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132. Internet Relay Chat (IRC)

By Andrew D. Wright

When most people think of the Internet, what they are really thinking about is the World Wide Web. In other words, web pages, web browsers and the HyperText Transfer Protocol, better known as http - the first part of a web page address.

There are other protocols and other, less well-known parts of the Internet. One of these is IRC, Internet Relay Chat.

You can think of IRC as a wild forefather of Instant Messaging. Less polished, less user-friendly, more like life on the frontier than life in the city. IRC can be a lot of fun.

IRC is used for many things, mostly chatting between people who are often in different parts of the world. Chatting is done in channels, kind of a big room where everyone can talk to everyone else. Channels are usually dedicated to a particular topic and one IRC server will host lots of different channels.

Users can also engage in private chats with each other and can exchange files with each other. There are a number of IRC games channels running everything from trivia games to multi user dungeons, which are fantasy-based role playing games.

Different IRC servers, and different channels on those servers will have policies about what is and isn't acceptable there. These policies will be administered frontier-justice-style by operators, also known as ops or IRCops. Offenders can find themselves banned from connecting to the channel, the server or that particular IRC network.

Some channels have content of a provocative nature where literally anything goes while other channels are more restrained. Channels will often have posted guidelines.

To use IRC you will need an IRC program. The most famous Windows IRC program is mIRC, which is shareware free to try for 30 days, after which it must be registered for $20 US. There are a number of free alternatives including the Firefox web browser IRC plugin ChatZilla, and Instant Messaging programs Trillian and Pidgin. There are also Java-based IRC programs free for download. There are many IRC programs out there available for all operating systems.

Some IRC servers require access to port 113 on your computer, the identd port, for user authentication. Users running firewall software or behind a router will have to make sure this port is open or forwarded to their computer's IP address.

IRC is a text-based medium with well established commands. It's a good idea to browse an IRC tutorial to get familiar with the basics. Of course the best way to learn how to use IRC once you have covered the basics is to just jump in and learn by doing.

Pick out a nickname for yourself, find an IRC server and connect up. Most IRC programs have a list of popular IRC servers built in, so a user just has to pick one out. IRC server names are also easy to find with a web search for IRC servers.

IRC commands take the form: /command. When you first connect to an IRC server you can make your nickname exclusively yours on that server with the command: /nick your-nickname and get the list of available channels on the server with the command: /list. To join a channel, the command is: /join #channel-name. To get help, type: /help.

IRC can become a very familiar environment and you can find yourself making lots of new friends. There is an old joke that goes: on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog. This can be particularly true on IRC. While the vast majority of people are regular folks, not everyone is necessarily who or what they say they are. Remember to use common sense about revealing personal information and details about your life and virus scan any files you might accept before opening them.


Some IRC Programs:

mIRC (shareware):

Pidgin (free):

Trillian (Basic version is free):

ChatZilla (Firefox plugin, free):


IRC Tutorial:


IRC Networks Help:


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Originally published 16 May 2008


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