IRC: The Net in Realtime

by Charles A. Gimon


Part Two: History

IRC started with the efforts of Jarkko Oikarinen in 1988, at the University of Oulu, Finland. Oikarinen's new "Internet Relay Chat" was designed as a multi-user variation on the unix "talk" utility. The original unix talk program, which is still available on many machines that run on unix, allowed two users to type messages to each other in real time. Your text appeared on the top half of the screen, the other user's text at the bottom. Oikarinen gave us the IRC environment we know today, first with many users logged into a single server in Oulu, then with three Finnish servers linked together into the first IRC net, and by the end of 1988, into an IRC net that stretched across the Internet itself.

For a year or so, everything went quietly and smoothly. As it any leaderless movement, though, there had to be dissent sooner or later. Several alternate IRC nets were set up; most of them came and went within a few months. One of the defunct alternate nets, AnarchyNet or A-net, was centered around an IRC server called at the University of California at Berkeley. A-net tried to run an IRC net with practically none of the rules that the rest of the IRC world was using. The remaining original IRC network, with the vast majority of sites, started being called the Eris-Free Net to distinguish it from A-net. Today this has been shortened to EFNet. "Eris" is long gone, but the A-net still has a kind of negative existence in the name of the Net that it's not.

In January 1991, IRC made a big splash for the first time:

<Nati> The hit on H2 and H3 is according to thewhat the Israely
radio quoted from the NBC
<cam3> What are H2 and H3?
<Lost_Boy> I will mail file to people....don't have ftp set up.
<Nati> H2 and H3 are milt airbases in west Iraq
<spam-ABC> Marines report that only one SCUD missile has been
launched. (report from west S.A)
<nova:+report> "john holliman hides under the table in al-rashid
hotel, baghdad"
<VOA:+report> No word of casualties (from Iraq or US team)
<Mark:+report> pentagon not admitting to any losses yet
<Finland-i> BBC interviewing someome in israel-- all ok..
<nova:+report> "cnn reporters wont go t o bomb shelter"
<CNN> Security personell have found the 3 CNN reporters in the
Bahgdad hotel.

During the Gulf War, IRC users kept track of their local news reports and compared notes on IRC. While there weren't any IRC users in the war zone itself, logging in to IRC allowed interested persons to monitor all the news media at the same time, even news sources in other countries.

In August 1991, the attempted coup in the Soviet Union was reported in much greater detail, with news flowing in from Swedish and Finnish sources as well as English-language ones:

<Robert> Tanks still rolling in to Moscow.  Yeltsin told 
KGB and army to obey his orders and ignore orders from coup 
members.  A Lt Colnel told crown he would no obery orders 
to shoot people.  I mean crowd.  Unconfirmed report of 
explosion in Abzerbjan
<complx> where can i get a status report of the action as 
ascii file ? i can send it to a moscow host !
<Scofield> Yeltsin wants to meet Gorba, and wants to have 
him under medical examination during next 3 days ...  
Mining strike covers majority of coal mines
<muts> Military commander of south-Moscow, supporter of 
Yeltsin who sent.  the tanks to defend gim, has been 
arrested.  the tanks to defend gim, has been arrested
<Scofield> Oil-industry won't join to Yeltsins General 
Strike ...
<muts> source: RIA (Russion press agency)
<Scofield> 30 of 180 armed vehicles heading to Tallinn "has 
broken in border"
<Robert> Russian parliment surrounded by Yeltsin supporters.
Blockades around it made of overturned trucks and barbed 
wire and anything they can find

By mid-1992 EFNet was starting to crack under the strain of too many users. Netsplits (during which part of the IRC network would get disconnected from the rest) were becoming more common, response times were slowing, and bickering between site administrators wasn't helping matters much. In November 1992 a fledgling IRC network was set up between the University of Oklahoma/Norman and Indiana. The admin in Oklahoma was Daniel V. Mitchell (nick: WildThang); the admin in Indiana was Andrew Milton (nick: Munchie). The Oklahoma/Indiana net was connected with several other servers in December 1992, notably a server in France run by Laurent DeMailly, This alternate IRC network was called the Undernet, and unlike the other competing IRC nets, this one stayed running, and has survived quite well.

