In the late 1980s, a Finnish computer scientist by the name of Jarkko Oikarinen had a really interesting idea: what if, using this thing called internet, people could write real-time messages to each other? Sure, we take that for granted nowadays, and it even sounds rudimentary (no video? no sound?), but back in the day, it was amazing. Oikarinen developed the venerable text-only solution in 1988 — and the world never looked back.
The first time I went online was 19 years ago. I went to a LAN cafe, the likes of which are long gone from most parts of the world, with my dad. I got the chance to witness the internet directly, for the first time, and my dad set up an email address for me (I still have it). I went on the Cartoon Network website as it was pretty much the only one I knew. But as I returned to the LAN cafe more and more, and ultimately had internet installed in our house, I found more and more things to do online.
Among them, I quite enjoyed something called the Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, and its probably most famous software client, mIRC. You could go to different chatrooms and talk to all sorts of people, which at the time was just awesome to me. Some rooms were geographical, like “London” or “Ireland”, others were themed like “gaming” or “sex” (which I may have just visited once or twice); some were crazy fun, others were downright weird. You could play games like trivia, leave messages, send files to your friends — in a way, IRC is the forefather of today’s Messenger. As it happens, the IRC turned 30 recently, cementing its status as a true internet legend.
Thirty years is a long time for technology, and age certainly hasn’t been kind to the IRC. If you talk to someone who’s half its age, you’d probably struggle to explain just why it was a thing — but IRC is still very much alive. While your favorite channel might not be around, a surprisingly high number of servers and channels are still up.
But IRC’s golden days are almost certainly behind it.
Unsurprisingly, its userbase has been steadily decreasing for years. As of April 2011, the top 100 IRC networks served more than half a million users at a time. IRC usage has been declining steadily since 2003, losing 60% of its users (from 1 million to about 400,000 in 2012) and half of its channels (from half a million in 2003).
The IRC is, without a doubt a piece of modern and living history.