The A, F, K, and Enter keys from a computer keyboard.
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You’ve probably seen AFK before. Perhaps a coworker took a bathroom break and sent a message that said, “brb afk.” You might also have seen this term thrown around in an online game. We’ll explain what it means, and how you can use it.

What It Means

AFK stands for “away from keyboard.” It indicates that someone has left their computer or device and temporarily won’t be able to respond to messages. It can also indicate someone has gone offline entirely.

Usually, though, when someone types ‘AFK,” they’re implying they’ll be back shortly. Some everyday situations in which you would use AFK include when you’re taking a restroom or scheduled break, or when answering the door. It’s also commonly used with “BRB” (be right back). So, you’ll often see messages that say “brb afk.”

When it’s used to describe someone else, it means that person is inactive or offline. If you state that someone is AFK, you might not have any idea when or if they’re coming back.

The Origins of AFK

An orange coffee mug with "Take a Break!" printed on it.
garagestock/Shutterstock

Like many informal internet acronyms, AFK originated in online IRC chatrooms in the 1980-90s. People used it to let others in a chatroom know they would be away from their computer. Often, this was done to prevent those they were chatting with from logging off.

Today, of course, you can message someone and expect a reply at any time. Back then, however, people didn’t leave their computers on all day, nor were they connected to the internet constantly. That’s why letting someone know you would be AFK was considered the polite thing to do.

When Instant Messaging apps, like AIM and Yahoo Messenger emerged, they allowed people to include a status under their usernames indicating their current mood or situation. People often used “AFK” as their status, which became synonymous with being busy.

The oldest entry for AFK on Urban Dictionary was made in 2002, where it’s defined as “away from keyboard.” Since then, it’s become a pervasive internet term, mainly due to the rise of gaming communities.

AFK in Online Gaming

A gaming headset sitting on an empty computer chair
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AFK gained widespread popularity when people started using it in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), like World of Warcraft.

However, unlike in chatrooms, in gaming, AFK is more commonly used to describe players who are inactive or not currently playing. For example, if someone’s in-game avatar is frozen for a while, another player might say that that person is AFK. Suddenly going AFK in-game can be very damaging, especially if someone doesn’t indicate beforehand that they have to sign off.

AFK players cause a significant amount of frustration for many gamers. Especially in team-based, competitive MMOs, like Dota 2 or Overwatch, teams with players who suddenly become inactive are severely disadvantaged. It might even cause a team to have to quit a match.

This is why many games have systems that include penalties or playing restrictions; they’re intended to dissuade players from suddenly going AFK.

AFK is also widely used among gamers during livestreams on Twitch. If someone is livestreaming and leaves their computer, they often place a notification on their screen indicating they’re AFK. Those in the live chat will then inform anyone new who joins that the streamer is AFK.

RELATED: The Complete Guide to Improving Your PC Gaming Performance

How to Use AFK

Since AFK is a casual internet term, it’s best to avoid using it in professional situations. Some synonyms you can use instead are inactive, offline, or logged-off.

If you want to use it in your casual online chats, though, below are a few examples of AFK in action:

  • “Going AFK. Be back in five.”
  • “Don’t suddenly go AFK, or you might get a temporary timeout from the game.”
  • “I think our support is AFK. Should we quit this match?”
  • “John went AFK for a bit to get some air.”

Want to learn more about internet slang? Be sure to check out our previous posts on NVM and YMMV. You’ll be an internet-slang expert in no time!

Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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