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                     **ON INTERNET RELAY CHAT**

                        Elizabeth M. Reid
                          Honours Thesis
                      University Of Melbourne
                       Department Of History

                          Internet email:


I would like to thank the History Department for sponsoring my use of 
the University of Melbourne's computing facilities, which enabled me 
to undertake this research. I would also like to thank Richard Oxbrow 
of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and 
Matthew Higgins of the Department of Engineering Computer Resources, 
for allowing me to use the computing facilities of each of those 
departments. Lastly, I would like to thank Daniel Carosone (Waftam on 
IRC) for his unfailing support, and for his advice on technical 

Despite the recent innovations of radio and telecommunications, 
communication and language theorists make a sharp distinction between 
the spoken and the written word.  That distinction is based on a 
perception of temporal and spatial proximity in the case of spoken 
communication, and distance in the case of written communication. 
"Most analyses of linguistic interaction," as Naomi Baron notes, "are 
based on the paradigm of two people speaking face-to-face."(1) It is 
further assumed that alternative methods of communication - 
telephones and letters for example - supplement, as Baron expresses 
it, 'normal' face-to-face communication.(2) The underlying assumption 
that physical contact is necessarily a part of human communication 
pervades social theory. This is understandable. Until recently, 
physical contact was almost always a prerequisite for communication, 
with letters mainly being transmitted between people who had met in 
the flesh. Even the telephone assumes physical contact. It is 
generally only in the business world that people phone others whom 
they have not met, and personal telephone conversations are, as in 
the case of letters, conducted between people who are already known 
to each other. 

The technology of computer-mediated communication offers an 
alternative to this. Computer-mediated communications systems 
(CMCS's) use computers and telecommunications networks to compose, 
store, deliver and process communication.  There are three basic 
types of computer-mediated communication systems: email, news, and 
chat programs. 'Email', or electronic mail, allows users of computer 
systems to send messages to each other. 'News' allows users to send 
messages to a database divided under subject headings, facilitating 
electronic mail between multiple users on diverse subjects. These two 
types of communication are asynchronous - messages, whether private 
email or public news, can be created and received at widely separated 
times, allowing time for reflection and deliberation in response. The 
third type of CMCS is the chat program, which does not store messages 
but transmits one person's typing directly to the monitor of another 
person or group of people. Chat programs deal in a form of 
synchronous communication that defies conventional understandings of 
the differences between spoken and written language.

CMCS's are a recent development, with widespread availability only 
becoming possible within the last decade. Consequently, little has 
been written about them outside of technical considerations of their 
design and implementation. The few articles that have addressed the 
subject tend to do so from a commercial orientation - discussing the 
impact of CMC on problem solving techniques, office communication and 
corporate structure.(3) An assumption that is commonly made by 
researchers of computer-mediated communication is that the medium is 
not conducive to emotional exchanges. As Ronald Rice and Gail Love 
state, "the typical conclusion is that as [the communication] 
bandwidth narrows, media allow less 'social presence'; communication 
is likely to be described as less friendly, emotional, or personal 
and more serious, business-like and task oriented."(4) This may have 
been found to be the case in some instances, and may reflect the 
overall concern among researchers to study CMC in a business 
environment. But computer-mediated communication systems are not - 
either theoretically or in practice - limited to commercial use. It 
is also possible to use them for social interaction. Internet Relay 
Chat is one such system. IRC is a multi-user synchronous 
communication facility that is available all over the world to people 
with access to the 'Internet' network of computer systems.  IRC was 
not specifically designed for a business environment - the use to 
which it is put is entirely decided by those who use it. Work is 
certainly done on IRC. It is an excellent forum for consultations 
between workers on different points of the globe - everything from 
programming to translation to authorial collaboration goes on on IRC. 
However, a large part of what goes on on IRC is not work but play, 
and it is this aspect of it that I will address.

Communication using the  Internet Relay Chat program is written, and 
users are spatially distant, but it is also synchronous. It is a 
written - or rather, typed - form of communication that is 
transmitted, received and responded to within a time frame that has 
formerly been only thought relevant to spoken communication. IRC does 
not assume physical contact between users - either prior to or 
after communication via computer. Users of the system will, as the 
medium is international, know in person at most only a few fellow 
users. IRC allows - encourages - recreational communication between 
people who have never been, most likely will never be, in a situation 
to base their knowledge of each other and their methods of 
communication on physical cues.

Users of IRC do not, however, have no knowledge of each other. The 
people who make up the IRC community are effectively preselected by 
external social structures -  access to IRC is restricted to those 
who have access to the Internet computer network. There are many such 
people - the Internet spans countries as diverse as Germany, the 
United States, Japan, Israel, Australia and Korea. However, those 
individuals who use IRC will be in an economically privileged 
position in their society. They have access to high technology. Due 
to the nature of the computer network on which IRC runs, the 
Internet, they will most likely be members of an academic community, 
often students of computer science.(5) Interaction on IRC is then 
carried out in the knowledge that users are on a rough equality - 
according to conventional economic measures - and members of 
similarly privileged social groups. This 'equality' is not intrinsic 
to IRC, it is a by-product of the social structures surrounding 
computer technology.

Nevertheless, IRC provides a unique field to the social theorist.  It 
challenges and forces an escape from traditional paradigms of social 
interaction by reference to an architecture that allows relative 
anonymity. It stands as a challenge to the methods of analysis that 
have been directed at computer-mediated communication systems. IRC 
was not designed to perform a corporate function, nor has it come to 
do so. It was intended to be a tool for social interaction between 
spatially disparate people, and as such it cannot be completely 
explained or analysed by reference to the methods used by other CMC 

Interaction on IRC involves a deconstruction of traditional 
assumptions about the dynamics of communication, and the construction 
of alternative systems. IRC is essentially a playground. Within its 
domain people are free to experiment with different forms of 
communication and self-representation. Within IRC, "Power is 
challenged and supplanted by rituals combining both destruction and 
rejuvenation."(7) To paraphrase F.R. Ankersmit, users of IRC do not 
shape themselves according to or in conformity with the conventions 
of social contexts external to the medium, but learn to "play" their 
"cultural game" with them.(8)

This is my central thesis, and I will seek to address it from two 
perspectives. My first concern will be the methods by which users of 
IRC utilise the medium in the deconstruction of social boundaries. As 
I have suggested, users of IRC are a pre-selected community - they 
have much in common as far as such considerations as social position 
and education are concerned. IRC, however, presents unique problems 
for the expression of this community. The methods by which such 
groups are usually held together rely on physical proximity. These 
methods are not open to users of IRC - computer-mediated 
communication challenges and deconstructs these social tools. I will 
discuss the means by which communication on IRC does this. 

My second concern is the construction of alternative communities on 
IRC. Denied or having deconstructed the more traditional methods of 
sustaining a community, users of IRC must develop alternative or 
parallel methods. Both positive and negative methods of sustaining 
community are developed on IRC. Computer-mediated rewards and 
punishments are developed, and complex rituals have evolved to keep 
users within the IRC 'fold' and to regulate the use of authority. 

