IRC is the Only Viable Chat Protocol
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IRC is the Only Viable Chat Protocol


IRC is so wonderful that I am continually finding myself far too distracted by it to actually write this article praising the virtues of IRC. Get on IRC to learn more.

OK, OK, I'll pull myself away from the terminal and finally finish writing this piece. Although it would be quite poetic if my argument for using IRC was prematurely aborted because I could not pull myself from Irssi/Comic Chat long enough to actually write it, this scenario would be of no benefit to anyone.

For those unaware, IRC is a primordial (by Internet standards) yet stalwart chat protocol dating back to 1988. The basic way it works is that people use an IRC client to connect to an IRC daemon running on another computer (an IRC server), where they are able to pick a name and interact with other people over text, either by joining a channel that they are in, or privately messaging them. Although it has severely declined in popularity since its golden age in favour of social media and Discord, I have found myself more attached to the ostensibly dying protocol than ever before lately for a myriad of reasons that I wish to share here.

For transparency's sake, I should probably point out immediately that I am a long-time stubborn aficionado of retro technology and culture, both in ways that other people admire, and in ways that make me come off as an eccentric lunatic.

Among other things, I still use a flip phone, collect and listen to music CDs, use Office 97 (the very first version I ever owned), listen to music on an MP3 player while on the go, own two CRT televisions along with a VCR and a collection of VHS tapes, collect and read physical books, and own two CRT monitors that I use with my 1999 Compaq gaming computer that still proudly runs Windows 98 and hosts the DOS/Windows 9x games that still make up the bulk of the games that I enjoy.

As returning visitors likely know, in the year of our Lord, 2022, I also proudly host my own IRC server, where I spend an extremely unhealthy amount of my time chatting with beloved like-minded people. Using an "archaic" chat platform that dates back to the 80s and that has lost the majority of the userbase it enjoyed during its peak may seem like a form of nostalgia bordering on abject madness when looked at from the outside. Yet, I daresay it is easily one of the most easily defensible and reasonable of the life choices that I have just listed off.

Cut the (Dis)Cord

If you look around for a place to chat in real time with other people in this day and age, chances are more than good that you'll quickly be directed to a Discord server. This is an unfortunate state of affairs for many reasons. To put it succintly, Discord is a centralised and proprietary platform that spies on its users in every conceivable way, right down to what logging what programs they have running on their computer and demanding people self-dox by providing their phone number. All of this information is then put to use to allow advertisers to better target Discord's userbase.

I am aware that most people have become completely lamentably desensitised to corporate and government surveillance, and may thus not be greatly alarmed by these facts. However, I would assume that most (if not all) of those people would feel quite violated if a salesperson began stalking them in "real life", listening in to every conversation they had with their family/friends from a distance, and then physically approaching on the street and peddling products to them in suspiciously prescient ways.

The fundamental fact that Discord users refuse to see is that the platform isn't run on magic dust and fairy incantations, but actual human beings. Using Discord is no different from having a group of strangers sitting in your room with you, noting down every word you say to your friends and everything you run on your computer, and doing the devil knows what with it.

Even if you have full-on Stockholm syndrome in regard to advertisers data-mining your life to sell you garbage, who knows where else your data could be going? Considering the horrific epidemic of sexual abuse being abetted and covered up in the workplace, is it really too difficult to imagine malicious actors at Discord (or any other technology company) illegitimately accessing the data of their business' users and using it for stalking or other nefarious purposes?

The complete de-centralisation of IRC, unlike Discord, is also well worth expanding on. Since IRC is a standard and not a platform like Discord, anyone with access to reliable hosting and basic computer knowledge can set up their own IRC server. As I joked to a friend recently, I am free to ban anyone from an IRC channel I own, but there is nothing stopping them from then starting #koshkaisafag and regrouping. I can try to get them banned from the server, but there is also nothing stopping them from setting up their own server as irc.koshkaisafag.info and regrouping as a completely sovereign entity that no one can touch any longer.

There are certainly a number of monolithic IRC networks, such as Rizon, EFNet, and Libera Chat, that make up the vast bulk of the IRC world, but there are also many thousands of smaller networks dotting the landscape. There are just over 500 networks whose channels are indexed by the IRC search engine Netsplit.de, but this engine still only covers fairly large networks, and excludes the great many networks that are either private or very small and obscure. Some of these may be intended entirely for a small group of friends, or may be used by a business to communicate privately.

There certainly is no magical check in any IRCd daemon to stop a rogue IRCOp from banning individuals for no coherent reason, or blackmailing someone into providing their phone number and/or other personal information in order to stay on a server (although, unlike with Discord, I have never heard of this occurring on IRC before), but the complete de-centralisation of the IRC world means that allowing such abuses of power is quite detrimental to an IRC network. If an IRCOp goes rogue, their reign of terror is unlikely to last for much longer as word goes out and users either flee to another network or set their own up.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the rapid fall of Freenode, which underwent a rapid collapse after a hostile takeover of the network by new management seeking to use it to make a quick buck. In the span of mere months, the most popular IRC network in the world was reduced to a disgraced and nearly moribund shell of its former self, as disgruntled users fled enmasse to the newly established Libera Chat network.

