What is an Internet Relay Chat (IRC)?

Internet Relay Chat is a well-known means of communication where you can exchange text messages with people all over the world. All you need to do is install an IRC client and join a channel on a selected network. Once in the chat, there are several rules that you must follow when talking to others. Exchanging information on a wide variety of topics is commonplace here.

Internet Relay Chat: definition

The term IRC, short for Internet Relay Chat, refers to a chat system that allows people (even strangers) to message each other over the Internet in near real time. IRC users connect to one of numerous networks and then join one or more of the channels. Here you have the option to send text messages to everyone present or to have a private conversation with another person in query mode.

It is important to note that each channel is defined by a specific topic and users also have the option to create their very own channel. Highly frequented IRC chat rooms of the ‘Libera.Chat’ network in 2021 include ‘#linux’ in which users exchange information about the Linux operating system and ‘#python’ which is about the programming language of the same name. IRC is used by both individuals and businesses because it greatly facilitates text-based communication.

Fact

IRC was invented by the Finn Jarkko Oikarinen in 1988 when he was at the University of Oulu. Inspired by existing chat programs, he set out to improve the multi-user chat ‘MultiUser Talk’ and thus created Internet Relay Chat, the popularity of which grew immensely within a few years. At the beginning of the 21st century, its user numbers were in the millions. Today, there are only a few hundred thousand.

How do I set up an IRC?

Setting up an Internet Relay Chat requires an IRC client, i.e. a chat program that can either be installed on a local computer or that forms a web-based component of a browser or third-party server – in other words, a web chat.

We have created a guide for you on how to install an IRC client, connect to an IRC server, and access Internet Relay Chat in a few simple steps.

Selecting an IRC client

First off, you need to choose an IRC client. Depending on the operating system, various options are available. Most of them are free software and already have several IRC networks where you can exchange information with other users. Common IRC clients for Windows and Linux include HexChat and Pidgin.

Download and installation

Once you have chosen an IRC client that suits your operating system, the next step is to download and install the program. For this, it is best to look for an official download page for the client in question. Once the installation is complete, you should see the IRC client icon on your desktop. Otherwise, you can find it among the programs on your computer.

The network list

Now, when you open your IRC client in the next step, a small window will pop up containing the network list. At the very top under User Information, enter a nickname – this is the name you will appear under in the IRC channels. If you want to remain anonymous, use a name that does not give any clues to your actual identity.

Next, select a network to connect to under Networks. There is also an option to create your own IRC server beforehand which will also be suggested in this list. Once you have decided on and selected a network, you can click Connect at the bottom right of the window to establish a connection.

The chat program

If the previous steps were performed correctly, the chat program should now open, as well as another window confirming that the connection was successfully established. This now also gives you the option to join a selected channel on the network. If you don't have a specific channel name in mind, you can simply bring up thechannel list to see the full range. After you make your choice, click OK in the bottom right corner to finish your IRC setup.

Tip

If you do not see the connection confirmation window, there is also another way you can join a channel. To do this, type ‘/join’ at the very bottom in the chat program's input line and add a space and a hashtag with the name of the selected channel. For example, for a channel called Pet Lovers, this could look like: /join #petlovers.

Using an IRC

Now that you have successfully set up an IRC client on your computer and are in the chat program, the next step is to teach you how IRC works and what to consider when using it.

IRC structure

The chat program, which is now open in front of you, is divided into a total of three sections. In the left column you will see the network and channel you are currently in, in the centre is the chat where text messages appear and in the right column you will see a list of all channel members.

If you are now wondering what the various characters or coloured dots that appear in front of the nicknames of these users mean, read on:

  • ~ symbol and/or purple dot: The user with this icon identifies themself as the owner of the channel and thus takes the highest rank. In this position you can appoint other users (e.g. administrators).
  • & symbol and/or red dot: The next highest rank is administrator. They are responsible for things such as IRC server maintenance and IRC daemons. In this role, you can also determine whether another user is allowed to act as an operator.
  • @ symbol and/or green dot: These are individuals who act as operators or moderators and ensure that everyone follows the channel's guidelines and treats each other with respect. These users also have the power to kick users out of the channel or ban them altogether.
  • % symbol and/or blue dot: This user possesses half-op status and has the same powers as an operator but has no influence on other operators and half-operators.
  • + symbol and/or yellow dot: This status is the most used and indicates that a user has a ‘voice’, i.e. a right to speak. You need this to have the right to communicate in the chat.

Now that you know what potential interlocutors are in your channel, you can turn your attention to the chat room and sending your first IRC message. However, before you start texting blindly, there are a few more points you should know about.

IRC commands

In Internet Relay Chat, there is a set of IRC commands that you can insert in the input line and that will perform a certain action afterwards. We've rounded up a few of the most helpful ones for you:

  • /help: This command is one of the most important as it lists all the commands available to you in the channel. So, for beginners, it provides a good overview of all the options on IRC.
  • /rules: It is important to be aware of the applicable policies, especially as a newcomer to a channel. This command provides you with all the server rules.
  • /join #channelname: As mentioned before, this command is used to enable you to join a specific channel. This allows you to jump between various channels with ease.
  • /nick <new nickname>: This command enables you to change the nickname you use to communicate with others in the channel. However, try not to do this too often to avoid unnecessary confusion.
  • /invite <nickname>: If you want to invite a specific person to the channel you are currently in, you can use this command. You may need to attach ‘#channelname’ to the command if only channel members are allowed to invite others.
  • /msg <nickname>: If you want to send a text message to only one person and not everyone in the chat, use this command to start a private conversation.