Discussion of these points will lead to a presentation of the social 
discourse of IRC. The challenging of the power of social norms and 
their replacement with rituals combining both destruction and 
rejuvenation, brings into play areas of discourse that are 
postmodern. This connection between postmodernism and that phase of 
culture and technology marked by computerisation has been remarked 
upon by even those antipathetic to the discourse. Perez Zagorin 
describes postmodernism as "a fundamental mutation in the sphere of 
culture reflecting the new multinational phase of... [the] electronic 
society."(9) Culture, as defined by Schneider, is a "system of 
symbols and meanings."(10) Since computer-mediated communication 
systems are "designed specifically to affect the transmission of 
symbols and meanings", IRC - which is both international and 
electronic - has the potential to alter understandings of cultural 
analysis.(11) My conclusion is that Internet Relay Chat, by 
deconstructing social boundaries and by the ways in which users 
construct their own community and culture, is a postmodern 

Cultural criticism in this postmodern age is, as Alan Lui states, 
governed by "its belief that criticism can, and must, engage with 
context".(12) It is also, as Ankersmit suggests, reflexive, self-
referential.(13) If history is to be able to address the questions 
raised by computer-mediated culture, then historians must examine the 
impact of that cultural context upon their craft. Historians must ask 
what will happen to the practice of history when "societies enter 
what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is 
known as the postmodern age"?(14) If computer-mediated communication 
problematises cultural criticism by questioning conventional notions 
about the construction of the self and of culture, then it also 
problematises historiography. If historians continue to take to the 
increasingly more complex forms of computerised information exchange 
that are being developed then these factors will have ideological 
implications for their craft. What will happen to the relationship of 
the historian to his text, and what will happen to the historian's 
view of texts, once electronic data itself becomes subject to 
historical study? 

The most prosaic aspects of the historian's craft are challenged in a 
computer-mediated culture. If primary and secondary sources are 
produced and disseminated electronically, what becomes of the 
conventions of citation?(15) Under the application of this 
technology, historical texts become subject to, as Lyotard describes 
it, an "exteriorization of knowledge with respect to the 
'knower'"(16) The form which computerised knowledge takes - 
electronic encoding, or data files - is not inherently identifiable 
with its creator. Electronic data can be modified by anyone who has 
the appropriate technology. It is subject to a fluidity that 'hard 
copy' is not - it can be changed without that change being 
detectable. The context of information changes the relationship 
between information and power, between information and discourse. As 
John Perry Barlow asks, "What are data and what is free speech? How 
does one treat property which has no physical form and can be 
infinitely reproduced? Is a computer the same as a printing press?...  
Can anyone morally claim to own knowledge itself?"(17)

In examining  the Internet Relay Chat computer-mediated communication 
system I attempt to write history within the context of the culture 
of an electronic, postindustrial, postmodern society.


Most people are familiar with personal computers. Although only a 
small number are conversant with the technical details of 
microcomputer technology, or with computer programming languages, 
most people have a rough idea of what a computer looks like, and that 
they are used by typing commands into a keyboard and viewing feedback 
from the machine on a monitor. Word processing has become so common 
that it would be hard to find a person living in the Western world - 
especially in an academic community - who had not actually used a 

Throughout this essay I shall assume a basic understanding of the 
physical act of computer use. I do not intend to explain any of the 
technical details pertaining to my subject - most of them are, at any 
rate, beyond my understanding. However I feel that it would be useful 
to give some explanation of the historical context within which 
Internet Relay Chat has been developed, and necessary to offer a 
description of the IRC environment.

The personal computers with which most readers will be familiar - IBM 
compatibles, Apple Macintoshes, Amigas and so on - are a relatively 
recent phenomenon. It is only within the last ten to twenty years 
that computers have become household items. Before that computing was 
the domain of governmental or commercial organisations which owned 
large - mainframe - computer systems. As usage of these systems 
increased, it became common for computers at one geographical 
location, or site, to be linked together so that users on each could 
have access to the data and facilities contained on all the others. 
These local area networks, or LANs, developed into networks 
connecting machines at dispersed sites, utilising the telephone line 
system. The first of these 'long-haul' networks was the ARPANET, 
which came into existence in 1969. This project was funded by the 
Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the United States 
Department of Defence. ARPANET initially connected machines at the 
University of California (Los Angeles and Santa Barbara campuses) and 
the University of Utah, and was intended to facilitate research at 
those sites. Along the idea of sharing electronic data went the idea 
of communication between users. ARPANET originally allowed two 
methods of communication between users - email and news. 

ARPANET's membership grew, with many other educational institutions 
in the United States adopting the new technology. In 1983 ARPANET was 
divided into two networks, known as ARPANET (for research use) and 
MILNET (for military use). The ARPANET arm continued to grow, with 
local area networks at various government, educational and commercial 
sites being added to the system. With the advent of satellite 
communications, it became possible for computers in other countries 
to join the network, and ARPANET became known as the Internet. 
Technically, the Internet is not one network, but a number of 
networks that communicate with each other, however to the user it 
appears to be one big network.

The Australian arm of the Internet is known as AARNet, the Australian 
Academic Research Network. AARNet grew out of ACSnet, the Australian 
Computer Science Network, which served to connect computers used 
directly by computer science researchers. Initially this network was 
linked by conventional telephone lines, with machines exchanging data 
and mail each night. This has developed into a nationwide system 
permanently linking virtually all computers at major academic 
institutions, and some commercial and government research 
organisations. Initially a link to the Internet was run via undersea 
cables to Hawaii, but in early July 1990 the final links were 
installed to make AARNet fully operational, and operation of a 
satellite connection to the United States West Coast segment of the 
Internet was commenced.

The most heavily used forms of inter-user communication on the 
Internet are still the asynchronous forms of email and news.  On most 
computers on the Internet synchronous communication is possible using 
a program that enables two users to type directly to each others' 
screens, thus having a real-time electronically mediated 
conversation. This method of communication is, however, fairly 
limited - only two people can 'talk' to each other at once. 

It was in response to the limitations of the synchronous 
communication programs in existence that Jarkko Oikarinen decided to 
write a computer program that would enable multiple users to engage 
in synchronous communication across a network. This project was known 
as Internet Relay Chat.

Jarkko Oikarinen wrote the original IRC program at the University of 
Oulu, Finland, in 1988. He designed IRC as a 'client-server' program. 
The user runs a 'client' program from his or her local machine, which 
then connects, via the Internet, to a 'server' program which may not 
be running on that local machine. There are hundreds of IRC 'servers' 
over the world, all of which communicate with each other and pass 
information back to the client programs - and users - connected to 
them. IRC was first tested on a single machine with less than twenty 
users participating. IRC's networking capabilities were then tested 
on a suite of three machines in southern Finland. Once tested it was 
installed throughout the Finnish national network - FUNET - and then 
connected to NORDUNET, the Scandinavian branch of the Internet. By 
November of 1988, IRC had spread across the Internet. The latest 
listing of countries whose Internet branches host IRC include 
Australia, the United States, Italy, Israel and Korea.(20)

