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famous moniker that applies to all kinds of engineering is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And that’s true with Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which has been around since 1988.
This is what XChat, our favorite IRC client looks like. You can see it's all focused on the content, and not being super flashy.
IRC is a protocol for live internet chatting, but unlike chat services like AIM, Google Talk, Skype, Facebook or Yahoo, it’s organized by topic rather than user. Functionality aside (and it is more functional than any other chat protocol) there are topics ranging from programming languages, school subjects, and language, all the way to anime, specific videogames, and just about anything else you can think of.
And the userbase tends to be the kinds of people who would go out of their way (read: download a unique chat client and setup a user) just to talk about their interests. Which means the people in any IRC chat channel are usually really interested in the channel’s topic, and are knowledgeable too. Those are the kinds of people you want to connect with.
How to get into IRC:
To use IRC, first you have to download a client. The most popular one is mIRC, which is shareware, but there are freeware versions like XChat (which we recommend), as well as others. They’re all essentially the same, so just pick which one you like the best.
After that, you need to join a server. Launch your client and pick a network to connect to. They’re usually in a really long list. To get you started, you can check out searchIRC, an IRC network search engine. We recommend checking out the freenode network for computer scientists, which focuses on free and open-source software programming projects but has a channel for just about any topic. If you’re using XChat like we recommended, just fill out your nick name choices (you can change those even after you register), any username you want (which stays the same once you register) and a maybe a real name (just do your first name), select freenode from the list, hit connect, and then close the window!
This is how a typical IRC network is organized. Green clients and blue bots connect to servers, sometimes through orange 'bouncers.'
Once you’re connected to the server, you can join any channel you want. There are usually several thousand channels, so see if your chat client has a channel search feature and search by subject. (Every IRC channel has a
# before the channel name, by the way.) Channel names are usually really straightforward:
#python if you want to meet other Python programmers,
#linux for the Linux operating system, and so on.
You might have to register your nickname with your server’s “nickserv,” a secondary server they use to make sure nobody steals someone else’s nickname. Check out freenode’s how-to-register page, for example. It looks tricky, but if you follow the steps you’ll be ready to go!
Some extra tips for using IRC:
- IRC uses
/commands, just like a lot of chat clients do. The most common ones are
/quit. Check out this useful page of beginner IRC commands.
- Don’t give out your personal information. Like, ever. This isn’t Facebook, where you’re generally safe as long as you set your privacy settings; there are no privacy settings on IRC. So be safe.
- If you want to be accepted in any channel, it’s a good idea to lurk for a while. Listening to other peoples’ conversations is a great way to learn, too.
- Try not to chime in unless you have something constructive to say. Joking around is cool and stuff, but most people on IRC like their chat to be pretty focused on the channel’s topic.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. But if you do, ask them directly. Usually someone will answer. But if they don’t, don’t repeat yourself so often you start to annoy other people.
- #Beginner, a great website for people who want to learn about IRC.
- freenode, our favorite IRC network.
- XChat, our favorite IRC client.
- Search IRC, a great IRC network/channel search engine.
- A bonus for any gamers out there: QuakeNet is about the biggest IRC network, and it’s almost all about gaming. Find your favorite game and join the channel!