Hey there! Before we had all the fancy messaging apps of today, the old-school Internet Relay Chat (IRC) paved the way for real-time communication online.
Let‘s take a nostalgic trip and explore the history of IRC, how it worked, its impact, and why new chat platforms eventually took over. I‘ll share plenty of details and data so you can learn all about this chat pioneer!
Birth of IRC – A Solution to a Campus Chat Problem
It all started back in 1988 at the University of Oulu in Finland. Jarkko Oikarinen, a 21-year-old IT student, was working at the university‘s IT department.
Part of his job was managing their BBS (Bulletin Board System), an early network for campus discussion forums. Their BBS had a chat program called MUT (MultiUser Talk), but it was buggy and unreliable.
Jarkko decided to code a custom chat program to improve the BBS experience. Inspired by chat platforms like Bitnet Relay Chat and rmsg, he wanted to create something more usable for the campus community.
After a summer of coding, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was born in August 1988. The first version was quite basic, but it got the job done. IRC quickly spread from Oulu‘s network across university networks in Finland and Scandinavia.
Just months after launch, IRC usage was taking off globally. By mid-1989, there were already 40 IRC servers worldwide. Jarkko‘s campus side project had gone viral!
IRC‘s Protocol Formalized as an Internet Standard
As IRC‘s popularity grew, there was a need to standardize the protocol so different networks and clients could interoperate.
Jarkko collaborated with Darren Reed to formally define the IRC protocol in May 1993 with the release of RFC 1459. This RFC established IRC as the standard for text-based chat on the internet.
Some key technical aspects defined:
- Client-server model – IRC networks consist of servers that clients connect to. This allows the network to scale as servers can link together.
- Communication modes – IRC allows one-to-one messaging, one-to-many broadcasts, and conferencing in channels.
- Text-based protocol – All communication is via text which allows IRC to work on any basic internet connection.
- Chat commands – Commands like /join, /nick, /msg allow clients to take actions on IRC.
Having an open standard protocol was a key factor behind IRC‘s rapid growth in the 90s. Anyone could create IRC servers and clients freely which led to thriving ecosystem innovation and customization.
IRC‘s Defining Moments – Kuwait War Reporting
One moment cemented IRC‘s popularity globally – its role in reporting Iraq‘s 1990 invasion of Kuwait:
During the media blackout at the start of the Gulf War in 1991, IRC provided a gateway for up-to-date news. While TV and radio reports were blocked, an IRC user named Johan was able to relay live updates from Kuwait to the outside world for over a week!
This put IRC on the map as thousands flocked to Johan‘s channel hungry for uncensored news on the war. The story spread worldwide showcasing IRC‘s power as a censorship-resistant communication tool.
Riding the 90s Chat Wave
With the popularity sparked by the Gulf War coverage, IRC saw meteoric growth through the 90s:
- By 1995, there were over 3500 IRC servers globally on the main IRCNet network alone. Millions used IRC daily.
- IRC networks sprouted features like user profiles, file transfers, bots, channels for sharing links/files etc.
- Open source projects like Linux, Perl, Python etc used IRC channels on networks like freenode for community chat and collaboration.
- Underground chat groups formed around interests ranging from warez groups to cryptography circles to gaming clans.
- Mainstream media like CNN even experimented with IRC chat shows, highlighting its growing cultural relevance.
For a generation of internet natives, IRC was the go-to for chat, collaboration and all things online. But the 00s brought a new wave of competition.
IRC‘s Decline – The Social Media Era
While IRC remained popular in the 2000s, usage started declining:
- From 2003 to 2012, IRC saw a 60% drop in total users as people migrated to newer platforms.
- Mainstream users found slick social apps like Facebook (2004) and WhatsApp (2009) more appealing.
- Developers adopted team chat tools like Slack (2013) that integrated better with work workflows.
- Gaming communities moved to platforms like Discord (2015) with voice chat and modern features.
- IRC lacked persistent profiles and content that users enjoyed on forums like Reddit (2005).
This table summarizes how new chat platforms drew users away from IRC‘s simplicity:
|Media Sharing||Images, Video, Audio||Text-only|
|Identities||Persistent profiles||Ephemeral usernames|
|Chat modes||One-on-one, Groups, Forums||Channels only|
|User Experience||Intuitive, Familiar UI||Old-school, Technical|
|Added capabilities||Chat bots, stickers, games||Basic chat|
While IRC lost its mainstream appeal, it retained a niche user base:
- In 2009, top IRC networks still had 500,000+ concurrent users with hundreds of thousands of active channels.
- Developers and Linux/open-source communities stuck by IRC due its technical merits and hacker spirit.
- IRC pioneers kept networks like EFNet and IRCNet alive as monuments to internet history.
The Legacy of IRC
As one of the oldest chat platforms still active today, the historical impact of IRC is huge:
- It paved the way for real-time online chat – Before IRC, there was no standard for live internet chat at scale.
- It enabled early virtual communities – IRC hosted pioneering online discussion groups that foreshadowed social media.
- It shaped internet culture – IRC etiquette, memes and customs influenced much of today‘s online behavior.
- It powered collaboration – Open source, gaming mods and beyond, IRC helped early internet collaboration.
- It was a free speech tool – IRC‘s role in the Gulf War exemplified its power to spread uncensored information.
So while IRC lost its popularity crown, its DNA lives on in the chat apps billions use today for work and play. Next time you send a message on WhatsApp or Slack, spare a thought for the ingenuity of Jarkko Oikarinen!