IRC differs significantly from previous synchronous communication 
programs. Fundamental to IRC is the concept of a channel. 'Talk', 
'chat' and 'voice' had no need of such a concept since only two 
people could communicate at one time, typing directly to each other's 
screen. On IRC however, where two or three hundred users is the 
normal population, such a system would create chaos. It was therefore 
necessary to devise some way of allowing users to decide whose 
activity they wanted to see and who they wanted to make aware of 
their own activity. 'Channels' were the answer. On entering the IRC 
program, the user is not at first able to see the activity of other 
connected users. To do so he must join a channel. Channels are 
created or joined by users issuing a command to the IRC program to 
join a channel. If there is already a channel of the specified name 
in operation, then the user is added to the list of people 
communicating within that channel; if such a channel does not exist, 
then IRC opens a new channel containing the name of the user who 
invoked it, who may then be joined by other users. The user can issue 
a commands requesting a list of the users connected to IRC and 
which channels they are attached to. IRC keeps track of who has 
joined which channels, and ensures that only people within the same 
channel can see each others' typed messages. IRC can support an 
unlimited number of channels. Channels can have any name, but 
generally the name of the channel indicates the nature of the 
conversation being carried out within it - 'Finland', 'hottub', 
'worker', 'party', and so on. The user who initially invokes a 
channel name is known an a channel operator, or 'chanop', and has 
certain privileges. He or she may change the mode of the channel - 
may instruct IRC to limit usage of the channel to a certain number of 
users, may limit entry to the channel to people specifically invited 
by him or her to join, may make the channel invisible to other users 
by specifying it's exclusion from the list of active channels that a 
user may request of IRC, may kick another user off the channel, or 
confer chanop privileges on another user.

IRC supports numerous other commands. Once a channel has been joined, 
everything that the user types will be by default sent to all other 
occupants of the channel. It is possible, however, to alter that 
default setting by issuing commands to direct a message to a 
particular user, users, channel or channels. A number of other 
commands - the ability to send messages to all users or to kick a 
user off the IRC system entirely - are reserved for IRC operators, or 
'opers', the people who run and maintain the IRC network connections. 
Opers also have access to special commands related to the technical 
implementation of IRC. 

IRC is not an 'official' program. There are few 'official' programs 
on the Internet. Most are simply programs that a group of people, who 
by virtue of their paid or student work have access to computers on 
the Internet, have decided to install on these machines. IRC 
operators are people who have chosen to invest the time needed to set 
up and maintain the IRC program on their local machines for the 
benefit of other local users. 

IRC, then, is a multi-user synchronous communications system. It 
allows people to choose which person or group of people they wish to 
see the activity of, and to whom they wish their own activity to be 
transmitted.(21) IRC - the whole Internet - forms a 'virtual 
reality'.(22) In the words of John Perry Barlow:

Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, [these computers are 
all] connected to one another. Collectively, they form what their 
inhabitants call the Net. It extends across that immense region of 
electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and 
thought which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace. 

Cyberspace, in its present condition, has a lot in common with the 
19th Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally 
ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court 
stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs... In this 
silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes 
both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone... It is, of 
course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new 

Within this breeding ground, users of IRC invent new concepts of 
culture and interaction, and challenge the conventions of both.

                            **PART ONE:**
                   **DECONSTRUCTING BOUNDARIES**

Traditional forms of human interaction have their codes of etiquette. 
We are all brought up to behave according to the demands of social 
context. We know, as if instinctively, when it is appropriate to 
flirt, to be respectful, to be angry, or silent. The information on 
which we decide which aspects of our systems of social conduct are 
appropriate to our circumstances are more often physical than verbal. 
Place and time are perceptions of a physical reality that are not 
dependent on statements made by other people. We do not need to be 
told that we are at a wedding, and should be quiet during the 
ceremony, in order to enact the code of etiquette that our culture 
reserves for such occasions. "Being cultured" says Greg Dening, "we 
are experts in our semiotics... we read sign and symbol [and] codify 
a thousand words in a gesture."(24) In interacting with other people, 
we rely on non-verbal information to delineate a context for our own 
contributions. Smiles, frowns, tones of voice, posture and dress - 
Geertz's "significant symbols" - tell us more about the social 
context within which we are placed than do the statements of the 
people we socialise with.(25) Language does not express the full play 
of our interpersonal exchanges - which, continues Dening, "are 
expressed in terms of address, in types of clothing, in postures and 
facial expressions, in appeals to rules and ways of doing 
things."(26) The words themselves tell only half the story - it is 
their presentation that completes the picture.

Internet Relay Chat, however, deals only in words. Computer-mediated 
communication relies only upon words as a channel of meaning.(27) 
"Computer-mediated communication has at least two interesting 
characteristics:" writes Kiesler, "(a) a paucity of social context 
information and (b) few widely shared norms governing its use."(28) 
Users of these systems are unable to rely on the conventions of 
gesture and nuances of tone to provide social feedback. They cannot 
rely upon the conventional systems of interaction if they are to make 
sense to one another. Words, as we use them in speech, fail to 
express what they really mean once they are deprived of the 
subtleties of speech and the non-verbal cues that we assume will 
accompany it. Internet Relay Chat is synchronous, as is face-to-face 
interaction, but it is unable to transmit the non-verbal aspects of 
speech that conventions of synchronous communication demand. 

It is not only the meanings of sentences that become problematic in 
computer-mediated communication. The standards of behaviour that are 
normally decided upon by non-verbal cues are not clearly indicated 
when information is purely verbal. Not only are smiles and frowns 
lost in the translation of synchronous speech to pure text, but 
factors of environment are unknown to interlocutors. It is not 
immediately apparent, in computer-mediated communication, what forms 
of social etiquette are appropriate at any given time. 

Kiesler, Siegel and McGuire have described computer-mediated 
communication as having four distinct features in comparison to 
conventional forms of interaction: an absence of regulating feedback, 
dramaturgical weakness, few social status cues and social anonymity.   
Conventional systems for regulating interaction fall apart. The 
structure of IRC causes its users to deconstruct the conventional 
boundaries defining social interaction. "Anonymity [and] reduced 
self-regulation" become, as I shall discuss, pronounced in computer-
mediated communication.(29)

Although the social and economic status generally associated with the 
use of such high technology as computer systems offers IRC users, as 
I have indicated, some general context within which to place each 
other, they know little else about each other, and that little is 
open to manipulation by the user.

Users of Internet Relay Chat are not generally known by their 'real' 
names. The convention of IRC is to choose a nickname under which to 
interact.(30) The nicknames - or 'nicks' as they are referred to - 
chosen by IRC users range from 'normal' first names such as 'Peggy' 
and 'Matthew', to inventive and evocative pseudonyms such as 
'Tmbrwolf', 'Pplater', 'LuxYacht' and 'WildWoman'.(31) The 
information which one user can gain about others on IRC consists of 
the names by which they choose to be known and the Internet 'address' 
of the computer by which they are accessing the IRC program. The 
first is easily changed. IRC supports a command that allows users to 
change their nicknames as often as they wish. The second is not so 
easily manipulated, but still open to tampering provided that the 
user has some technical skill. Essentially there is nothing that one 
IRC user can ascertain about another - beyond the fact that they have 
access to the Internet - that is not manipulable by that user. 

Our conventional presentation of self assumes that we cannot change 
the basics of our appearance. Physical characteristics, although open 
to cosmetic or fashionable manipulation, are basically unalterable. 
What we look like, we have to live with. This is, however, not the 
case on IRC. How an IRC user 'looks' to another user is entirely 
dependant upon information supplied by that person. It becomes 
possible to play with identity. The boundaries delineated by cultural 
constructs of beauty, ugliness, fashionableness or unfashionableness, 
can be by-passed on IRC. It is possible to appear to be, quite 
literally, whoever you wish.

