Social Psychology of Psyberspace]


What is IRC?

Imagine sitting in front of a computer screen. On this screen is a program running with text messages scrolling up at a rapid pace. In a column on the left of the screen is a list of names that is being constantly updated, with as many as four or five hundred names listed. "What is going on?" you wonder. What is happening is instant communication with people all over the world. In that list of names could be people from every inhabited continent, sharing ideas, cultures, and customs. Stereotypes are broken down and understanding is promoted. Diversity is celebrated, as people strive to learn from each other. It seems that on IRC, the only barrier is language; geographical barriers have been torn down. Friendships are forged, lovers are brought together, and ideas are shared among people who will never meet. IRC is a very interesting aspect of the Information Superhighway; it is living, interactive text-- not archived information-- that is the teaching tool. People are learning through a level and availability of interaction at levels that have never before been breached. My past experiences with IRC has allowed me to build similar friendships, engage in flood wars, learn about other cultures, and catch on to the "unwritten social rules" about IRC. Here is what thousands of hours of chat time has taught me.

IRC, otherwise known as Internet Relay Chat, is one of the oldest and most popular forms of Computer Mediated Communication. Developed far before the World Wide Web, IRC is one of the largest uses of bandwidth on the Internet. Invented in 1988 by Jarkko Oikarinen in 1988, the program exploded in popularity. Originally used at the University of Oulu, in Finland, Oikarinen used the program to replace the Unix Talk program, which did not allow more than two people in a conversation at once. The program became immensely popular at the University, and eventually spread throughout Scandinavia. By the end of 1988, IRC was spreading throughout the Internet. Within two years, there were more than 200,000 people using the software to communicate. (Reingold, pg. 179) The software transformed from a computer application to a computer institution.

The system itself is rather simple. A client piece of software is used to link up with a server, where hundreds of other clients are connected. There, these servers are interconnected to form a network. On this network, thousands of people are connected and communicating simultaneously. Everyone on the network, no matter which server they are using, is able to chat with anyone else that is currently using that network. (However, one cannot communicate across networks.) There is a plethora of networks, the most popular of which are EFNet, Undernet, DalNet, and NewNet.

Interestingly enough, the free sharing of information that has become the most important part of the "spirit of the Internet" is a strong part of IRC. The software that developed the whole concept was developed by a student who was not looking for profit. Today's most popular client softwares are not developed by the big software giants, such as Microsoft or Netscape, but by average people just looking to make the IRC community a better place. MIRC, the most popular client for PC's was written by Khaled Mardem-Bey, a regular person who was looking to make IRC easier for the average user. Originally given away by Mardem-Bey, he can no longer spend his time developing the program without some financial assistance, and asks for a nominal shareware fee. (<) ViRC, another popular client for the PC, was written by Adrian Cable (a.k.a. MeGALiTH) so that people could have a quality client without having to pay any fee at all, not even a shareware fee. ( IRCle ( and MacIRC (, clients for the Macintosh, were both developed in similar ways, and also call for a nominal shareware fee. As far as UNIX clients, ircii is available in source code so that others can work to improve the product, which is truly in the spirit of the Internet. ( Attempts by Microsoft and Netscape have not caught on in popularity, as people seem to prefer to use the products developed by those within the community. Those products seem to have the necessary nuances and features included that only someone who is part of the community would know to include. (Interestingly enough, the IRC "nicks" of the author are usually listed on the homepage of the product, indicating their "citizenship" within the community.) In IRC, the old NetVille ideal still beats strong.

When someone logs onto the server, they can either join a channel or look to see if someone they know is on. A simple command called /list will give them the chat channels that are currently online, and a /whois (nick) command will tell the user if the specified person is online. It is considered good netiquette for someone to use the same nick, and to not steal someone else's. (To prevent stealing nicks, some networks have a program which allows a person to "register" a nick, which is sort of like patenting it.) If someone is caught using another person's nick, he or she is later goaded into confessing, sometimes even on a Usenet group. (Reingold, pg. 181) Channels usually begin with the character #; there is just about every topic available. When the list of channels comes up, the topic of the channel is listed next to it, giving the user an idea of what is currently being talked about. A person can join the channel and jump into the conversation. In addition, any person can create his or her own channel. If a person wants to chat with someone privately, they can either send a message through the server, with the /msg command, or they can connect directly to the other person's computer with a DCC chat command. With the DCC command, a person can also send files over IRC, such as pictures or computer applications. A user can /ignore another user if that person is bothering them. Many other features are available on IRC that ease communication.

On IRC, certain communication conventions are maintained. If someone wants to engage in a private chat, they will join a popular channel (such as #chatzone or #funfactory), and post a message saying something like "I am 19/m/Ohio. Anyone want to chat?" The "19" refers to the age of the person posting the message, the "m" refers to the gender, and "Ohio" refers to the location. (Similarly, when someone wants to know a little more information about someone else, they will ask something like "a/s/l?," meaning that they want to know the age, sex, and location.) However, this practice is referred to as "chatbegging," and is disallowed in some channels because it is perceived to be annoying. People are also expected to have a scanned picture available to trade, however it is not a necessity. The swapping of pictures on IRC is a common practice, and some have multiple pictures ready. (Whether or not this is the actual person is unknown. People are left to judge that for themselves.) Another convention that is found in IRC is "advertising." This is when someone tries to invite people to join his channel, usually with a message like "You are invited to join #goodtimes." This is considered to be far more annoying than chatbegging, and people who do this are almost always punished. This is done through the loose hierarchical order that is established on IRC.

