Rethinking the IRC Experience
Dan Schultz (@slifty) is a 2012 Knight-Mozilla Fellow working at The Boston Globe to explore opportunities for newsroom innovation. He graduated from the MIT Media Lab in 2012, where he designed and prototyped an automated bullshit detector for the Internet. Before coming to the lab Dan was trained to think in terms of systems at Carnegie Mellon University, and was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant to write about "Connecting People, Content, and Community" on the PBS Idea Lab.
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 on my personal blog (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.
Now if only I was good at design... Meh, how hard can it be!