"Thousands of people in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States are joined together at this moment in a cross-cultural grab bag of written conversations known as Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC has enabled a global subculture to construct itself from three fundamental elements: artificial but stable identities, quick wit, and the use of words to construct an imagined shared context for conversation. For a student of virtual communities, IRC is an opportunity to observe a critical experiment-in-progress: What are the minimum elements of communication necessary for a group of people to cocreate a sense of community? What kinds of cultures emerge when you remove from human discourse all cultural artifacts except written words?
"An artificial but stable identity means that you can never be certain about the flesh-person behind an IRC nickname, but you can be reasonably certain that the person you communicate with today under a specific nickname is the same one who used that nickname yesterday. There's nothing to stop anybody from getting a new nickname and creating a new identity, but both the old and the new nicknames have to be unique. The stability of nicknames is one of the few formally structured social requirements in IRCland; an automatic "Nickserv" program ensures that nobody can use a nickname ("nick") that has been registered by someone else.
"Quick wit is necessary because rapidity of response becomes important in this written medium in the same way it is important in face-to-face conversation. IRC is a dynamic form of communication: new comments appear at the bottom of your screen as you watch, and older comments scroll off the top of your screen. Somewhere in the world, a human being has typed those words on a keyboard, no more than a couple seconds ago; if you know the right words to say in response, you can leap into the conversation and make that person and others around the world laugh out loud, grow angry, feel lustful.
"Perhaps one attraction of IRC is that the conversation literally continues to move up your screen as you watch. You can treat IRC as a spectator sport, never venturing into the flow. Or you can show the IRC tribe how fast you are with a well-worded rejoinder by keeping up with other participants in a rapid interweaving of cleverly linked comments. IRC is a stream. Many people who work for long hours in front of computer workstations--college students, computer programmers--leave a small "window" on their computer screens tuned in to IRC while they go about their day's work. They have their own automated programs, known as bots, to greet newcomers and say goodbye to people who leave. When they see something interesting going on, from the corner of their eye, they jump in.
"The initial absence and subsequent reconstruction of social context is the third fundamental element that IRC enthusiasts use to build their subculture. Without facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, clothing, shared physical environment, or any other contextual cues that signal the physical presence of participants in a social group, IRC participants use words alone to reconstruct contexts in their own image, adding imagined actions (such as "Howard smiles ironically" or "Howard takes offense and it looks like he's going to punch you in the nose") as metadescriptions to the running dialogue. These virtual actions are typographically set apart from words meant as straight dialogue. The "actions" in IRCland are the same as "poses" or "emoting" in MUDs, and serve a similar purpose. They add a modifier to the strict definitions of words, indicating intention, mood, or other contextual cues.
"Those thousands of people tuned into IRC at any one time are divided into hundreds of "channels" that Internet users can "join" or "leave" at any time; like Usenet newsgroups, the channels operating at any one time include a rich variety of topics, from the scholarly to the obscene. Farflung business groups, task forces of technical experts, and scholars also use IRC to do real work. I have participated in IRC discussions of electronic publishing, organized by the participants in an electronic mailing list who wanted to add a real-time dimension to our collegial relationship. This variation of CMC wasn't invented specifically for real work, however. IRC was invented as a means of playing with communication, and that remains its most popular use.