The anonymity of interaction in IRC allows users to play games with 
their identities. The chance to escape the assumed boundaries of 
gender, race, and age create a game of interaction in which there are 
few rules but those that the users create themselves. IRC offers a 
chance to escape the language of culture and body and return to an 
idealised 'source code' of mind. 

The changes that a user might make to his or her perceived identity 
can be small, a matter of realising in others' minds a desire to be 
attractive, impressive, popular:

     *BabyDoll* Well, I gotta admit, I shave a few lbs off of my
     wieght when I tell the guys on irc what i look like..

However, the anonymity of IRC can provide more than a means to 'fix' 
minor problems of appearance - one of the most fascinating aspects of 
this computer-mediated fluidity of cultural boundaries is the 
possibility of gender-switching. While secondary characteristics such 
as hair colour are relatively easily changed in 'real life', gender 
reassignment is a far more involved process. This aspect of computer-
mediated communication has had little attention given it. Sproull and 
Kiesler note that "unless first names are used as well as last names, 
gender information is also missing", but do not discuss the 
implications of this.(32) IRC destroys the usually all but 
insurmountable confines of sex: changing gender is as simple as 
changing one's nickname to something that suggests the opposite of 
one's actual gender. It is possible for IRC to become the arena for 
experimentation with gender specific social roles:

      I've tried presenting m,yslef as male on occasion - to
     be honest I found itdull
      Umm, I've gender switched once or twice for about 2 hour
     or so - mainly to lead another male up the garden path as a
     practical joke; but never a serious gender switch.
      how did you find being perceived as female?
      I wasn't really being perceived as female, since I was
     basically just calling myself by a female name and utilising my
     knowledge of being male to get the other male all stirred up
      I did find it mildly irritating that I should get so much
     attention and be immediately fixated as a sex object simply by
     pretending to be female 
      to be honest, I didn't like being male becuaseI missed
     the flattery that women tend to get 
      being expected to give attention ratehr than recieve it
     was quite a shock!
      ahh - that is one reason that I tend to dislike unequal
     ratios in the sexes - the females get all the attention.(33)

The potential for such experimentation governs the expectations of 
many users of IRC. Gender is one of the more 'sacred' institutions in 
our society, a quality whose fixity is so assumed that enacted or 
surgical reassignment has and does involve complex rituals, taboos, 
procedures and stigmas. The attitudes taken by individual users of 
IRC differ as regards the possibility for gender concealment. Some 
view it as 'part of the game', others are hostile toward users who 
gender switch:

      aros: so?????????
      yes aros I heard you 
      Takes a relaxed place beside Karen offering her  her
     favourite drink.

Whatever may be the attitude of individual users of the IRC program 
to such examples of gender experimentation, the crucial point is that 
it is an inherent possibility offered by the IRC software. 
Exploitation of this potential is an accepted part of the 'virtual 
reality' - a popular phrase amongst users of the Internet - of IRC. 
It becomes possible to play with aspects of behaviour and identity 
that are not normally possible. IRC enables people to deconstruct 
aspects of their own identity, and of their cultural classification, 
and to challenge and obscure the boundaries between some of our most 
deeply felt cultural significances. A willingness to accept this 
phenomenon, and to join in the games that can be played within it, is 
an aspect of the culture of IRC users. 

Researchers of human behaviour on computer-mediated communication 
systems have often noted that users of such systems tend to behave in 
a more uninhibited manner than they would in face-to-face encounters. 
Sproull and Kiesler state that computer-mediated behaviour "is 
relatively uninhibited and nonconforming."(34) Kielser, Siegel and 
McGuire have observed that "people in computer-mediated groups were 
more uninhibited than they were in face-to-face groups."(35) Rice and 
Love suggest that "disinhibition" may occur "because of the lack of 
social control that nonverbal cues provide."(36)

Internet Relay Chat reflects this observation. Protected by the 
anonymity of the computer medium, and with few social context cues to 
indicate 'proper' ways to behave, users are able to express and 
experiment with aspects of their personality that social inhibition 
would generally encourage them to suppress: 

      Yes.. Oh well - I'm just saying that I switch
     personalities all the time, and my usual personality on IRC and
     my usual personality on Fidonet are at extremes, and I've never
     really shown my real self on any computer medium.
      I'm deliberately creating fake personalities instead of
     highlighting less obvious parts of my personality, so I do the
     opposite of what my real self would do.
      by doing something it by definition becomes an aspect
     of yourself - what you call your 'real self' is most likely the
     way you would like to see yourself or the way you usually are 
      I'm experiment in being different people, and that
     involves doing things that I don't want to do to make the fake
     character consistent and believable
      No - my fake characters often do things and behave in
     such a way that I wouldn't want to ever be like
      woulsn't want to - perhaps not - but if it occurs to
     you to encat it then it is part of your potentiality 
      Ah - but the reason that I experiment with different
     characters is so I can see how other people react and then adopt
     the good parts of the character that provoked a favourable
     response - however I don't compromise my own individuality and
     will continue  
      to do things that I like to do that not everyone else
     would like me to do.(37)

IRC encourages disinhibition. The lack of social context cues in 
computer-mediated communication obscures the boundaries that would 
generally separate acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour. 
Furthermore, the essential physical impression of each user that he 
is alone releases him from the social expectations incurred in group 
interaction.  Computer-mediated communication is less bound by 
conventions than is face-to-face interaction. With little regulating 
feedback to govern behaviour, users behave in ways that would not 
generally be acceptable with people who are essentially total 

The lack of self-regulation amongst users of IRC can be both positive 
and negative, as far as interaction is concerned. The safety of 
anonymity can "reduce self-consciousness and promote intimacy" 
between people who might not otherwise have had the chance to become 
close.(38) It can also encourage "flaming", which Kiesler, Siegel and 
McGuire define as the gratuitous and uninhibited making of "remarks 
containing swearing, insults, name calling, and hostile 

Users of IRC often form strong friendships. Without social context 
cues to inhibit a free exchange between people - to encourage shyness 
- computer-mediated interlocutors will often 'open up' to each other 
to a great degree. Freedom is given, either to be someone whom you 
are not, or to be more yourself than would usually be acceptable.  As 
one user of the system sums it up:

     *bob* by nature I'm shy..
     *bob* normally wouldn't talk about such thingsw if you met me
     face to face
     *bob* thus the network is good..  (40)

Personal relationships amongst participants in computer-mediated 
communication systems can often be deep and highly emotional. Hiltz 
and Turoff have noted that some participants in such systems "come to 
feel that their very best and closest friends are members of their 
electronic group, whom they seldom or never see."(41) 'Net.romances', 
long distance romantic relationships carried out over IRC, can result 
from the increased tendency for participants in CMC systems to be 

     Channel    Nickname  S   User@Host (Name)
     +custard   Ireshi	  G   *@*.*.*.OZ.AU (Libby)
     +custard   Lori	  H@  *@*.* (Lori -
     Daniel's beloved)
     +custard   Daniel	  H@  *@*.*.* (Daniel - Lori's
      After just a few chats on irc, it became obvious to me
     that this was someone I could easily become very good friends 
     with him...
      The more we talked, the more we discovered we had in
      By this time, I knew I was starting to have "more than
     just a friend" feelings about Daniel...
      I told him that I was starting to get a crush on him...
      Anyway, it's grown and grown over the months.
      A few mishaps, but we've overcome them, to bounce back
     stronger than ever.
      And, as you know, we'll be getting together for 3 weeks
     at the end of November, to see if we're as wonderful as we think
     we are.

