AFK: What It Means and How to Use It

Learning Jan 25, 2023
In this article

The meaning of AFK is simple: it’s an abbreviation for “away from keys” or “away from keyboard.”

Nobody likes to be ghosted, so sometimes you need a quick and easy way to let someone know you have to go. When you write "AFK," it lets the person or people you’re talking to know that you’re away from your phone or computer for some length of time and probably won’t answer.

Sometimes you write AFK in all lowercase: afk. It’s easier to type and doesn’t change the meaning at all.

What does AFK mean in text?

It’s common when texting to have to ignore the conversation, for a wide variety of reasons. In these cases, you can type “AFK” to let the other person know you’re not available. It's best used in a less formal atmosphere.

What does AFK mean in online gaming?

When a online gamers have to step away from a game, typing “AFK” into the game’s chat window lets the other players know they’re going silent. For those who often play MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) with other people, AFK is part of the everyday lingo.

The abbreviation’s frequent use in the gaming community has led to a second AFK meaning: a person who is away from their keyboard a lot might also be called "an AFK."

What is the origin of AFK?

According to the Dictionary.com listing for the term, the AFK acronym became a thing in the late 1980s. People began typing it in Internet Relay Chat to let those they were talking to know they wouldn’t be responding for a while.

Dictionary.com explains, “AFK, frequently written as the lowercase afk, can be found as early as 1989 when the online newsletter Fidonet listed it along with a few other old-school internet acronyms such as brb and lol.

Examples of how to use AFK

There are a few different ways to use AFK. You can send it on its own (just type “AFK”) or make it part of a sentence (“Gonna be afk for a while”).

AFK in text messages

Any reason you might not be able to answer text messages could be a reason to use AFK:

  • You’re a parent and you have to go change a diaper, help with homework, put a kid to bed, or pull a toddler out of the dog food (hey, these things happen)
  • You’re texting with your partner while you’re at work and your boss walks in and asks you to do something
  • A friend texts you while you’re in class
  • Your lunch break is over and you have to go
  • Your phone’s battery is about to die

Sure, the person you’re texting could understand that you might not respond immediately. That’s the beauty of the text message—it allows us to reply in our own time without the pressure and urgency of a phone call. But there are definitely cases when simply leaving someone on “Read” or not responding at all can seem rude or cause a problem.

For example, if the message is from a parent, the lack of response could seem disrespectful. If it’s from a friend who’s upset, you could come across as insensitive. Or if it’s about something time-sensitive, you might need to show you got the text message so that the person who sent it knows you aren’t ignoring them.

AFK in online gaming

As mentioned above, the gaming community uses AFK a lot, and in several ways. You might use AFK when planning gaming sessions in a chat:

Player 1: Play soon? Maybe 3 pm?

Player 2: Sorry, AFK today. Catch u later

If you use it when you’re leaving the game to do other things, it’s helpful to add some explanation if you expect to be away for a long time, such as hours or days.

Going AFK, gotta work

Vacation tmrw. I’ll be afk

On the other hand, it’s common to add “BRB” or “brb,” which stands for “be right back,” if you intend to return within a few minutes. Maybe you just need to use the bathroom or make a quick sandwich. In that case, you might simply type “AFK, BRB.”

You can also use AFK to refer to other people being absent:

Example 1: Player 1: Wheres @soldiergrl? Thought she wd be here

Player 2: She’s afk. Got called into work

Example 2: We won even w/o all those afks!

Example 3: He afk’d but then came back in like 30 min

When not to use AFK

With the advent of the internet, and particularly as chat rooms became popular in the 1990s, it became normal to shorten words when typing on devices. It makes talking more efficient—less like writing and more like talking in person. But there are times when it’s not the best way to go.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, we’ve started handling a lot of business online and talking in online settings more than ever. Now, online conversations can be formal just as often as they’re casual, and we may still need to use a professional and respectful tone. That often means not using abbreviations.

These are a few examples of when you’ll make a much better impression by not using AFK:

  • When talking to your teacher or professor
  • When giving a job interview through a chat platform
  • When setting an away message for your email

Some settings have made the away-from-keyboard acronym unnecessary. One example is Zoom, which lets you indicate you’re gone by setting your status to “Away.”

Another factor to consider is whether the person you’re talking to will understand your meaning. In more formal settings, people might not know what AFK means. Or, for example, you might be talking to an older person, like a grandparent. Many older people text and use the internet, but don’t really keep up with cultural changes and terms that come along with technology. In these situations, you’re likely better off typing out a more complete explanation.

Writing without AFK

An abbreviation like AFK can be just what you need at times. But when you have to write a more complete message in correct English for those job interviews, work chats, and emails, you need something more. You might say, “I’ll be right back” or “I need to step away for a few minutes.” You can also tell them what time you expect to be back.

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What is the opposite of AFK?

The most common abbreviation for returning to your phone or computer seems to be BAK, which is short for “back at keyboard.” However, it’s not used anywhere near as often as AFK.

Why do gamers say AFK?

During online games, communication that’s short and easy to type is most efficient. Gamers use AFK to let each other know they’ll be “away from keyboard,” meaning they won’t be playing or responding for a while.

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Hannah Skaggs

Along with Paige Pfeifer

Hannah Skaggs is a freelance copyeditor, writer, and nerd. For the past five years, she has mentored countless academics and companies in writing authoritative and compelling content.

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