I touched on the problems of centralisation and why de-centralisation was a key tenet of the old Internet in my acclaimed article Make the Web Great Again, and Discord does not get nearly enough bad press for its role in destroying this aspect of the Internet. Much as the dreaded Reddit has largely paved a fascist monopoly over the niche once occupied by a bounty of independent Web forums, Discord has done the same with the chat world, replacing the sea of independent and free IRC servers with a single corporate walled garden whose owners each user must avoid offending in any way, lest they be entirely cast out of the public square.

This problem is so endemic on the modern Internet that not only is there a sea of unintentionally comical Neocities "Web 1.0" websites featuring their owners jabbering about how much they miss the old Internet while inviting people to chat on the webmaster/webmistress' Discord server in the same breath, but even actually respectable people and outfits (who I will not name out of politeness) that have migrated to Discord because all of their misguided friends use it and refuse to budge. Even I, for all of my frenzied rabble-rousing, briefly created a Discord account a few years ago to speak with a friend before quitting the service out of disgust.

Nonetheless, for all of the social issues it causes me, being autistic has also given me the stubbornness of a mountain, and I have long since vowed to never touch the service again no matter who or what I may need it for. Each person who avoids big technology companies pushes the stake slightly deeper into the frigid, rotten heart of the privacy vampire that Discord and other big technology companies are (no offence intended to comparatively benevolent actual vampires with this comparison). Each person who avoids these services is also one less carrot for the vampire to dangle away over other people's heads to convince them to stay in its cave.

For more information on the many sordid problems with Discord, please check out these two guides written by the esteemed Richard Stallman and Spyware Watchdog over on Neocities on why Discord should be avoided like a berserk chainsaw-wielding leper, if you have not done so already.

A Rare Sanctuary

My good friend lolwut made a very astute observation some time ago about IRC being a nearly infallible NORP filter, and thus a very rare safe port from the normiefication storm, due to the apparent "complexities" involved in getting on IRC, and the sheer age and and its lack of sleekness of the protocol relative to Discord and other modern alternatives. Anyone who has ever used IRC knows that there is nothing even remotely complicated about using it, but the terminology and the steps required to use one are ostensibly terrifying enough to reliably keep the technically illiterate at bay.

A number of Web chat interfaces have been invented over the years to entice normalcattle onto IRC, but even this has proven to be an abject failure, as well over 90% of cases end with the NORP leaving after 30 seconds of inactivity, apparently appalled by the fact that a protocol that is utilised by people who could be online from anywhere in the world and who could be doing any manner of non-IRC related things would have lulls in activity. In fact, the only real use that these clients seem to get is from regulars who temporarily lack access to a real IRC client. On my end, I rely on Kiwi IRC to get on IRC from my flip phone, which has no SSH client or IRC client, but does have a Web browser.

Seeing as the world of IRC is a nearly NORP-free oasis, most people are mature and intelligent enough to understand that words on a screen are just that, and that it is quite simple to withdraw from them if one does not want to deal with them. Aside from actually leaving a channel to get away from an unpleasant user, it is possible to use the ignore function to block any further correspondence from them. Many networks also provide some sort of server-side ignore functionality to stop a user from receiving any private messages that don't come from a pre-approved user.

Due to the fact that IRC power is effectively meaningless (as it should be on any part of the Internet!), the common theme for governance on most IRC servers is delightfully adherent to the ways of the old Internet. As is nicely summarised here, IRCOps (the administrators of an IRC network) are normally completely neutral entities that allow users to govern themselves and their channels however they see fit, only wielding their power in dire situations such as when someone's actions are endangering the security of the server or breaking national law.

Indeed, while on smaller and more "intimate" networks, such as my own, running into the local IRCOp(s) is a common occurrence, it is actually quite rare to actually have even a single interaction with an IRCOp on any large server, unless they happen to be part of a channel you are in. Seeing as anyone can start their own channel(s), and run them however they see fit, there is very rarely a need for an IRCOp to do anything beyond keeping the power on and changing the light bulbs when they go bad.

In contrast to much of the modern Internet, IRC is also largely anonymous, another key tenet of the old Internet. Beyond not requiring any personal information to participate (in contrast to Discord, where the service itself often requires a phone number, and some individual rooms go as far as requiring social media background checks, lest some normalfag SJW gets an aneurysm from reading a mean word), many modern IRC servers (including my own) also cloak people's IP addresses and offer the option of VHosts, which are custom (fake or real) domain names that people can choose to substitute in for their IP address. Additionally, most IRC networks allow users to connect via a VPN or (less often) Tor.