Such expressions of feeling are not in any way thought to be shallow 
or ephemeral. Far from being unsatisfactory for "more interpersonally 
involving communication tasks, such as getting to know someone", as 
Hiemstra describes researchers of CMC behaviour as having 
characterised the medium, IRC has in this instance fostered an 
extremely emotional bond between two people.(43) Users of IRC are 
able to so dispense with the conventional boundaries surrounding 
communication, and cross-cultural exchange, to form deep friendships, 
even love-affairs, with people whom they have never met.

Net.romances display computer-mediated relationships at their most 
idyllic. However, disinhibition and increased freedom from social 
norms have another side. Along with increased broad-mindedness and 
intimacy among some users goes increased hostility on the part of 
others. 'Flaming', the expression of anger, insults and hatred, is a 
common phenomenon in all forms of computer-mediated communication, 
and IRC is no exception. Anonymity makes the possibility of social 
punishment for transgression of cultural mores appear to be limited. 
Attracting the anger of other users of the system is a relatively 
unthreatening prospect - although it is possible for users to ignore 
a particular user, all that user need do is change his or her 
nickname to 'start afresh' with the people whom he or she had 
alienated. Protected by terminals and separated by distance, the 
sanction of physical violence is irrelevant, although, as I shall 
discuss later, social sanctions are present and often in a verbal 
form that apes physical violence. The safety of anonymous expression 
of hostilities and obscenities that would otherwise incur social 
sanctions, encourages some people to use IRC as a forum for airing 
their resentment of individuals or groups in a blatantly uninhibited 

     !Venice! Bashers have taken over +gblf... we could use some
     !radv*! Comment: -Gay_Bashe:+gblf- FUCK ALL OF BUTT FUCKING, ASS
Not all uninhibited behaviour on IRC is either so negative or so 
positive. Much of the opportunity for uninhibited behaviour is 
invested by users of IRC in sexual experimentation. The usually 
culturally-enforced boundaries between sexual and platonic 
relationships are challenged in computer-mediated circumstances. 
Norms of etiquette are obscured by the lack of social context cues, 
and the safety given by anonymity and distance allow users to ignore 
otherwise strict codes regarding sexual behaviour. Conversations on 
IRC can be sexually explicit, in blatant disregard for social norms 
regarding the propositioning of strangers:

     *Han* does this compu-sex stuff really happen?
     Lola-> *Han* *smooch*
     *Han* mmmmmmm......hehehe you alonee ; )?
     Lola-> *Han* certianly am! I'm dialling in from home
     *Han* me tooo.....are oyu horny today at all ; )?
     Lola-> *Han* today? it's the middle of the night where I am...
     as for the adjective, well, do what you can ;-)
     *Han* mmmmmm......when did you last get off?(45)

Such behaviour is often referred to as 'net.sleazing'. Perhaps 
because the majority of the users of IRC are in their late teens or 
early twenties, since the Internet primarily serves educational 
institutions and thus students, sexual experimentation is a popular 
Internet game. Adolescents, coming to terms with their sexuality in 
the 'real world', find that the freedom of 'virtual reality' allows 
them to safely engage in sexual experimentation. Ranging from the 
afore-mentioned gender-role switching to flirtation and 'compu-sex', 
IRC provides a medium for the safe expression of a "steady barrage of 
typed testosterone."(46) 

Disinhibition and the lack of sanctions encouraging self-regulation 
lead to extremes of behaviour on IRC. Users express hate, love, 
intimacy and anger, employing the freedom of the electronic medium to 
air views and engage in relationships that would in other 
circumstances be deemed unacceptable in relating to strangers. This 
'freedom' does not imply that IRC is an idyllic environment. Play 
with social conventions can indeed lead to greater positive affect 
between people, as it has between 'Daniel' and 'Lori', and to greater 
personal fulfilment for some users.  It can, however, also create a 
violent chaos in which people feel 'free' to act upon prejudices, 
even hatreds, that might otherwise be socially controlled.

Users of IRC treat the medium as a frontier world, a virtual reality 
of virtual freedom, in which participants feel free to act out their 
fantasies, to challenge social norms, and exercise aspects of their 
personality that would under normal interactive circumstances be 
inhibited. The medium itself blocks some of the socially inhibiting 
institutions that users would, under other circumstances, be 
operating within. Social indicators - of social position, of age and 
authority, of personal appearance - are relatively weak in a 
computer-mediated context. They might be inferred, but they are not 
evident. Internet Relay Chat leaves it open to users to create 
virtual replacements for these social cues - as I shall discuss in 
Part Two, IRC interaction involves the creation of replacements and 
substitutes for physical cues, and the construction of social 
hierarchies and positions of authority. That it is possible for users 
of IRC to do this is due to the ways in which the medium deconstructs 
conventional boundaries constraining interaction and conventional 
institutions of interpersonal relationships. It is this freedom from 
convention that allows IRC users to create their own conventions, and 
to become a cohesive community. 

The chance for deconstruction of social boundaries that is offered by 
IRC is essentially postmodern. On its lighter side, computer-mediated 
communication lends itself to irony, pastiche, playfulness and a 
celebration of ephemeral and essentially superficial examples of 
witty bravado. On its more negative side, the disinhibiting effect of 
computer-mediated communication encourages the expression of dissent, 
rebellion, hostility, and anti-social chaos. It involves a stripping 
away of the social coordinates that let the user know where he or she 
is in the cultural network, indeed it encourages this by allowing the 
continual invention of new moves to old language games.(47)  

Users challenge the boundaries between their differing social 
systems, introducing elements of intimacy to meetings with strangers 
and foreigners, overstepping the thresholds of social nicety. There 
is a continual search for ways to present the unpresentable, to bring 
elements technically outside the medium of communication within its 
realm. Whether this continual play with the limits of expression is 
positive or negative, it involves users of the system in a game that 
is essentially postmodern. Engagement with the system involves 
immersion in the specific context of the IRC program. There is no way 
to interact with IRC without being a part of it - it is interaction 
that creates the virtual reality of channels and spaces for 
communication. Immersed in this specific, although not 'local' in any 
geographic sense, context, players of the IRC game are involved in 
turning upside down the taken-for-granted norms of the external 
culture. Emotions and behaviours are taken out of their usual 
contexts and transposed into the electronic context of IRC, where 
they cease to be unproblematic. Faced with the impossibility of 
replicating conventional social boundaries in the IRC environment, 
users of the system search out and experiment with new and 
unconventional ways of relating. It is this "symbolic cultural 
ethos... that reflects the postmodern elements of the computer 
underground and separates it from modernism... by offering an ironic 
response to the primacy of a master technocratic language."(48) The 
users of IRC have created a culture that challenges "the sanctity of 
an established... authority."(49) To paraphrase Jim Thomas and Gordon 
Meyer, speaking on the computer underground of 'hackers', it is this 
style of playful rebellion, irreverent subversion and juxtaposition 
of fantasy with high-tech reality that impels me to interpret IRC as 
a postmodernist culture.(50)

                           **PART TWO:**
                   **CONSTRUCTING COMMUNITIES**

In crude relief, culture can be understood as a set of solutions 
devised by a group of people to meet specific problems posed by 
situations they face in  common... This notion of culture as a 
living, historical product of group problem solving allows an 
approach to cultural study that is applicable to any group, be it a 
society, a neighbourhood, a family, a dance band, or an organization 
and its segments.(51)  

This definition of culture owes much to Geertz's understanding of 
culture as a "system of meanings that give significance to shared 
behaviours which must be interpreted from the perspective of those 
engaged in them."(52) 'Culture' includes not only the systems and 
standards adopted by a group for "perceiving, believing, evaluating 
and acting", but also includes the "rules and symbols of 
interpretation and discourse" utilised by the members of the 
group.(53) Culture, says Geertz, is "a set of control mechanisms - 
plans, recipes, rules, instructions (what computer engineers call 
'programs') - for the governing of behaviour."(54) In this sense the 
users of IRC constitute a culture, a community. They are commonly 
faced with the problems posed by the medium's inherent deconstruction 
of traditional models of social interaction which are based on 
physical proximity. 

