This upcoming August the IRC protocol will officially be 20 years old. I think anyone would agree that it has weathered the years better than any other high level internet protocol.  It does not suffer from the spam and abuse that have overtaken other protocols from its era. No Web2.0 technology has been able to supersede it. Even the mighty Microsoft was unable to displace it with their “embraced and extended” IRCX. With only minor changes for security and language compatibility IRC is still widely used for its original purpose, to communicate with other people. 

 

My Personal Experience With IRC

IRC means a lot to me personally.  It helped me connect with other highly technical people at a very early age and so helped me to grow into the person I am today.  I still fondly recall logging into my concetric.net shell account and talking about technical things way over the head of anyone else at my middle school. 

When I became older I traveled around the country and visited many of the previously faceless people I had talked to almost daily for years.  It’s amazing what barriers disappear when you can’t see someone’s face or hear their accent.  My formerly virtual friends vary in country, ethnicity and background wildly.  After all, to get on IRC all you need is a computer with a modem or access to a library and the desire to talk to other like-minded people.

 

Why You Should Care About A 20 Year Old Protocol

IRC is much more than just a relic of an earlier age.  It’s still in widespread use, especially in the open source community.  When seeking help with a particularly difficult programming, math or operating system problem it’s the first place I go.  Many channels have experts who would normally charge hundreds of dollars an hour for a consultation who will help you for free as long as you are courteous.  Projects with absolutely horrible (or nonexistent) documentation have thriving IRC communities full of people ready to help you out.  Any programmer who considers themselves pragmatic should be taking advantage of this resource.

 

IRC Community Norms

Like any other kind of community IRC has a set of norms and it’s important to have a fairly good idea of what they are before trying to participate.  These norms are broadly common across all types of online communication (usenet, forums, etc) but are adapted to the specific medium of real time chat.  Understand that these norms are in place in order to combat the effects of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F%!$wad Theory (Well known before presentation but never so well formalized).

1) Read up on a subject before asking questions. If someone else can find the answer to your questions with a simple google search they will quickly learn to just ignore your questions.

2) Be friendly, polite and patient. Take a moment to reflect on how these experts are helping you for free, out of the kindness of their hearts.  Treat them with the respect they deserve.

3) Contribute to the Community.  If you see someone else asking for help and you know the answer, take a moment to help them.  People who contribute to a community will always be given preferential treatment over those who don’t.

4) Know that you will be judged on your spelling and grammar.  On IRC, this is all people have to judge you by.  Put your best foot forward.   

5) Don’t use colors unless you know it is explicitly permitted.  Not only do many clients not support this feature (it looks like numbers and garbage), it is also considered rude because it is just plain ugly and hard to read.

The stereotypical IRC villain is the “Braindead AOLer” as made widely infamous by the Weird Al Song “It’s all about the Pentiums”. Someone who fits this stereotype joins a channel, types in all caps and bright colors using horrible spelling and grammar, while being rude and demanding things outright. 

At one point, when AOL tried to make IRC accessible to the masses, this type of behavior was so common coming from AOL users that many channels decided to flatly disallow all of AOL access.  Two of the largest IRC networks (DALNet and EFNet) both globally banned all AOL users for a period of time.  The problem was really that big.  Be careful to avoid being like this stereotype as most have very little tolerance for this kind of behavior and the scars still run deep. 


IRC Clients

Most chat clients that support multiple networks also support IRC. Some clients which fit into this catagory are Pidgin, Trillian and Miranda. I like a little bit more power and flexibility in my client and so I prefer to use XChat 2 For Windows.

IRC Clients are available on almost all platforms including the Nintendo DS and JavaME Phones.  A much more comprehensive list of clients is available on ircreviews.org but it is by no means complete.

 

IRC Channels

Reddit (#reddit) and Boingboing (#boingboing) as well as the Western Mass Developers Group (#wmassdevs) all have channels dedicated to them on irc.freenode.net.

Most projects or websites that do have a dedicated IRC channel have it listed on the support section of their website. In some cases some googling may be required though.

If you are looking for channels relating to a specific topic, I recommend you try the IRC Channel search utilities on irchelp.org

I would love to hear comments about of any particularly good channels or experiences you have had with IRC.

 

Edit: It seems like the right side of my brain was working poorly when I wrote this so I changed some things around.