Code of conduct

When you are in an Internet Relay Chat, there are certain codes of conduct that you must follow. The most important is to always be polite and respectful. Users who exhibit bad behaviour in the chat can be asked to leave or, in the worst case, even banned.

In addition, you should always keep in mind that it is not uncommon for numerous people to be in a chat, and your messages can be read by everyone present. You can only prevent this if you indicate to whom your message is addressed when writing it. So, if you want to address or reply to a specific person, you have to put their nickname in front of your message. A two-way conversation might look like this:

<Person A> Person B: Hey, we should see that new sci-fi film asap.

<Person B> Person A: The one with the alien dogs?

<Person A> Person B: Yes! :-)

<Person B> Person A: The trailer looks cool, imo.

If the person you are talking to is not in the chat, no problem. The next time they are on IRC, they will be notified of your message, which will prevent it from getting lost in the sea of countless IRC conversations.

Note

In written online communication, it has long been popular to use a wide variety of chat abbreviations like lol to express emotional responses or abbreviate longer phrases. You will also come across abbreviated words, emoticons and leetspeak in Internet Relay Chat.

The pros and cons of IRC

Like any means of communication, there are both positive and negative aspects to using Internet Relay Chat. One advantage is the fact that it is a form of information exchange that takes place in fractions of seconds, in almost real time. In this fast-paced world, technologies like IRC are needed to stay abreast of developments. However, therein also lies a disadvantage. Nowadays, there are numerous other responsive communication channels and Internet forums that can be used. For this reason, the number of IRC users has also declined sharply since the beginning of the 21st century.

The next aspect revolves around the massive number of servers that make up IRC networks, thus opening up many possible routes into IRC from almost anywhere in the world. Having a variety of options is something positive at first, but this large number of servers and connections can result in so-called netsplits, i.e. connection interruptions due to a network split. You should choose an IRC server that is located near you as they only allow a limited number of connections that are located outside their domain. So, the freedom of choice is not as free as it may seem at first if you are aiming for the best possible IRC connection.

Worldwide communication and linking numerous people, also sounds like an advantage of IRC at first. This is because you get the full range of personalities and topics of conversation. IRC can serve both to establish and strengthen social contacts. However, this diversity and the fact that anyone can use IRC anonymously, of course, has a negative side. It is not uncommon for guidelines to be broken and negativity to be spread.

IRC is also not safe from criminal activities. New users who are still finding their way around are especially susceptible to falling victim to criminal activities. For example, while the direct client-to-client feature of IRC is a handy tool that allows two users to easily send data to each other, this exchange can also have negative consequences. This is because other users could also send you files that transfer malware when they are opened and steal important information such as passwords. So, exercise caution when exchanging data – especially if it's an unencrypted connection.

However, in addition to this downside, we must not forget how many people receive support via IRC every day. For example, channels that revolve around technological topics particularly are a great help in finding a quick solution to a problem. If you post a question to an IRC, you will not only receive one answer in the large channels but numerous perspectives at once. And you can also discover questions from other users that you may not have thought of yourself.

The disadvantage here is the clutter that comes about due to a combination of a wide variety of conversations and notifications in the chat window. After all, the IRC is essentially nothing more than a room filled with numerous individuals talking and wanting to have their say.

However, there are corners of the IRC where it is not so easy to lose track of what is going on in the chat. There are enough less frequented channels, and as an administrator you even have the possibility to create private chat rooms that users can only access by invitation. This also makes IRC a good communication channel for private and professional groups that want to keep to themselves.

Advantages Disadvantages
✔ Information exchange in near real time ✘ Large amount of other (better) communication tools & info sources.
✔ Large server selection & worldwide networking of numerous people ✘ Occurrence of netsplits & only limited number of connections from outside the server domain
✔ Wide range of topics & social contacts ✘ Users exhibiting bad or malicious behaviour
✔ Data exchange with direct client-to-client feature ✘ Criminal activities such as virus transmission & password theft
✔ Fast & numerous solutions to problems ✘ Clutter in the major channels
✔ Private chat rooms possible  
Fact

Nowadays, you have many options available to communicate with other people over the Internet. Messenger services like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are especially popular communication tools today.

IRC use cases

Internet Relay Chat has many potential applications as text-based communication and the rapid exchange of information are invaluable in many fields. We have compiled three different IRC use cases for you.

Social interaction and problem solving

In the most common use case, a user uses Internet Relay Chat to get in touch with other people and exchange ideas. Either conversations are held just for fun, or the goal is to acquire information. For example, people interacting with a Linux operating system for the first time can ask its members questions in a channel with Linux as its topic. Ideally, they will get the answer they are looking for in the shortest possible time.

Military tool

IRC is also used in the military. The chat system is used to log important information during missions, for example. When soldiers learn of something they need to communicate to their unit, they can do this via responsive IRC in the blink of an eye. Subsequently, the recipient can take the necessary measures with the help of the information received and, for example, initiate a change of tactics.

Chat tool for streamers

Another IRC use case is linking to a streaming platform, which is quite common in gaming. For example, on Twitch it is a good idea to connect an IRC client to your own account because this improves the user experience. This means streamers won't have to have the dashboard open to follow their viewers’ chat messages.