In the late 80s, when I was in college, I created an account on the school’s computers. I dialed in with my modem from home. When you dialed in, you were presented with a UNIX prompt. This was an all text world. No images. No nice web pages. Just a command prompt and programs that output text.
In the 80s, all the colleges in the US were connected to the Internet. There was no commercial dial-up service like AOL, yet. So, it was virtually all academics and scientists. There were no corporations. No one charged for anything. No one competed. It was just people connecting to people and information.
One of the first commands I learned was ‘irc’. Once you use this command to connect to an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server, you type /help, and from there learn other commands. I quickly discovered thousands of channels with thousands of people from all over the world.
The purpose was to simply let people chat. It is a myth that the Internet became social in the late 90s. The Internet was social from the beginning, particularly with IRC.
What was surprising was that the Internet included people and servers all over the world that spoke many languages, although English did seemed to be the predominant language.
Want to talk to people in Spain? Join the #spain channel. Germany? #germany. When virtually no one heard of Linux yet, there was always the #linux channel. Want to create your own channel, just “/join #mychannel” and boom, you just created a new channel. It was a level playing field in that anyone could create a channel and invite people to participate in it. And, you could join any open channel. Though, there were ways to make channels hidden, and require passwords to enter. There was never a fee, and most were openly there for anyone to join. The only requirement for using IRC was an Internet connection and a client program like ‘irc’ to connect.
Free Communication Without Geographic Boundaries
This was an era when international long distance was prohibitively expensive. Prior to IRC, you’d never dream of talking to people all over the globe. So, imagine how exciting it was when, in 1990, one year after the Berlin wall fell, I was talking in IRC to someone who grew up in East Berlin! I asked questions like, what was it like when the wall came down? What was life like growing up behind the iron curtain? How are you doing now that 1 year has passed and you’re now integrated with West Germany?
I’m not sure I could of called someone in East Germany, yet, since it was behind the iron curtain just a year earlier when it was unimaginable that you could call people there from the US. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t do it prior to the wall coming down. And, even if you could, it would of been very expensive if the person you wanted to call happened to have a phone. My brother went to Moscow University in 1993 under the Perestroka program. It cost us $30/minute to call him. I tried to get him to IRC, of course. But, that never panned out.
To be sure, it hasn’t changed much today. It’s bigger, of course. There are more servers. There are lots and lots of bots (automated programs) on the IRC. There are still a lot of people across the globe using it.
However, in an age when most people know the Internet via the face of Google and Facebook, the IRC can seem a bit antiquated. Yet, for open live text chatting, there’s still really nothing that has truly replaced it. Yes, you can IM and do other forms of text chat. But, having a room open 24/7 that anyone can go to and just text chat? As far as I know, someone has to open a Google hangout and invite people. There’s no list of thousands of Google hangouts you can join, particularly without knowing anyone in the channels. What if you want to join a real-time live discussion of a topic you’re interested in?
Client programs for connecting to IRC improved a lot, especially in the 90s, giving a graphical easy to use interface for people. The good news is these programs are free and have only improved over time. Whether you are on Windows, Linux, Mac, Android or iPhone, there are great easy to use client programs for connecting to IRC. Don’t want to download and install a program? You can now just use your web browser to connect to IRC.