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IRC's Legacy

Originally posted on on July 21st 2022

by Marco "eukara" Cawthorne

The Internet and the World Wide Web as a whole has been around for a long time. There are some people reading this site that are older, but some are also younger than even the protocols and standards that are used in modern forms of communication today - such as WebRTC, ICE and HTTPS.

With this many generations sharing a presence on the Internet, there's plenty of perspectives to be found. As always, some people are opinionated and insist there's only one way anything is meant to be conducted. We have projects that insist on using Bug Trackers, some prefer Mailing Lists but there's also those that solely just want a chat room to handle everything.

Now, like many of you, I was not around when Internet Relay Chat was invented. It has however had a massive impact and is still used for many projects in the Free Software Community today. Other services have come along to try and replace it by addressing some of its limitations.

IRC is rather primitive. You can even use a standard Telnet client to connect to an IRC server if you really wanted to. You connect to a server with a desired name and join either channels (that contain multiple users) or message users directly. It has no concept of history, or a sense of persistence. It is not meant to. While servers or utilities such as so called 'bouncers' have since been developed with features to handle things like chat history, registration and name reservation one could argue that's missing the point.

What actually happens when you join an IRC channel is you get no context of a previous conversation. This will usually force you to strike up a conversation to know about what's going on at any given time. Other parties are sub-consciously aware that you have just joined and are more forgiving to questions and general conversation. This will create a dynamic that will encourage people to greet and talk, whereas joining a room with its full history on display will encourage you to skim through walls of text instead. It's also very much like the real world, where you approach your group of friends or colleagues and strike up a conversation with little to no context. It's a direct analogue to that.

This is an example where features can have a significant impact at how conversations are started and conducted.

Arguably the concept of 'bouncers' in the IRC space caused people to just join a bunch of channels they wouldn't really all that active in and 'lurk'. I'm guilty of that too. I am lurking around a couple of channels on QuakeNet and have for years, where I never said a single word. Spoiler: Most people have not either. So, what is the point of me still being in them then? Frankly, there is none.

Modern services like Discord, suffer from the same problem as IRC in that regard. You're not creating something persistent either.

Like with bouncers on IRC, people are hoarding 'servers' they're part in. Most people are usually just heavily active on one channel, with maybe 1 or 2 secondary ones. This is by all accounts very similar to IRC.

While you can read history a couple hours old in most 'servers', that may be only minutes worth of conversation on some of the most active ones. It's not persistent and it's also impractical to search through. Discord in that regard did not make it easier to communicate, but it has created new problems that people are not concerned with right now but may be in the future.

With forums dying on an ever alarming rate, being mostly replaced with Discord 'servers', people are now starting to think more about what they truly want for their project, or their community.

IRC is still, as far as I am concerned, a viable option. If you want to hang out, especially in the retro gaming community, with an endless sea of clients and not worry about whatever you say will come back to bite you in the ass or something - it is still a great option. On Frag-Net and on most other IRC servers we don't log chat. We don't want to log and don't have the space to do so anyway. IRC is great for all the things you don't care to remember.

There may have been good times on IRC in the past, but the protocol focuses you on the present. While it may not offer you flashy animated avatars, it is the best way of communicating without being discriminated by history, race, class or anything of that sort. You choose your nick and you get to talk like everyone else does. It is stupidly simple and it gets the job done. If you want to communicate via voice, there's some really good solutions for that too - like Mumble. If you want a place of discussion which needs a history, forums are still an option too. A service like Discord is a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Rest assured, these commercial services come and go, but standards like IRC will always be around. Appreciate them for the things that they do well, and sometimes a missing feature can be seen as a non-feature too. At the end of the day it's all a matter of perspective and you may disagree with me because the things that matter to you are different from mine - and that's okay. Just remember to enjoy the things you like while they last.


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