Internet Relay Chat (IRC)


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Tutorial Overview

Topics covered in this tutorial (click link to jump to topic):

1. What is IRC? 5. Channel Operators
2. Nicknames 6. Messaging Programs
3. The Chat Environment 7. SMS & MMS
4. Common IRC Acronyms and Emoticons    

What is IRC?

IRC stands for Internet Rely Chat and resembles a typed telephone conversation. There are no pictures or sound files like the Web - just text. Like e-mail, other people's messages appear on your screen - but it happens in real time while you are connected to the Internet. Therefore being able to type quickly is important and there are many IRC abbreviations or emoticons to speed up replies and discussion.

When you open your chat client, you select a "chat server", then a "chat room" or "channel". This is literally a group of people connected to a channel on an IRC network. Think of it like an office building with many rooms. In each room people are chatting about different subjects. You enter the building, see a directory or listing of the discussions going on in each of the rooms, and select a room to visit. You "drop in" and start chatting.

See the screenshot below of the chat client mIRC. The names in the right-hand column are people who are talking in the chat room. These names are referred to as "nicks", short for "nicknames". Their messages will appear in the large white area to the left. Your cursor will blink in the very bottom area waiting for your input. Once you finish typing, simply hit the enter key and your message will be placed among others in the chat room. As time passes the large window below fills up with text entries. Things move fast in IRC and can be confusing at first.

Mirc Screenshot
See to download a version of this software.

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In IRC each user is known by a "nickname", such as "smartgal" or "FunGuy". To avoid conflicts with other users, it is best to use a nick that is not too common, e.g. "john" is a poor choice. Your nickname or "nick" will appear before your posting to the channel.

Your "nick" also protects your privacy. You cannot be identified; no one knows what age, sex, race or the country you are in - and you don’t know anything about anyone else. This can lead to some fairly childish behaviour or behaviour which is not usual between people. But it has a good side too - no one can identify your race and age - it’s just people chatting with no prejudice about appearance.

You should think twice about agreeing to meet someone you have chatted to on IRC - they are unlikely to be who they said they were on-line.

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The Chat Environment

You can join a number of chat groups at once (some IRC clients do not support this feature). The chat groups you have joined are listed in the buttons at the bottom of your screen. You can click a button to jump between groups. Use the "/list" command to get a very long list of available channels.

Channel names usually begin with a "#", as in #irchelp . A channel is not necessarily shared among all IRC servers. If you see an "&" instead of a # before a channel name it means the channel is not shared by all IRC servers on the Net but only locally on that particular server.

Using the above method of IRC, if you want to chat to a friend, you will have to prearrange a time, chat server and chat channel to go to... unless you use a program such as ICQ ("I seek you"), a service that allows you and your friends to see each other when on-line. You need free ICQ software to do this - but chatting to your friends may be more satisfying than chatting to people you don't know.

If someone wants to talk to you alone, or if you want to chat to someone else alone, you "DCC" them - or "direct client to client". In effect this opens a personal channel just for the two of you if you want to talk more personally. You can either do this by right mouse clicking on their nickname and selecting "chat" or by selecting the "DCC" menu, choosing "Chat..." and then typing their nickname in the resulting dialogue box.

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Common IRC Acronyms and Emoticons

Emoticons are cute, friendly, feel-good characters intended to convey a feeling or facial expression. In fact emoticons are often generically referred to as "smileys". They are made out of common punctuation and other typeable characters. For instance the two symbols "colon" followed by "right bracket" express happiness because together they look like a pair of eyes and a smiley mouth :) Some IRC programs such as Messenger will actually convert your emoticon into a small cartoon when you send your message.

There is a small and grumpy section of the on-line community who find them irritating - they feel you should be able to convey your feelings in words, without resorting to symbols. IRC acronyms simply compress common phrases. Other linguists argue that it is a major leap forward in language and communication - to be able to communicate feelings without using words.

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Emoticons (i.e. emote + icons)

Note that some people use a hyphen to create the "nose" of the smiley and some don't
i.e. :-) is the same as :)

:-) Expresses happiness, sarcasm, or joke

:-( Expresses unhappiness

:-D Expresses jovial happiness

:-Q Expresses confusion

:-@ Expresses shock or screaming

:-O Indicates surprise, yelling or realisation of an error ("uh oh!")


  • BFN bye for now
  • BTW by the way
  • FAQ frequently asked question(s)
  • FYI for your information
  • HTH hope this helps
  • IMO in my opinion
  • IOW in other words
  • LOL lots of luck or laughing out loud
  • OIC oh, I see
  • ROF rolling on the floor
  • ROFL rolling on the floor laughing
  • TIA thanks in advance

Channel Operators

Channels are run by channel operators, or "chanops" or "ops" for short. They mediate the channel and control the channel by choosing who may join ("banning" some users), who must leave (by "kicking" them out), and even who may speak ("moderating"). You won't get kicked off a channel if you are polite. Adopt the courtesies of a phone call. If you make offensive statements, ask personal or salacious questions, you may be kicked off.

Channel ops have complete control over their channel, and their decisions are final. If you are banned from a channel, send a /msg to a channel op and ask nicely to be let in (see the /who command in the next section to learn how to find ops). Channel operators are usually volunteers and there may be two or three of them on your chat channel.

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Messaging Programs

There are a number of popular messaging programs available today that can either by installed with a browser upgrade on independently. Two popular programs of this nature are MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. Recently Google has launched Google Talk. Screenshots of MSN Messenger and Google talk are below.

These chat clients use your hotmail, yahoo or gmail e-mail address as your nickname. Like ICQ, you build a list of people who you want to converse with so the service is aimed at you keeping in touch with your friends and family. However messaging also turns out to be a great way to offer and receive computer support and to work collaboratively with coworkers. In messaging it is possible to send a URL as text then discuss it's content, rather than reading it out over the phone.


Two messaging clients are contrasted here. The contacts have been blurred intentionally.

The messaging clients discussed above allow you to exchange files, rather than e-mailing attachments, and to send winks and nudges to each other (winks and nudges are cute, but useless). More usefully though, you can set your status to "busy", "away", "on the phone" etc.

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SMS or "short message service" is an application that has migrated from the Internet to mobile phones. SMS replaces paging and pagers. Today teenagers the world over save on mobile call charges by sending a text message from phone to phone rather than actually making a voice call.

In a business context, SMS is good for asynchronous communication. For example, sometimes people can not take a call, say they are in a meeting. If you SMS them, they can receive your message without being taken away from their current focus. Or if they have their phone turned off, your SMS message will be queued on their providers SMS server, and they will receive it shortly after they turn their phone on.

To SMS you need an SMS-enabled mobile phone and patience. The patience is for the text input method... which is awkward to say the least. More recently "predictive text" input has become available on many phones, although this can be confusing at first, it certainly speeds up text input once the user masters the interface.

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Today more and more mobile phones incorporate cameras and are MMS enabled, short for "multimedia messaging service". MMS is like SMS in that you send a message to another phone, but it allows you to send small pictures or videos as well as text.

The mobile phone area is changing fast. The social and cultural implications of this technology is as yet undetermined. Commentators are only now starting to discuss the privacy and social ramifications of this new technology. It is not uncommon for swimming pool change rooms to ban mobile phone cameras for example.

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