In 1996, I found a small program called mirc32.exe on a floppy disk that I received when I signed up for a local internet service provider. Eventually I made it onto an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) network named DALnet, and began a hobby that would have significant influence over my life.
As its name implies, IRC is a “chat room” system created back in 1988 that provides channels for groups of people to communicate, as well as private conversations. Individual servers can be linked together into networks that support hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users.
Over the past sixteen years, this hobby has afforded me the opportunity to learn about internet and networking concepts, as well as other cultures, interests, and lifestyles. And of course, I made a good number of friends, many of whom carried over into my non-IRC life.
During my time on IRC, I saw the rise and fall of many different technologies. ICQ came into being, then was quickly replaced by AIM, YIM, MSN, and a dozen other communications programs. While useful in their own way, especially as webcams and video chatting became popular, most of us IRC junkies would use them alongside of IRC, not as a replacement. These days however, the IRC channels I frequent have become digital ghost towns.
At its peak around 2003-2004, my own “primary” IRC channel #centralcafe had a consistant user count of about 30 users. Today, the channel is virtually empty, its membership consisting of two detached clients and an eggdrop bot. #anime, another channel I frequent that has a specific topic and is therefore more likely to have users stumble in randomly, is hovering around 10 users, down from its average 30-40.
IRC’s decline seems to have started years ago when countless denial of service attacks knocked a good number of the servers offline. Many of the service providers hosting the service were unwilling to deal with the expense of having their networks essentially shut down, and pulled the plugs. Several of the larger networks say their server counts diminish, and the users who found themselves unable to connect and stay connected moved on.
It was the exploding popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter that put a massive dent in IRC’s surviving userbase. The user-friendliness of Facebook, along with the ability to easily add photos and video, and the accessibility to those who weren’t hardcore geeks turned it into the most popular way to communicate. As more and more people started primarily using Facebook to share with each other, membership of familiar channels has decreased.
Facebook may be more convenient, but in my opinion it is not an improvement. IRC had a barrier of entry; people with little to know idea how computers of the internet operate were not likely to make it onto an IRC network. Facebook’s being open to virtually everybody with an internet-enabled wristwatch has led to newsfeeds being flooded with inane garbage asking people to click a “like” button for no reason than to accumulate worthless internet points.
IRC is not dead, but I do believe its golden days are in the past. I’d certainly like to see IRC make a comeback, but at this point I think I can only watch and see what happens. Until then however, I’ll still be sitting in #centralcafe on DALnet.