Internet Chat Relay (IRC) is a popular, free, and open-source chat environment written in 1988. People use it to communicate one-on-one, or in groups with multiple users.
In its heyday (the mid-1990s to the late 2000s) IRC was the backbone of the largest distributed chat network in the world. To this day, people use it to communicate with others on IRC networks all over the world.
This article includes a step-by-step guide on how to use IRC, as well as plenty of resource material to help you learn more.
Tutorial: How to Use mIRC to Connect to IRC
Windows is the most popular operating system in the world, which is why we chose an IRC client for Windows. This highly rated IRC client makes it easy to find a channel, chat, and create your own channel within a few minutes. mIRC is fast, stable, and free. Let’s get started.
Step 1 — Install mIRC
Download and Install mIRC from the official mIRC webpage.
Step 2 — Run mIRC
When you open the program, a pop up window gives you the option to register your copy for a small fee. This is completely optional. For now, just hit the Continue button. If another window pops up, hit Continue once again.
Step 3 — Choose a Server
Now we are going to choose a server. mIRC has a list of popular servers to make things easy. Go to File > Select Server, or hit Alt+E to open up the mIRC Options window. Choose the server you want, and click the Select button.
Step 4 — Create a Nickname
Now you will be taken to the Connect category in Options. Create a nickname. Two users on the same network cannot have the same nickname, which is why it’s a good idea to choose something really unique for your nickname and to input an alternative.
The Name and Email fields are optional. Most people do not use their real information in these fields. Once you have filled out the nickname, and the alternative, click the Connect button.
Step 5 — Join a Channel
If everything went according to plan, you will connect to the server, and a Favorites window will pop-up with a list of commonly used channel names. You can choose one, or if you know the channel you want, you can enter it. I happen to know a channel I want called #worldchat.
Hit Enter, or click the Join button to start chatting!
Step 6 — Create Your Own Channel
Creating and managing your own channel is incredibly easy. All you need to do is think of a channel name that isn’t already on the server, and enter the following:
Finding a Channel
Once you are connected to a server, you may have trouble finding channels you are interested in. Let’s now explore three different ways to browse channels on an IRC network.
Press Alt+L while in the mIRC Channels List window, or go to Tools > Channels List. You can get the full list of active channels by clicking the Get List button.
The LIST Command /list
Another way to find a list of channels is with the LIST command. Once you enter the command, a window with a list of all the available channels will pop-up. Enter the following in the chat bar:
Keep in mind because servers each have a unique set of features, the LIST command doesn’t work on all servers.
IRC Search Engines
You don’t need any special skills to begin using IRC. All that is required is an internet connection, and an IRC Client (the software that connects you to an IRC server).
But, there are a few things that you should know in order to get the most out of IRC. The sections below cover IRC networks, IRC clients, and IRC servers.
Getting Started with IRC: a concise introduction for absolute beginners.
IRC Networks and Servers
IRC implements the client-server software model, where the application distributes tasks between a resource provider (server) and a requester (client).
This model is widely used for programs that require real-time communications — such as a web browser, email application, or video chat app like Skype.
An IRC chat session can be hosted on a single computer or a network. Servers join together to create IRC networks of all shapes and sizes.
There are hundreds of networks on IRC categorized into a wide range of different topics. Some of the most popular IRC networks include Freenode, IRCnet, EFnet, QuakeNet, Undernet, and Rizon.
- Chanlist: this site features a list of popular IRC channels.
- netsplit.de: the front page of this website regularly posts updated stats on user data, including an annual top ten based on popularity.
The client takes your commands and helps the server execute them. IRC clients can either be console applications (command line only) or GUI applications.
Dozens of different clients have been developed over the years. While each client has its own unique look and feel, they all contain some common features.
Features include things like buddy lists, file sharing, multiple connections, IPv6, SSL encryption, proxy support, UPnP, and options for customization.
There are several clients for Windows, Mac, and Unix/Linux. The links below take you to a page of tables that compare active IRC clients by feature.
- Desktop Clients: see a list of IRC desktop clients which includes mIRC, Hexchat, Colloquy, and WeChat.
- Web Clients: web clients let you connect to IRC directly from a website in your browser. This list includes IRCCloud, Mibbit, Freenode, and Kiwi IRC.
- Mobile Clients: this list of mobile IRC clients contains mobile phone IRC apps, including AndChat, IRCCloud, and Colloquy.
- A comparison of IRC clients: this Wikipedia page also compares internet relay chat clients by features.
IRC is no different than any other internet service when it comes to security risks. The right knowledge can help you dodge malicious bots, hackers, viruses, spammers, and other security threats. The links below can help you find tools and information to stay safe.
- IRC Security: this is a helpful guide from IRChelp that outlines security concerns you should be aware of. It covers everything you will run into from harassment to Trojan Horse viruses.
- World Wide Web Privacy: this is our guide on privacy for the web. Learn how to stay safe.
- Cryptography: this resource can help you lock down your IP address to stop attackers in their tracks.
IRC: Past, Present, and Future
IRC is much different today than it was when it was written by Jarkko Oikarinen. It all began as a hack to extend BBS software used at the University of Oulu, Finland.
Like many success stories, the decision to make IRC an open source project spawned a vibrant community around IRC, which sparked rapid development. IRC was far from the first text-based chat software, but it predated a cultural zeitgeist — social networking.
The fact that IRC is capable of creating a global, distributed network makes it incredibly useful. The resources below take you on a tour of IRCs past.
- IRC History: this is a storied account of IRCs history.
- IRC History by Jarkko Oikarinen: an essay about IRC by its creator.
- The Great Split: this informative article describes how the IRC split and branched off into separate networks.
- IRC Decline and Future: this section of IRCs Wikipedia entry goes into detail about the decline and future of IRC.
Today, there are a number of ways to communicate in real-time. Mobile devices with free text-messaging are widely available.
Let’s not forget that hundreds of millions of users enjoy dirt-cheap instant messaging on Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, Foursquare, Twitter, Slack, SnapChat, WeChat, WhatsApp, and Instagram. And that’s just to name a few of your options!
IRC has changed much over the years. While most people agree that the golden years of IRC is over, there are still hundreds of thousands of active users logged in at any given time.
It now serves to augment other forms of communication. IRC is still a reliable multi-user chat environment, which lends itself well to learning.
Computer programmers and software developers on the Freenode network use IRC extensively for open source projects, and other developers are working to make IRC more modern.
- IRCv3: there is an effort of standardization and adding new features to the IRC protocol by IRCv3 working group.
- Freenode: an invaluable resource for those who want to learn open source web development. This network is filled with hundreds of users who are often willing to help.
Going Further: Resources for Advanced Users
There are endless possibilities to what you can do with IRC. It has many uses for business or pleasure. Below are some links that introduce you to some of IRCs advanced features.
- Advanced Users: there is a huge list of tutorials to consume here.
- The Book of IRC: The Ultimate Guide to Internet Relay Chat (1999) by Alex Charalabidis: this is truly the ultimate guide to internet chat. It explains everything you need to know to go from complete beginner to advanced user.
- Common Commands: add these useful commands to your bag of tricks.
- Technical Information: learn about the software and protocols that power IRC.
IRC in the Twenty-First Century
IRC has likely already experienced its hay day. But it still has a vital role in the online world. And this tutorial and collection of resources should help you get acquainted with this useful chat tool.