’s wishes anyhow. You cannot fight the tide. You will eventually miss out on better features.

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