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IRC 101: What Is It & How Do I Use It?

by , 11:00 AM EST, April 4th, 2002

So you've got friends who've invited you to chat with them in IRC, but what is IRC? Neglected by many after the advent of AOL's Instant Messenger service and its spin-offs, IRC is a gigantic and diverse chat community where people with common interests can chat on any topic imaginable. Once you learn the basics, the power of IRC will be open to you.

What is IRC?

IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat. Of course, internet real-time chat is familiar to almost all computer users, but in the case of IRC, it is the scope that is different. One IRC network can have thousands of chat rooms (called channels) on any number of topics. These channels can cover topics from knitting to help installing software on your Mac.

A man named Jarkko Oikarinen wrote the original code for IRC while working at the University of Oulu, Finland. It went live in August of 1988 as a more useable alternative to USENET and BBS. His story, in his own words, can be found on the history page. The further (unofficial) history of IRC itself can be found on self-professed "computer freak" Daniel Stenberg's page.

What is IRC used for?

There are many different IRC networks. One of the most popular (and populous) is called DALnet, which has over 600,000 registered users and often up to 80,000 people using the network at any given time. People get together to chat, meet people with similar interests, or to exchange files. It is very easy to be on more than one network at a time, and to be participating in many different channels simultaneously.

How do I get on IRC?

This is really as easy as surfing the 'net or chatting using any other program. Though the interface and size of the service might be daunting, the programs out there make getting started fairly simple, and they walk you through your set-up step-by-step.

First you need an IRC client (an application that allows you to connect to the networks). There are many different clients out there, and I'm only going to list applications that I have experience with.

  • Snak (v4.8.3) is written in Carbon, so can be used in any OS from 8.6 up to X. There is also a 68k version for download. It's shareware (US$20) with a 30-day trial period. The software will walk you through a set-up, and has the most popular networks as presets, so you can connect immediately. This is also a good application if you've got children who might be trying IRC, as there are good "guardian" features that author Kent Sorensen has included. Scriptable and customizable.
  • Ircle works from OS 7.0 up, but 9.x is recommended. It too is US$20 shareware with a 30-day preview window. Another solid IRC client, and scriptable on the fly. The set-up assistant isn't as thorough as the Snak assistant, and the interface is a bit more daunting. Ircle also comes preset for connecting to popular networks.
  • AthenaIRC (v1.7.3b3) is a full-featured client that is free if you only use one connection, otherwise it is US$10 shareware. While I like the interface (similar to Ircle, but more Aqua-y), it still has a few bugs I couldn't get around. A good set-up assistant is there to help you, and like Snak and Ircle, there are several major networks already set in the application.
  • Fire from Epicware, is Mac OS X only. This is the most familiar feeling application for connection for people use to IM clients, as you can connect and chat in IRC the same way you would chat on AIM or Jabber. Fire does not, to my knowledge, support DCC file transfer.

Now what?

Once you've got your client up and running, you'll want to get online. You should get a list of networks preconifgured in your IRC client. Highlight one of those networks, and click the "connect" button, which almost all of the IRC clients have. I might recommend the DALnet network to start with. You will receive a message that you are connected. Once you've chosen a nickname (via the set-up assistant), you might want to register that name, so that no one else can use it. You can do that by registering with Nickserv. Type "/nickserv register help" in the console window, and Nickserv will give you lists of commands to use. Each network varies slightly, so you'll want to check. You don't have to register your nickname, but be aware that some channels only allow registered nicknames in to cut down on spamming and general lawlessness. With so many people participating in IRC, you may have to go through different iterations of your nick to find one available.

After connecting to a network, you'll want to join a channel. In each client (except Fire) there will be a command where you can search for channels. For example, in Snak, this is command-L. You can enter a topic to search for; try "mac" if you want to find other Mac users. Each network also has a help channel that is there to help new users find their way around.

To join a channel, type "/join #channel_name_here" in the console. If you wanted to join the help channel, you'd type "/join #help".

Then start chatting. Most channels are moderated, and they will expect you to follow their rules. Basic netiquette applies: be courteous and remember that channels have topics, so people in the channel are there to discuss that topic. Often, off-topic discussions are unwelcome. Many channels will have a Message of the Day (MOTD) that will tell you if there are special rules to follow in that channel, so you might want to check for that as well.


Good luck! Enjoy looking around on IRC. There's always something new to discover. I'll be back next week with more information on special chat commands, trout slapping, and how to get in on file sharing.

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