The measures which users of the IRC system have devised to meet their 
common problems, posed by the medium's lack of regulating feedback 
and social context cues, its dramaturgical weakness, and the factor 
of anonymity, are the markers of their community, their common 
culture. These measures fall into two distinct categories. Firstly, 
users of IRC have devised systems of symbolism and textual 
significance to ensure that they achieve understanding despite the 
lack of more usual channels of communication. Secondly, a variety of 
social sanctions have arisen amongst the IRC community in order to 
punish users who disobey the rules of etiquette - or 'netiquette' - 
and the integrity of those shared systems of the interpretation.(55)

In traditional forms of communication, as I have already suggested, 
nods, smiles, eye contact, distance, tone of voice and other non-
verbal behaviours give speakers and listeners information they can 
use to regulate, modify and control communication. Separated by at 
least the ethernet cables of local area networks, and quite likely by 
thousands of kilometres, the users of IRC are unable to base 
interaction on these phenomena. This "dramaturgical weakness of 
electronic media" presents a unique problem.(56) Much of our 
understandings of linguistic meaning and social context are derived 
from non-verbal cues. With these unavailable, it remains for users of 
computer-mediated communication to create methods of compensating for 
the lack. As Hiltz and Turoff have reported, computer conferees have 
developed ways of sending computerised screams, hugs and kisses.(57) 
This is apparent on IRC.

Textual substitution for traditionally non-verbal information is a 
highly stylized, even artistic, procedure that is central to the 
construction of an IRC community. Common practice is to simply 
verbalise physical cues, for instance literally typing 'hehehe' when 
traditional methods of communication would call for laughter. IRC 
behaviour takes this to an extreme. It is a recognised convention to 
describe physical actions or reactions, denoted as such by 
presentation between two asterisks:(58) 

      Come, brave Knight! Let me cast a spell of protection
     on you..... Oooops - wrong spell! You don;t mind being green for
     a while- do you???
      Lioness: please don't eat him...
      *shivers from the looks of lioness*
      Wizard: Not at all.
      Very well, your excellency.  *looks frustrated*
      *falls down laughing*.
      Wizard: as long as I can protect thou ass, I'd be utter
     grateful! :-)
      *Plays a merry melody*
      *walks over to lioness and pats her paw*
      *Dispells the spells cast on Knight!*
      Knight: Your back to normal!!!
      *brings a pallete of meat for Lioness*
      *licks Storm*
      *Looking up* Thank You for not eating me!(59)

The above extract from a log of an IRC session, involving an online 
fantasy role-playing game, shows a concentration of verbalised 
physical actions and reactions. This density of virtually physical 
cues is somewhat abnormal, but it amply demonstrates the extent to 
which users of the IRC system feel it important to create a physical 
context within which their peers can interpret their behaviour. 
Verbal statements by themselves give little indication of the 
emotional state of the speaker, and without physical expression to 
decode the specific context of statements, it is easy to misinterpret 
their intent: 

     *Whopper* just kidding...not trying to be offensive
      *Whopper* didn't assume that you were...(60)

The corollary of Geertz's definition of culture is that groups of 
people who fail to communicate do not compose a common culture. If 
meaning is lost in transition from speaker to addressee, then 
community is lost - "undirected by culture patterns - organized 
systems of significant symbols - man's behaviour would be virtually 
ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions, 
his experience virtually shapeless."(61) In order for IRC users to 
constitute a community it is necessary for them to contrive a method 
to circumvent the possibility of loss of intended meaning of 
statements. Verbalisation of physical condition is that method. 
Interlocutors will describe what their reactions to specific 
statements would be were they in physical contact. Of course, this 
stylized description of action is not intended to be taken as a 
literal description of the speakers' physical actions, which are, 
obviously, typing at a keyboard and staring at a monitor. Rather they 
are meant to represent what would be their actions were the virtual 
reality of IRC an actual reality.  Without some way of compensating 
for the inherent lack of social context cues in computer-mediated 
communication, IRC would get no further than the deconstruction of 
conventional social boundaries. The textual cues utilised on IRC 
provide the symbols of interpretation and discourse that the users of 
IRC have devised to 'meet specific problems posed by situations they 
face in common.' Without these textual cues to substitute for non-
verbal language, the users of IRC would fail to constitute a 
community - with them, they do.

The users of IRC often utilise a 'shorthand' for the description of 
physical condition. They (in common with users of other computer-
mediated communication systems such as news and email) have developed 
a system of presenting textual characters as representations of 
physical action. Commonly known as 'smileys', CMC users employ 
alphanumeric characters and punctuation symbols to create strings of 
highly emotively charged keyboard art:

  :-) or : )	a smiling face, as viewed side-on
  ;-) or ; )	a winking, smiling face
  :-( or : (	an 'unsmiley': an unhappy face
  :-(*) 	      someone about to throw up
  8-)      	      someone wearing glasses
  :-P 	      someone sticking out their tongue
  >:-O 	      someone screaming in fright, their hair standing on
  :-& 	      someone whose lips are sealed
  @}-`-,-`--	a rose

These 'emoticons' are many and various.(62)  Although the most 
commonly used is the plain smiling face - used to denote pleasure or 
amusement, or to soften a sarcastic comment - it is common for IRC 
users to develop their own emoticons, adapting the symbols available 
on the standard keyboard to create minute and essentially ephemeral 
pieces of textual art to represent their own virtual actions and 
responses. Such inventiveness and lateral thinking demands skill. 
Successful communication within IRC depends on the use of such 
conventions as verbalised action and the use of emoticons. Personal 
success on IRC, then, depends on the user's ability to manipulate 
these tools. The users who can succinctly and graphically portray 
themselves to the rest of the IRC usership will be most able to 
create a community within that virtual system. 