A quick word of caution for anyone who is new to IRC and who I may have inspired to go spelunking: the key word in the previous few sentences is "most". VHosts and IP cloaking are modern IRC conveniences, and not every network offers them. EFNet, the most ancient IRC network in the world and the child of the very first IRC network, is particularly notorious for stubbornly eschewing just about every modern IRC convenience there is.

Not only does EFNet still display people's full IP addresses (assuming the server they are connecting to does not have its own domain name), but it also does not even have services such as NickServ and ChanServ for people to register their names and channels in order to retain ownership over them! This "wild west" landscape is not nearly as chaotic and exciting as it may sound, especially since everyone on the server is seemingly connected from a shell or a bouncer that they last touched while speculating on what will happen on Y2K.

Extending IRC

While some changes have occurred in the IRC world over the decades, the protocol itself dates back all the way back to 1988, and was designed to be sustainable on the Internet speeds of that bygone era. In contrast to Discord and the bloated client that it pushes down user's throats, IRC is such a bare bones and low-consumption protocol that you can even connect to it via the command prompt or terminal using Telnet (although you do have to manually ping the IRC server you're connected to in order for it to not assume that your connection died)!

The reliability and lack of bloat that are inherent to IRC ultimately also means that there are a number of fancy modern features that Discord has that IRC lacks, a big one being the inability to view backlogs of conversations that transpired while one was not connected to an IRC server. Although IRC does not itself provide this functionality, the extremely simple nature of IRC allows for a couple of lightweight options for reliably remaining on IRC around the clock and not missing out on a word that anyone says.

The most sublime option by far involves running a terminal-based client such as Irssi (the most sublime IRC client in existence, in my personal opinion) or WeeChat on a Linux/BSD server in a terminal multiplexer such as Screen or Tmux. One can then SSH into the server from any Internet-connected computer at their leisure, and take control of their IRC client as if it had been running on their current computer this entire time.

For my part, I have been on IRC this way since 2006 on a variety shells from my very first one which was provided to me by a friend of mine on his server, to free publicly offered ones, to Raspberry Pi servers I set up in my house, to my current one which runs on the same server running my website and other infrastructure. Given how useful and reliable this is, and how efficient and sleek Irssi is, I cannot imagine why anyone would want to use any other client or method.

Nonetheless, for fans of non-terminal clients such as HexChat and mIRC (there is no accounting for taste, I suppose), there also exists the option of IRC bouncers. These are essentially bots that connect to specific IRC servers/channels under their owner's name and log all of the messages that they receive. The bouncer's owner in turn connects to the bouncer like an IRC server, after which they are provided the backlog of what occurred during their absence and are able to take full control of the bouncer to chat like they normally would on an IRC server.

Being a bare bones public protocol, IRC does suffer the issue of being easy to snoop on. Thankfully, many IRC networks do allow users to connect via SSL, the port for which is usually 6697, as opposed to the usual 6667. A single user in a channel not using SSL can completely compromise everyone else's efforts, but it is possible to restrict anyone not connected via SSL from joining a channel. Additionally, a number of clients on Linux (Irssi, WeeChat, and HexChat) also allow users to set up OTR in order to have fully encrypted private one-on-one conversations with anyone else who has this plugin.

Other features that are notably absent from IRC but present on Discord are image-sharing and voice chat/video chat. Before going into the available options for an IRC user needing these features, I must say that personally view all three of these features as being utterly extraneous, and not even remotely worth the many dire downsides that come with Discord even if they were not. I wrote an entire article outlining why writing is provably superior to speaking as a communication method, so I will not elaborate further here.

Needless to say, as an autistic person who goes online because I am actually able to socialise without the vexing machinations of in-person/verbal communication, I have never voice-chatted in my life and only used a webcamera once when I had to in order to do a job evaluation during quarantine. Even considering over 98% of people aren't autistic, I still do not understand how anyone can enjoy or even seek out voice chat. For one, it would interrupt my habit of listening to music any time I am at the computer, and for two, it would morph online conversations from completely anonymous exchanges to ones that are broadcasted to everybody in the vicinity of the participants, while also providing dox fuel for all involved.

My angry grumbling aside, for anyone who absolutely feels the need to ruin the simple sublimity of text conversation with voice chat, there do exist relatively safe outside services, notably Mumble, that users can switch over from IRC for when needed. Admittedly, this is an extra step that requires reliance on infrastructure outside of IRC, but I would classify that as more than worth being able to have a conversation with minimal fear of privacy violation. Mumble is free software and, much like IRC, allows for anyone to set up their own personal server to communicate on.

