Eric Karjaluoto

Resurrecting IRC

Last fall, @shelkie wanted to learn more about cryptocurrency. So, he started building miners for fun. Along the way, he had some questions and found IRC Bitcoin channels a good place to ask them. Later, he talked to me about how surprising he found the technology: In spite of it being cumbersome, antiquated, and forgotten by many, those using it had maintained a vital community.

If you’re unfamiliar with IRC (as I was), a brief history: In 1988, fellow Finn, Jarkko Oikarinen created Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which uses a client/server model to facilitate transfer of messages. These allowed for discussion forums (channels), private messaging, and file transfer. By 2003, there were around a million IRC users, and half-a-million IRC channels; since then, those numbers have dropped by nearly half.

After a few of our talks about IRC, I decided to give it a try for myself. Although I feel comfortable with most technologies, I found using IRC a little arduous. In fact, I eventually had to use a how-to guide, just to make sense of installing a client, finding a server, and configuring my client to gain access. Not a great experience; however, once I got in, I could see why @shelkie was interested in the general notion behind IRC—and why he thought it was primed for a sort of rebirth.

Lately, I’ve come to use Twitter as a broadcast/response tool. I post cheeky remarks and new articles when I have them; additionally, if someone asks a question through Twitter, I respond. That said, I find that the 140 character limit tends to stymie more involved conversations. Meanwhile, I don’t quite know what to do with Facebook any longer. I dislike the notion of clogging colleagues’ news feeds with kid/dog photos, and similarly suspect that family members have little interest in my work-related banter.

Sure, Facebook and Google have tried to solve this problem with features like Circles, which ask you to group your connections into certain buckets. However, the problem with this approach is that they’re effectively asking users to do a whole bunch of categorization (or Information Architecture), which is tedious. On the other hand, IRC is interesting, as it uses subject matter as a starting point, instead of connections. So, if I want to discuss UX or Art with those who care about those topics; a service like IRC allows me to, without having to bug my less-interested friends.

We felt that IRC represented a great “in-betweeny” technology that, although no longer fashionable, solved a problem no other network currently did. We also noted that until someone removed the headaches associated with configuring a client and connecting to a server, new users probably wouldn’t bother giving it a try.

At smashLAB, we love building things for the web. So, we got to work on Chapp (the name is a portmanteau of chat and app), which we see as a kind of updated IRC. At this time, it is just an experiment; but, we’re keen on its promise. Built on Meteor and node.js, Chapp is a network that allows anyone to browse channels (topics) and create new ones, almost instantly.

Most channels are public and so far range from #AnimatedGIFs to famous Canadian, #RobFord, to even #Eyeglasses. However, users can also create private channels that allow them to connect their companies, teams, friends, and families in closed settings. (For example, I use Chapp as an email replacement, for communicating with my parents and brother.)

We soft-launched Chapp a few weeks ago, and asked a few friends to give it a spin. We’re grateful for folks like @matt, @sthursby, and @juddc who’ve essentially served as an impromptu user-testing team. During this process, we’ve identified some issues, and started modifying the app, on the fly. Some changes happened fast, with a number of features being requested and deployed in less than an hour. The app is far from perfect—actually, it’s still rough around the edges. That said, we’re pushing out updates continually, and are working to build something that’s simple, efficient, and useful.

I suppose we could have refined Chapp more before releasing; but, we don’t like the idea of building this app in a vacuum. Instead, we want people like you to take part, use it, and tell us what you like/don’t. It’s through this sort of interaction that we learn how to make something that works for you. And, frankly, that’s what drives us to do this kind of work: the simple understanding that we’re buiding something good that people use.

Try Chapp and tell us what you think.

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