(Undernet Logo)

The most outstanding event to be followed on IRC was certainly the standoff between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and parliamentary rebels in October 1993. IRC users in central Moscow were able to pass along information even before the major news reporting agencies could broadcast it:

<slipper> cnn intl just now confiming report here 5 mins ago
that russ tv off line!
<Bravo> Ok, people, I'm typing summary of what I know for the
<ginster> thanks
<Bravo> Today, around 15:00, people who were 'demonstrating'
their feelings, broke the chain of militsiya around white-house (the
people were those on the side of Khasbulatov and K)
<Bravo> A bit later, they formed military units, and at the same
time another group of people joined them
<geek> It should be noted that Bravo is in the former Soviet
Union right now.
<Bravo> Around 16:00 (sorry don't have exact times) group of
people arond 3-4 thousand started to move in the direction of Moscow
municipal building
<Bravo> In about the same time by a machine-gun fire from hotel
Kosmonavt two militia,en were killed.
<Bravo> They were standing in the chain around wehite-house,
WITHOUT any weapons
<Bravo> Later, mayor building was stormed by a military forces of
khasbulatovites, main entrance broken by trucks
[Local time at AAPO.IT.LUT.FI is 19:20 +02:00 Sun 3 Oct 1993
<Bravo> Currently, first 5 floors of mayor-building (what the
damn is the
right word for it?) are taken, guards and remaining
people locked above
<geek> If anyone has a frequency to tune to fo
<Bravo> Just about recently a troop of special forces has
arrived to the building and blocked all entrances. _This_ troop is
armed but no special actions are being currently taken
<geek> r Moscow radio on shortwave, please let Engine know.
<Bravo> NB : No, I'm not talking about the parliament building,
it is bulding where the mayor and municipal things are,
whatever its name is...
<Bravo> Oh yeah, city hall!
<Engine> I don't have my shortwave radio anymore.
<ginster> i have a sw radio - what is the freqency?
<Bravo> Ok, somewhere a bit later in taime they has taken the
Ostankino teletower, so it is not talking anymore

Even as other channels of information were being cut, Internet and IRC remained open to the rest of the world.

The Northridge earthquake in the Los Angeles area in January 1994 was another shining moment for IRC. Within a few minutes, Internet users had created channels called #earthquake and #quakechat to share their news and first-hand experiences. Anyone on the Internet in other parts of the world could log into IRC and get news directly, without having to wait on the traditional news media. The Internet itself lived up to its reputation for indestructibility: IRC chat and other traffic continued to flow, even though a major node at UCLA and several smaller sites had been knocked out of service by the quake:

<boreo> CNN/KTLA showing homes in valley burning out of control
<johndoe> several fires north of 118 freeway (ktla)
<johndoe> gas fire
<KellyS> NO classes at pepperdine university.
<johndoe> knbc calls it a "cupboard clearer"
<ODN> caltech says - 6.6 - 20 south of san andreas fault
<DavidF> CNN: 11 visible fires
<johndoe> klta major freeway collapse on santa monica fw
<GutenTag> is 6.6 a bad earthquake? I really dont know.and my
brother lives in LA.. 

Big news events continue to be monitored in IRC; the Oklahoma City bombing was widely followed on all the nets.

Finally, in July 1994 a small independent IRC net was set up for role-playing games. After a rash of channel takeovers on EFNet, the main organizer of this role-playing net (known as "dalvenjah") decided to expand it into a full-fledged IRC net alongside EFNet and the Undernet. So DalNet, the third major IRC net, came into being. DalNet's distinguishing features today are certified ownership of channels and nick registration, so that user or channel names can't be hijacked. This is said to make DalNet a less feverish place than EFNet, with fewer netsplits and less bad behavior in general. (The server here in Minnesota is a part of DalNet.)

(DalNet Logo)

That friendliness and spirit of world camaraderie come to the surface during outstanding events on IRC. Even in the midst of the 1993 Moscow crisis, IRCers were able to joke about their place between worlds:

<Aloof> so the world is screwed, and we are happily ircing
<Aloof> what irony
<geek> heehee
<Loq> the world ends in 15 mins
<medved> Aloof: so what. this is a quiet little universe,
 completely outside the real world...
<trot1> medved: come on there are real people sitting at their
>>> (To #Discuss) User S_Avatar is a mere stream of
<medved> yeah, like, if the Bomb was dropped on NY, I would know
cuz all the NYorkers would suddenly wink out on the IRC.

There are hundreds of useful web pages on IRC. Here are a couple to try:

For information on the different IRC nets, you can link with:

Many IRC logs of historic events can be found at:

For some beginning tips on using IRC, try part one of this same article, IRC: the Net in Realtime.

Charles A. Gimon teaches an Intro to the PC Class at the English Learning Center in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at or
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