Speed of response and wit are the stuff of popularity and community 
on IRC. The Internet relays chat, and such social endeavour demands 
speed of thought - witty replies and keyboard savoir faire blend into 
a stream-of-consciousness interaction that valorises shortness of 
response time, ingenuity and ingenuousness in the presentation of 
statements. The person who cannot fulfil these requirements - who is 
a slow typist, who demands time to reflect before responding, will be 
disadvantaged. For those who can keep the pace, such 'stream-of-
consciousness' communication encourages a degree of intimacy and 
emotion that would be unusual between complete strangers in the 'real 
world'. The IRC community relies on this intimacy, on spur of the 
moment social overtures made to other users:

     *** : Tuesday August 27 1991 -- 00:28 EST
     /join +Sadness
     *** Miri has joined channel +Sadness
     /away Dying of a broken heart
     You have been marked as being away(63)
     /topic Heartbreak
     *** Miri has changed the topic to "Heartbreak"
     *MALAY* What's wrong? Are you OK? 
     *Stodge* Hey, what's happened? Wanna talk about it? 
     *LadyJay* What's the matter Miri? 

IRC users regard their electronic world with a great deal of 
seriousness, and generally with a sense of responsibility for their 
fellows. The degree of trust in the supportive nature of the 
community that is shown in the above example, and the degree to which 
that trust was justified, demonstrates this. Hiltz and Turoff have 
described this syndrome of empathetic community arising amongst 
groups of people participating in CMC systems. They have "observed 
very overt attempts to be personal and friendly" and note that 
"strong feelings of friendship" arise between computer-mediated 
interlocutors who have never met face-to-face. IRC may encourage 
participants to play with the conventions of social interaction, but 
the games are not always funny. The threads holding IRC together as a 
community are made up of shared modes of understanding, and the 
concepts shared range from the light-hearted and fanciful to the 
personal and anguished. The success of this is dependant upon the 
degree to which users can trust that the issues that they communicate 
will be well received - they depend on the integrity of users. 

This expectation of personal integrity and sincerity is both upheld 
by convention and enforced by structure. 

One of the most sensitive issues amongst users is the question of 
nicknames. The IRC program demands that users offer a unique name to 
the system, to be used in their interaction with other users. These 
aliases are chosen as the primary method by which a user is known to 
other users, and thus generally reflect some aspect of the user's 
personality or interests. It is common for users to prefer and 
consistently use one nickname. Members of the IRC community have 
developed a service, known as 'Nickserv', which enables IRC users to 
register nicknames as belonging to a specific user accessing the IRC 
system from a specific computer on the Internet. Any other user who 
chooses to use a nickname thus registered is sent a message from 
Nickserv telling him or her that the chosen nickname is registered, 
and advising them to choose an alternate name. Furthermore, the IRC 
program will not allow two users to adopt the same nickname 
simultaneously. The program design is so structured as to refuse a 
user access to the system should he or she attempt to use the 
nickname of another user who is online, regardless of whether their 
nickname is registered. The user must choose a unique nickname before 
being able to interact within IRC. Names, then, as the primary 
personal interface on IRC, are of great importance. One of the 
greatest taboos, one that is upheld by the basic software design, is 
the use of another's chosen nickname. 

The illegitimate use of nicknames can cause anger on the part of 
their rightful users and sometimes deep feelings of guilt on the part 
of the perpetrators. This public announcement was made by a male IRC 
user to the newsgroup alt.irc, a forum for asynchronous discussion of 

        I admit to having used the nickname "allison" on several
     occasions,the name of an acquaintance and "virtual" friend at
     another university.Under this nick, I talked on channels +hottub
     and +gblf, as well as witha few individuals privately.  This
     was a deceptive, immature thing to do,and I am both embarrassed
     and ashamed of myself.(65)  I wish to apologizeto everyone I 
     misled, particularly users 'badping' and 'kired'...
        I am truly sorry for what I have done, and regret ever having
     usedIRC, though I think it has the potential to be a wonderful
     forum and meansof communication.  It certainly makes the world
     seem a small place.I shall never invade IRC with a false nick or
     username again.(66)

The physical aspect of IRC may be only virtual, but the emotional 
aspect is actual. IRC is not a 'game' in any light-hearted sense - it 
can inspire deep feelings of guilt and responsibility.  It is also 
clear that users' acceptance of IRC's potential for the 
deconstruction of social boundaries is limited by their reliance on 
the construction of communities. Experimentation ceases to be 
acceptable when it threatens the delicate balance of trust that holds 
IRC together. The uniqueness of names, their consistent use, and 
respect for - and expectation of - their integrity, is crucial to the 
development of online communities. As previously noted, should a user 
find him or herself unwelcome in a particular channel all he or she 
need do is adopt another nickname to be unrecognizable. The idea of 
community, however, does demand that members be recognizable to each 
other. Were they not so, it would be impossible for a coherent 
community to emerge. 

The sanctions available to the IRC community for use against errant 
members are both social and structural. The degree to which members 
feel, as 'Allison' did, a sense of shame for actions which abuse the 
systems of meaning devised by the IRC community, is related to the 
degree to which they participate in the deconstruction of traditional 
social conventions. By being uninhibited, by experimenting with 
cultural norms of gender and reciprocity in relationships, 'Allison' 
became a part of a social network that encourages self-exposure by 
simulating anonymity and therefore invulnerability. In this case, the 
systems of meaning created by the users of IRC have become 
conventions with a terrorizing authority over those who participate 
in their use. As I shall describe, users of IRC who flout the 
conventions of the medium are ostracised, banished from the 
community. The way to redemption for such erring members is through a 
process of guilt and redemption; through, in 'Allison's' case, a 
'public' ritual of self-accusation, confession, repentance and 

IRC supports mechanisms for the enforcement of acceptable behaviour 
on IRC. Channel operators - 'chanops' or 'chops' - have access to the 
/kick command, which throws a specified user out of the given 
channel.  IRC operators - 'opers' - have the ability to 'kill' users, 
to break the network link that connects them to IRC. The code of 
etiquette for doing so is outlined in the documentation that is part 
of the IRC program:

     Obnoxious users had best beware the operator who's fast on the
     /kill command. "/kill nickname" blows any given nickname
     completely out of the chat system. Obnoxiousness is not to be
     tolerated. But operators do not use /kill lightly.(67) 

There is a curious paradox in the concomitant usage of the words 
'obnoxious' and 'kill'. Obnoxiousness seems a somewhat trivial term 
to warrant the use of such textually violent commands such as /kick 
and /kill. The word trivialises the degree to which abusive 
behaviour, deceit, and shame can play a part in interaction on 
Internet Relay Chat. The existence of such negative behaviour and 
emotions is played down, denigrated - what is stressed is the 
measures that can be taken by the 'authorities' - the chanops and 
opers - on IRC. Violators of the integrity of the IRC system are 
marginalised, outcast, described so as to seem insignificant, but 
their potential for disrupting the IRC community is suggested by the 
emotive strength of the words with which they are punished. The terms 
'killing' and 'kicking' substitute for their physical counterparts - 
IRC users may be safe from physical threat, but the community 
sanctions of violence and restraint are there, albeit in textualised 

Operators have adopted their own code of etiquette regarding /kills. 
It is the general rule that an operator issuing such a command should 
let other operators, and the victim, know the reason for his or her 
action by adding a comment to the '/kill message' that fellow 
operators will receive:

     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for I4982784 from MaryD
     (Obscene Dumps!!!)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for mic from mgp  (massive
     abusive channel dumping involving lots of ctrl-gs and
     gaybashing, amongst other almost as obnoxious stuff)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for JP from Cyberman
     ((repeatedely ignorning warnings to stop nickname abuse))(68)

