In August 1991, when an attempt was made to overthrow the then Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev, there was a media blackout. Back then, in the pre-Internet days, the conversation was kept alive on an online chat server powered by the IRC protocol. Users shared information in the form of international media reports; that the media blackout did not stop the conversation demonstrated rather early on, the power, reach and promise of the Internet.

The protocol used back then was the Internet Relay Chat, which had been created a few years ago in 1988 by Jarkko Oinkarinen of Finland. Inspired by BITNET, the IRC was also used to initially make a network of dedicated servers that used the IRC protocol to communicate.

Today, over two-and-a-half decades later — when the modern Internet has made these chat servers redundant — the IRC is kept alive by the technology community, which uses multiple-channel IRC servers to keep in touch. Much like chat rooms, IRC channels are devoted to a common topic of interest with each channel having a loyal set of users. The tech community, free and open source communities in particular, use these channels to discuss and collaborate on code.

It is hugely used by the free and open source software (FOSS) community and FOSS projects, where makers/developers of free software are accessible to users and contributors through this channel. For instance, when faced with problems on their free software machines, users often go to a relevant channel on the IRC and ask for help.

This is the more horizontal and democratic equivalent of tech support for users of free and open source software, where at any given time users can log in and seek help. The more popular a certain FOSS product, the more likely you’ll get ready support or help, and time zones don’t matter as contributor communities are often hugely global. Software communities GNOME and Mozilla have their very own IRC servers at irc.gimpnet.org and irc.mozilla.org, while others such as Wikipedia and Ubuntu share a server at irc.freenode.net.

Harshitha, a frequent IRC user, says that all IRC channels are congenial environments with an op or operator who can ban you from the channel if your behaviour is inappropriate. “The person who starts a channel becomes its operator and sets the ground rules for the conversation that happens in that channel. Channels often have well-documented IRC etiquette that one is expected to read before participating in the conversations. But, it is generally not a good idea to connect to the IRC with admin privileges on your computer.”

As a user you can connect to an IRC server through an IRC client such as Xchat, Mibbit, Pidgin etc.

Prashant, who uses the IRC from his Android phone says, “IRC clients for Android called QuasselDroid are also available and popular.” The IRC has retained its popularity for over two decades because it is a lightweight technology that can run on desktop clients or on the Internet. However, any message sent from you to someone using another IRC client will not be sent directly, but will be relayed by a server. The location of each client is registered when it connects to an IRC server. This enables the server and other clients to find it when there is a need to send messages.

Modern IRC

Modern IRC is more secure and lighter than traditional IRC. The presence of machine automatons or bots to perform certain services for the operators is also a feature that was not present in the 80s. These bots can be used to keep the channel alive by programming them to spew one-off messages every once in a while or to perform more complex tasks such as collecting user statistics, sending welcome messages to new users, etc. Several common commands or shortcuts to perform basic tasks on a channel have also been introduced. For example, the “/join” command is used to join a channel on a network while “/quit” disconnects you from the server.

One complaint that several IRC users make is that often their queries are discussed after they log off from the IRC network.

To counter this, several users today create an IRC “shell” account that keeps them logged in even after they have logged off from their machine. Shell accounts can keep track of conversations that happened while the user was logged in and those that happened when the user was offline, thus giving you an illusion of having never left the chat room. Important IRC conversations can also be logged for posterity.