The issue of image sharing is once again something that can be very easily worked around by either uploading any images one wishes to share to one's personal server, or to an image hosting service such as Catbox.moe, or Uguu.se. Again, this is an extra step that winds up requiring reliance on infrastructure outside of IRC, but one that takes very minimal effort. It should be noted however, that IRC does allow for sending files from one person to the other using the DCC protocol, so only sharing images with an entire group at once requires leaving its borders. The only issue is that DCC is implemented differently by various clients and may be blocked by the firewall by default.

Nevertheless, for people seeking a facsimile of video chat on IRC, there does exist a fascinating alternative that allows for something close to it: the truly sublime Microsoft Comic Chat, a completely unique IRC client that Microsoft invented during its golden age of the 90s. Although Microsoft wound up discontinuing it over 20 years ago in favour of MSN Messenger, it continues to enjoy a cult following to this day, and for very good reason.

In a stroke of absolute genius, Comic Chat rejects the typical text-only approach of other IRC clients, and instead renders IRC channels as in-progress comic strips, with every participant being able to choose an avatar for themselves and punctuate everything they say with a specific facial expression or pose.

Beyond being patently hilarious (many of the default avatars are absolutely insane, and most of the custom-made ones are comical ones such as sunglasses-wearing cats and obese Vikings), Comic Chat adds an entirely new dimension to conversations, allowing people to express themselves with facial expressions and body language to emphasise and clarify what they are saying. The client even allows you to send a facial expression as a reaction without including any words at all, for situations where body language alone gets one's message across better than words.

While this was certainly not the intended goal behind Comic Chat, and it is a program that is enjoyed by a great many neurotypicals, I personally adore it enough to argue that it may be the ideal communication method for autistic people. Most characters have such exaggerated facial expressions and body language that just about anyone can clearly understand them, and the nature of IRC means that anyone participating in a conversation has plenty of time to process everything and is not pressured to immediately and constantly send out many complex social cues every moment of an interaction.

I will admit that Microsoft Comic Chat has quite a buffoonish reputation, owing to the inherent silliness of the program and its sheer age (sadly, this is considered by many to be an actual criticism by itself). Its association with the ludicrous NSFW web comic Jerkcity also likely did no PR favours for it. Yet just as many other great inventions were happy accidents, I do believe that in their tomfoolery, Microsoft accidentally created one of the most useful methods of communication we autistic people have available to us. One that, even by itself, more than justifies the continued existence of IRC in my eyes. I suppose the fact that I get to be an angelic pink kitty on IRC helps a lot too. ^-^


Although my main purpose for writing this article is to inspire some people to change their ways and consider migrating from the proprietary spyware platform of Discord to free and de-centralised prairies such as IRC and Mumble, it would be a lost opportunity to not advertise my own burgeoning IRC network here. If you have any interest in interacting with a wise, witty, and welcoming group of Internet/computing/gaming nostalgics (and also, myself), be sure to steer your IRC client of choice towards KoshkaIRC at irc.koshka.love, the main channel of which is # (literally as simple of a channel name as it can get).

There has also recently been a Microsoft Comic Chat renaissance on the same server, in the channel #comicchat. Due to the fact that participating requires a separate IRC client which cannot be run on a shell and is too primitive to connect to a bouncer, and the fact that people on the network hail from time zones all over, I have decided to host an all-day named Comic Chat Caturday event on Saturdays (or closer to Sundays, for people in the enigmatic land of Oceania) from now on to make it easier for people to participate.

Although a program designed only for Windows, it is possible to get Comic Chat running in Linux, and my good friend ShadowM00n has written an excellent guide on how exactly to set this program up on Linux using Wine.

Microsoft Comic Chat comes with a default set of rather insane avatars that are probably best known as the cast characters of the aforementioned Jerkcity/BoneQuest, which gloriously appropriated them as a bunch of lunatics shrieking about homosexual intercourse, drugs, and monster poos, but there is a sea of custom avatars available for you to download at Mermaid Elizabeth's monolithic Comic Chat website.

Aside from being the author's vast personal Comic Chat resource, this site also hosts a massive trove of defunct Comic Chat websites created over the decades, and all of the avatars and other resources that they hosted. From kitties of every shape and stripe, to anime characters, to Vikings, to all sorts of other options, there should be something for everyone on there.

Seeing as autism and general old computing-related nostalgia are the two main themes of this website, I could not think of a more fitting event for fans of this website than a day dedicated to this delightful ancient, autistic-friendly IRC client. Whether you've never used Comic Chat before, or you're familiar with it and want to give it another spin, be sure to drop by this Saturday and join in the fun! As long as people continue using free and open protocols, and upholding the tenets of old, the good old Internet will never truly die.

Many thank yous to ShadowM00n, both for his amazingly thorough proof-reading, and for writing the aforementioned article about running Comic Chat on Linux, and to jvlfools, for his own helpful proof-reading!