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Getting started with IRC

Everything you wanted to know about IRC but didn't know how to ask

Every week, I often include a link to an IRC channel for support or additional information about whatever I'm writing about. I don't intend to stop doing that, but it has occurred to me that not everyone reading the column is IRC-literate.

Until now, that is. After reading this brief primer on IRC, my dweebs, you will be fluent in the lingua francois of the online world (read: le typo) and be able to chat with the best of them. You'll also be a little bit closer to earning your IRC Wilderness Survival merit badge. In certain states, you may also have whiter teeth and a faster burn-rate for fat.

Internet Relay Chat. IRC. Like other flavors of real-time chatting, its primary draw is its ability to scratch an itch right now, thank you very much. It was born in the late 1980's. August of 1988, to be exact. It spread from Finland to MIT's legendary AI Lab, and then elsewhere.

IRC certainly wasn't the first real-time chat available. Commercial services like The Source, Portal, and CompuServe all predated it. AOL consumed two of those operations and its various "chat rooms" today run the gamut from cooking to X-rated romance. IRC offers pretty much the same fare, only more so. In fact, IRC newbie tip No. 1 is a warning: Be careful out there. You can find just about anything you are looking for and a lot more that you may not want to see.

IRC networks are hosted on single or multiple servers, all linked together. When you sign on to an IRC network, you sign on through a single server, but once connected you can chat with all users signed on to any server. IRC networks, thank goodness, are separate entities. They do not all come together as one seething, boiling, IRC jumbo-gumbo network. That's a good thing, because the sheer size of some of the biggest networks is already intimidating.

Take Undernet, for example. It is divided into regional nets, including a group of European servers and a group of American servers. Undernet offers more than 40,000 channels. If you only speak AOL, a channel is the same thing as a room. That leads me to tip No. 2, just for AOL users: If you show up on an IRC channel and say "Hello, room," everyone is going to know that you are fresh meat, a newbie from AOL. Some miscreants may even welcome you with taunts of "AOLamer." Ignore them.

Know too that because of the wide-open, Wild-West nature of the Internet, many of those 40,000 channels are ones that you will probably want to avoid. The Internet does not come with parental controls. There are pedophiles and collectors of child pornography. There are software pirates. There are all manner of computer criminals, from misdemeanor script kiddies, to federal agents (narcs) to felonious crackers trading stolen credit card data. There is a lot of good stuff, too. But the truth of the matter is that many people are so put-off by the bad stuff that they give up on the whole notion of IRC before they ever really get started.

However, you can avoid 99 percent of the bad by going to a different network. You are not required by law to go to the big ones like EFnet or Undernet. In fact, most of the time when I include an IRC channel as a resource, it is on FreeNode.net (once known as OpenProjects). There are other smaller, more-focused networks to choose from that are equally safe.

Linux clients abound

Most modern Linux distributions include X-Chat, a friendly and usable IRC client. That's what I use. Please don't ask me about the one-year period I was using X-Chat while thinking I was using Bitch-X. I will deny the story. If you don't care for X-Chat, you might try Bitch-X. If neither strikes your fancy, go to FreshMeat.net and browse for IRC clients. There are more than a hundred from which to choose.

Visiting a busy channel on IRC can be a little bit intimidating at first. You will see messages (usually no more than a line or two long) scroll by at an alarming rate. Let's ease into it bit by bit.

The first time you run X-Chat, a screen that allows you to set your nickname (nick for short) and a couple of alternates will appear. X-Chat builds a primary, secondary and tertiary choice for you by using your user name and growing a tail on it for the second and third choices. That way, if someone is already using that nick on the IRC network you've signed on to, it will automatically go to the second or third choice as needed.

After selecting a server from the server list — or adding a new one if it's not already in the list — signing on to the network is as easy as clicking on its name. That brings up tip number three for IRC newbies: Know where you are going before you get there. If you know where you want to go, then once you sign on to the network you can simply type in the command /join #channel and then press enter.

A new tabbed window for the channel will appear. If you join several channels at once, and this is not an unusual thing for an old IRC hand to do, a new tabbed window appears for each one. Just click on the tab to display the window for the channel you want at the moment.

If you ignore my advice and just want to browse, you can easily display a list of all the channels available on the network by typing /list and press enter. You only want to do this on the smaller networks, however. Remember, you can find more than 40,000 channels on Undernet. If you did this on Undernet and didn't have a broadband connection or better, you would probably get disconnected because your client couldn't keep up with the listing.

The image below shows the results of the /list command on FreeNode.net, which only had about 3,000 channels formed at the time. The number of people on the channel, the channel name and the channel topic are shown for each.

List results on Freenode.net

When you join a channel, the window for that channel is divided into three panes. Along the left-hand margin of the window, the nick of the person typing the message (displayed in the large center pane) is displayed. Most messages are only a line or two long. Along the right-hand margin of the window is a scrollable list of the nicks of all the people joined to that channel.

Along the top of the channel window, the topic or raison d'etre for the channel is displayed. At the bottom is the area where you type in your own messages or commands. The X-Chat interface is very intuitive and not at all difficult to use or understand.

Understanding 'The Rules'

For help withNetworkChannel
RedHat Freenode.net#Redhat

Every channel has its own rules for acceptable behavior. Learn them and adhere to them, and you will have a much more pleasant experience. To get you started, here are three handy rules that travel pretty well no matter where you go. By the way, at the top right-hand side of the channel window, where the nicks of the folks on the channel appear, the nicks preceded by a bullet are called "ops." They are the channel operators, and they have the power to kick or ban folks from the channel.

1. Be patient

If you've come for help on a specific problem, ask your question and then ask for a response. Do not repeat it every 30 seconds. If someone hasn't replied in five minutes, ask again. If nobody responds after that, you may as well look somewhere else for assistance or come back later.

2. Be precise

If you are describing your problem or stating your question, be as specific as you know how to be in terms of hardware, software and environment. State which distribution and which release you are running, for example. The better you describe the situation, the better help you will receive.

If you are addressing someone in particular, begin each message you type to them with his or her nick. If you were asking me a question, for example, you would type "warthawg: does it run on Red Hat?" This makes it easier for the other person to know that you are talking to them, and when there are several conversations going on concurrently, it's very easy to miss a line or two if they are not specifically "addressed" to the recipient.

Ask the question on the right channel. If you have a question about Evolution, and you know there is an Evolution support channel, ask there instead of on a general Linux- or Gnome-help channel.

3. Be nice

Sometimes the volunteers helping on the channel get a little short, even rude. They are allowed. You're not. You are there to take, they are there to give. Give them a little slack. Don't give them reason to become even more frustrated. Believe me, it can be very frustrating trying to help people. Whether they get short or not, these are folk who are giving of their time to provide a service for the community. Give them the respect and courtesy they deserve.

Finally, here is a short list of channels that I recommend as being good for specific needs. I'm sure there are others who would list different or additional channels. I just hope everyone who does know of a better channel — or who just wants to shout out his or her own favorites — does so in the forum.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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