Rethinking the IRC Experience

I love IRC and you should too. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was the new hotness over 9000 years ago and it is still just as spectacular today! Like I always say, however, if it isn’t broke, break it. That’s right, I want to change the way people interface with this group chat behemoth for my final project. Before I get into what I mean you need to know a bit about what IRC actually is. Before I get into THAT, though, you need to know a few things that IRC absolutely is not.

What IRC Isn’t

  • IRC is not GChat.
  • IRC is not AIM or any other version of IM.
  • IRC is not Google Hangouts.
  • IRC is not Facebook chat.

I can’t stress those points enough because it is easy to look at IRC on a high level and say “oh, so it’s [insert any of the above items here]” and you would be totally and completely wrong. The reason you would be wrong is quite subtle but it comes down to the fact that IRC is a real time community platform that lets people idle 24/7 without making them feel the need to say anything at all. Imagine someone staring at you in a google hangout for 3 hours breathing heavily through their mouth while you’re casually talking to your friend without it feeling awkward for anyone involved and you’re at least a LITTLE closer to imagining IRC.

Still confused? Here are some more vague explanations and metaphors, maybe one will stick.

What IRC Is

  • IRC is a platform that allows communities to create a network of persistent chat rooms where people come and go throughout the day.
  • IRC is the digital equivalent of pubs.
  • IRC is how I learned about the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in 2001, before the news was broken by 24/7 outlets like CNN, from some online friends in Europe (that’s right, I got my real time news from social media before it was cool).
  • IRC does something that is still missing from other popular digital tools: it provides a space for real time, casual, group communication.

The ONLY Two Flaws

Clearly I’ll have to write IRC a love letter some day (spoiler alert, it will end with a hilarious pun about how IRC and I need to just get a room). But here’s the thing: IRC isn’t always the best thing since sliced HTTP. IRC chat rooms are often either noisy as hell or quiet as a graveyard.

There are technological solutions already for the silence issue in the form of IRC clients that realize how lurking works (i.e. they strike a balance by alerting you of activity without being way too “in your face.”) That way you can just keep IRC on in the background even when doing work and get little non-obnoxious notices during the rare moments where there are actually conversations going on. Thus a relatively inactive channel is never actually dead so long as there are people still willing to run a client in the background.

The noise situation, however, could use some some good solutions. You can quickly learn why by spending any amount of time in a popular channel on a popular network (for instance #occupywallst on freenode). There are just too many conversations between too many people about too many topics all happening way too fast. How can we solve it? With the glories of modern technology and re-invented interaction design of course! Besides, any healthy relationship needs one entity to try to change everything about how the other one looks and acts.

If you have used any chat service you know the basics of IRC: you type a message, you hit enter, your message appears at the bottom of the conversation, and in the end you have a transcript just like you would read from a court hearing (I suspect, I’ve never been to court so I can’t be sure). For my project in Introduction to Civic Media I want to use Linkinus (a spectacular IRC client for OSX) to completely re-think the IRC chat interface. Linkinus renders IRC using the same technology that powers web browsers AND it opens the hood to let you write custom skins. This means I can use Javascript to render whatever I want, and possibly even tie into more immersive APIs that can do things like natural language processing to build up webs of conversations on the fly.

Now if only I was good at design… Meh, how hard can it be!