In the days of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, one form of online communication tends to be overlooked: Internet Relay Chat (IRC). It’s a pity, because IRC is a wonderful way to get free support, especially for open-source software. In many cases, you can get help directly from the developers themselves.
Of course, IRC isn’t mentioned nearly as much as the other platforms, and if you do hear about it in the tech press, it’s usually because Anonymous hackers have coordinated botnet attacks using it. But despite the bad rap, it still has a lot to offer. (For more on attacks, see The Cyber War Against Terrorism.)
The one thing IRC has going for it is its longevity. It’s been around since the late 1980s, well before the World Wide Web became the "killer app" for the internet. As the Foonetic network puts it on its home page: "IRC was here before AIM and MSN and Twitter, and it will be here long after they're dead and gone."
IRC is also an open standard, and therefore doesn’t belong to anyone. The protocol is defined as RFC 1459. That means anyone can read the specification and write a client or server program.
This is a major departure from a platform like Facebook, where outside people are generally not allowed to make their own versions because it's owned by Facebook. Plus, since IRC is not owned by anybody, there’s no risk that the service will suddenly shut down if it runs out of money or it gets acquired, as has happened to several social media services. (On the other hand, if the individual IRC server shuts down, there’s nothing much you can do about it unless it’s yours.)
IRC provides another way of providing support that’s quite different from using the phone or other online methods. It’s also in real time, so you get answers almost immediately.
Another advantage becomes apparent when you wander into IRC channels for open-source projects (many of which are hosted on Freenode). You can ask questions of the developers themselves, a major step up from tech support operators who've never even touched the code and are forced to follow a script.
How To Get Onto IRC
Step 1: Pick a Client
To get onto IRC, the first thing you need is a client. There’s a real embarrassment of riches in terms of clients available. If there’s a computer capable of getting on the internet, chances are there’s an IRC client for it. (You can even get a client for the Amiga!)
Here are some of the major ones for modern platforms
- mIRC: This is the premier client for Windows. mIRC has been in development since the '90s and has a lot of great features, like a scripting language for automating routine tasks. Unlike many other clients that are free, mIRC is shareware. It’s free for 30 days, but if you want to keep using it, it’s going to cost a one-time payment of $20, which isn’t too bad.
- Colloquy: On the Mac side, this is an elegant client. Like many other IRC clients, it’s free and open source. You can choose from many styles for your chat window. You can also get it for iOS, but in this case you have to pay for it.
- XChat: Unix and Linux users won’t be left out in the cold, since this is the platform on which IRC originated. In the Linux world, XChat is the graphical client of choice. It’s also available for Mac OS X (in an unofficial version) and Windows.
- Irssi: For Unix and Linux command line die-hards, this is often the text-based client of choice. Although its looks might betray its claim to be "the client of the future," it’s a fast and flexible client. One advantage the text-based clients have over GUIs is that they work with programs like GNU Screen and tmux. You can log in via SSH to a remote machine, start tmux or Screen, and start Irssi. If you detach your session, log out and log in from another computer, your session will be waiting for you.
- Mibbit: If you truly insist on using a web browser, you can use Mibbit. The advantage of doing it this way is that you avoid having to install anything and your settings will follow you from machine to machine. This makes it a user-friendly alternative to the tmux/GNU Screen/Irssi solution mentioned above. You can also access Yahoo Chat and Twitter.
- ChatZilla: One of the great things about Firefox is how many add-ons you can use to customize the browser. Yes, there’s an IRC client for Firefox as well. It’s called ChatZilla. It used to be standard with the original Mozilla suite, and it’s still part of the Seamonkey suite.
IRC functionality is also built into several major instant messaging clients, like Trillian, Pidgin and Adium.
Step 2: Pick a Network, Server and Channel
After you pick a client, the next step is to pick a network, a server and a channel. If you’re interested in contributing to an open-source project or getting support, Freenode is your best bet. This IRC network specializes in peer-directed projects. Canonical runs its official Ubuntu channels there. The Wikimedia Foundation also hosts channels for its various projects, including Wikipedia in all of its languages, there. (For more on Ubuntu, see Ubuntu on Windows: What's the Big Deal?)
You’ll see a list of servers you can connect to on the network’s home page. The networks typically also have a "round-robin" server that will connect you to a random server in the network. This is often a good choice, because servers occasionally go down, and this way you’ll always be connected to a good server. Alternatively, you can pick a server that’s geographically closest to you.
You’ll also need to pick a nickname. Most networks have software that will let you register a nickname with a password, and most clients are pretty smart about saving it for you.
Then you’ll need to pick a channel. You can type "/list" into your client, but a lot of servers with lots of channels consider it abuse. The larger networks usually have searchable channel lists.
Most of the channels start with a "#", so Ubuntu would be "#ubuntu," for example. To join, type "/join #ubuntu." Graphical clients have clickable channel lists.
Being a Good Citizen
When you first enter a channel, it’s best to just sit there and absorb the general tone of the conversation before immediately jumping in.
You should stay on topic when you do decide to speak up. The people running support and discussion channels are doing it for a reason, and off-topic conversation is often a distraction. On the other hand, IRC channels tend to be very informal, and people still love to banter while they’re chasing down bugs.
It also helps if you’ve read the documentation, FAQs and other information so that support personnel don’t have to repeat themselves.
Finally, whatever you do, don’t flood the channel. That means to repeat the same line over and over again. If you do this, you’ll get kicked out or even banned from that channel. If you don’t get an answer immediately, be patient. The channels are run by volunteers, and they’re usually busy.
IRC is an internet protocol for real-time communication online. Although many fancier chat applications have appeared since it emerged way back in the 1980s, IRC is still going strong, and provides a viable alternative. If you want more information on IRC, IRCHelp.org is a good resource. I hope this article has given you enough information and whetted your appetite to get started!