The lowest end of this structure are the users themselves. The user, by himself, has the power to create a channel. Once the channel has been created, this person then becomes the "op," or "chanop", which is the head of the channel. They can then set the rules, such as what the topic of the channel can be, whether or not the channel is invitation only or open to all, and who the other "ops" are. (There is no limit as to how many ops there can be, it is not uncommon to see more than five.) They also have the power to kick out anyone who is disrupting the channel in anyway. A person who is kicked out can rejoin, so the /kick command is usually just a warning. If a person is continually disrupting the channel, the op can /ban them from the channel. (Reingold, pg. 184) However, this is usually done as a last resort, seemingly because ops don't like to use their power.

At the highest end of the structure are the IRCop's, who serve as the governing force of the system. Their main responsibility is to watch for misuse of the system, such as harassment, the trading of "warez" (pirated software) and child pornography, and "flooding," which is the sending of mass amounts of text to someone in order to overload their connection, and thus force them off the system. The IRCop's are capable of "k'lining" someone, which is banning their IP address from the network. However, k'lining is rare, because the punishment is so stiff and against the spirit of IRC. The IRCop's are called upon only as a last resort, because the people in the community seem to be comfortable with their lack of a governmental structure.

As alluded to before, IRC is not a total utopia. Some people called "lamers" (a take off from the Usenet term "flamers") go through channels to instigate fights. Flooding is a common practice by these lamers, but they are usually quickly banned from channels, and sometimes even k'lined. The trading of "warez" and mp3's (popular music converted to a computer format, usually copyrighted) is rampant, but some networks are cracking down on it. (Users sometimes get around this by setting up temporary ftp sites.) Recently, the security of the users computers also became a question, when something similar to a virus was sent throughout the system.

This virus was in the form of a script. MIRC, the most popular client for IRC, allows the user to tweak the program using "scripts," or commands written in a unique language similar to a programming language. Version 5.0 had a feature in the program that loaded an empty, default script (called script.ini) every time the program itself loaded. One person created a script that, once sent out, overwrote the default script, thus attaching itself to the core program. This script was similar to a "worm," which is a self-propagating malicious program that spreads to other computers. It did this by offering itself to all other users that were in a channel or a private chat with the infected user. Once the person's program had become infected, the authors could take control of the infected person, doing such things as echoing private conversations, altering their preferences, and even accessing their hard drive. Eventually the problem was fixed, but it showed how unsafe IRC could be. (Lemos)

IRC tends to be addicting as well. Stories are abound on the Internet about people whose obsessions with IRC caused their lives to be deeply harmed. There are testimonials about college students whose grades were aversely affected, mothers who put more importance towards their computer friends than their family, and people who just basically came to rely on IRC and other forms of CMC as a social crutch. People who may have a hard time in real life forging friendships find it much easier on IRC to establish friendships. A danger to this is that some people may begin to withdraw more and more from their physical friends, and learn to rely increasingly on their friends in the IRC community. This could, in turn, lead to an even deeper loneliness than the person felt before. (Reingold, pg. 182) One such example would be the story of "Janna." A woman battling alcoholism, she found solace in the IRC channel #AA. However, #AA soon replaced alcohol as Janna's dependency, Janna now found herself wondering not when her next drink would be, but when her next opportunity to chat would be. (Emmons) Stories such as this can be found in the Usenet newsgroup alt.irc.recovery. In addition, there is a listserv called Internet Addiction Support Group ran by New York psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg which aids people who may be addicted. Interested people should send an email to with no subject and only "subscribe i-a-s-g" in the text. While it may be hard to find, there is help to those who may be addicted.

IRC provides an environment that could spur people to become something that they are not. This could be in the form of new features in a personality, or even an entirely new person. The text-only environment that IRC provides causes many people to feel uninhibited in their communication. This can be both positive and negative. For shy people, this may be therapeutic, but for other types of people, this can give them an opportunity to be insulting and mean. In addition, people are free to try new identities behind this text-only wall. This may be beneficial to the person who is trying out this new identity, but it could also be harmful to the people who placed their trust in this person. One such example would be the famous "Strange Case of the Electronic Lover," where a male New York psychiatrist posed as a handicapped female for years on a CompuServe chat channel, before admitting his charade. The people who had become close to this handicapped person, and used her as an inspiration, were devastated. (Gelder) Granted, this did not happen on IRC, but it is highly possible. Users of IRC should always be cautious about who they are chatting with; the person on the other end may not be that honest.

Even with its warts, IRC is still a positive thing. People can log onto a server and find thousands of other people looking for conversation. Meetings can occur across continents, and ideas can be shared in an efficient way. Prejudices are torn down, and friendships are forged. Its popularity may be declining due to things like ICQ and America On Line, but like Usenet, the community will still thrive. Like Usenet, it is one of the remaining vestiges of the old NetVille days, and because of that, will continue to be a big part of the Internet.

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Reingold, Howard. The Virtual Community 1993 Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley

Lemos, Robert "Chat Rooms Hit by Internet Flu" 12/1797 ZD Net

Available Online:

Emmons, Sandra "Internet Addiction"

Available Online:

Van Gelder, Lindsy "The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover" Found in Kling (Ed.) Computerization and Controversy 1996 San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc.

This web page was created by Jon-Richard Little, Jeremiah Jackson, and Chuck "Cold Turkey" Cohara for PSY 380.k at Miami University.
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PsyberSite, Miami University.This document was created April 19, 1998 and last modified on  Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:34:05.  This document has been accessed 1 times. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman . Also See: Social Psychology at Miami University