There is no technical reason why such comments or excuses should be 
given - they are purely a 'courtesy'. Those in authority on IRC have 
self-imposed codes of behaviour which supposedly serve to ensure that 
operator privileges are not abused.
Operators have considerable power within IRC. They can control not 
only an individual's access to IRC, but are also responsible for 
maintaining the network connections that enable IRC programs at 
widely geographically separated sites to 'see' each other. The issue 
of whether or not operators have too much power is a contentious one. 
While operators are careful to present their /killings as justifiable 
in the eyes of their peers, this is often not felt to be the case by 
their victims. Accusations of prejudice and injustice abound. IRC 
operators answer user's complaints and charges with self-
justifications - often the debates are reduced to 'flame-wars', 
abusive arguments between opponents who are more concerned to insult 
and defeat rather than reason with each other:

     !JP! fucking stupid op cybman /killd me - think ya some kind of
     net.god? WHy not _ask_ people in the channle i'm in if I'm 
     annoying them before blazing away????
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for JP from Cyberman
     (abusive wallops)(69)

'Kills' can also be seen as unjustified by other operators, and the 
operator whose actions are questioned by his peers is likely to be 
'killed' himself:

     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Alfred from Kamikaze
     (public insults are not appreciated)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Kamikaze from dave (yes,
     but they are allowed.)(70)

The potential for tension between operators of IRC is often diffused 
into a game. 'Killwars', episodes in which opers will kill each 
other, often happen. There is rarely overt hostility in these 'wars' 
- the attitude taken is one of ironic realisation of the 
responsibilities and powers that opers have, mixed with bravado and 
humour - an effort to parody those same powers and responsibilities:

     !puppy*! ok! one frivolous kill coming up! :D
     !Maryd*! Go puppy! :*)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for puppy from Glee (and
      here it IS! : )
     !Chas*! HAHA : )
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Glee from Maryd (and
     here's another)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Maryd from Chas (and
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Chas from blopam (chain 
     reaction - john farnham here I come)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for blopam from dave (you
     must be next.)
     !Chas*! HA HA HA : ) 
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Chas from Maryd (Only
     family is allowed to kill me!!!)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Maryd from dave (am I
     still family?)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Glee from puppy (just
     returning the favor ;D)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Maryd from Chas (Oh
     yeah?? Oh my brother !!)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for dave from Maryd (yep,
     you sure are : ))
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Chas from Maryd (8 now)
     *** Notice -- Received KILL message for Maryd from Chas (Oh yah 
     !Alfred! thank you for a marvellously refreshing kill war; this
     completes my intro into the rarified and solemn IRCop 

The ideas of authority and freedom are often in opposition on IRC, as 
the newly invented social conventions of the IRC community attempt to 
deal with emotions and actions in ways that emulate the often violent 
social sanctions of the 'real world.' The potential for tension and 
hostility between users and opers arising over the latter's use of 
power can erupt into anger and abuse. Disagreement between operators 
over their implementation of power can result in the use of 
operators' powers against each other. The games that opers play with 
'killing' express their realisation of the existence of these 
elements in the hierarchical nature of IRC culture and serve to 
diffuse that tension - at least among opers - and to unite them as an 
authoritative class. But it does not fully resolve these conflicts - 
the tensions that are expressed regarding the oper/user power 
segregation system point to the nexus point between the 
deconstruction of boundaries and the construction of communities on 

The emergent culture of IRC is essentially heterogeneous. Users 
access the system from all over the world, and - within the 
constraints of language compatibility - interact with people from 
cultures that they might not have the chance to learn about through 
any other direct means. The melting pot of the IRC 'electropolis', as 
Hiltz and Turoff term computer-mediated communication networks, 
serves to break down, yet valorise, the differences between 
cultures.(72) It is not uncommon for IRC channels to contain no two 
people from the same country. With the encouragement of intimacy 
between users and the tendency for conventional social mores to be 
ignored on IRC, it becomes possible for people to investigate the 
differences between their cultures. No matter on how superficial a 
level that might be, the encouragement of what can only be called 
friendship between people of disparate cultural backgrounds helps to 
destroy any sense of intolerance that each may have for the other's 
culture and to foster a sense of cross-cultural community:(73)

      Eldi: London, Paris, Waterloo, Dublin, Exeter, are all
     in Ontario 
      Ontarior!!! haha! Paris, France, London, England, Dublin,
     Irelang are all better than SF, CA, US
      the coffeeshops! :-)
      Eldi: Don't you like San Francisco?
      well, it's like anything else. if you're around it too
     much, there's no novelty in it.
      Eldi: I guess so
      I'm going to Paris in a few days. I'm gonna this that's
     the greatest thing I've ever seen, I'm sure
      Eldi: never been further west than Hannibal, MO I am
      but i'm gonna be living with a host family(studenmt echa 
     exchange) history and philosophy 
      at thier summer home.
      Eldi: parlez-vous francais?
      Thier regular home is in the suburbs of Paris. I'm
     sureParis wouldn't be as exciting to THEM,. and me! see what i
      BIEN SUR! j'espere que je puisse communiquer en (a)
      of course! I hope thatI will be able to commin
     (communicate) in paris, 
      translation please eldi!
      je ne parle pas francias
      in french, in paris all 
      of course there is one phrease that is most important for
     americans abraoad
      Eldi: what is that?  Parlez-vous anglais?
      "Ne tirer pas! Je suis Canadaien" "Don't shoot! I'm a
      why bother to kill a canadaien? There goverment never
     does anything you can protest against! ;-)? (74)

Irreverent, and ironic, this kind of exchange exhibits the 
cosmopolitan nature of IRC. Cultural differences are celebrated, are 
made the object of curiosity and excitement, while the interlocutors 
remain aware of the relativity of their remarks. The ability to 
appreciate cultural differences and to welcome immersion in them, 
while retaining a sense of ironic distance from both that visited 
culture and one's native culture, is the object of interest.

Community on IRC is "created through symbolic strategies and 
collective beliefs."(75) IRC users share a common language, a shared 
web of verbal and textual significances that are substitutes for, and 
yet distinct from, the shared networks of meaning of the wider 
community. Users of IRC share a vocabulary and a system of 
understanding that is unique and therefore defines them as 
constituting a distinct culture. This community is self-regulating, 
having systems of hierarchy and power that allow for the punishment 
of transgressors of those systems of behaviour and meaning. Members 
of the community feel a sense of responsibility for IRC - most 
respect the conventions of their subculture, and those who don't are 
either marginalised or reclaimed through guilt and atonement. The 
symbolic identity - the virtual reality - of the world of computer-
mediated communication is a rich and diverse culture comprised of 
highly specialised skills, language and unifying symbolic meanings.

As I have suggested, this community is essentially postmodern. The 
IRC community shares a concern for diversity, for care in nuances of 
language and symbolism, a realisation of the power of language and 
the importance of social context cues, that are hallmarks of 
postmodern culture. IRC culture fulfils Denzin's prescription that 
the identity and activity of postmodern culture should "make fun of 
the past [and of past cultural rituals] while keeping it alive, and 
search for new ways to present the unpresentable in order to break 
down the barriers that keep the profane out of the everyday."(76)


It is tempting to view IRC in moral terms. I have sought to show that 
IRC provides a medium in which behaviour that is both outside of and 
in opposition to accepted social norms is accepted and even 
encouraged. I have demonstrated the ways in which the IRC community 
has developed its own distinctive system of significant signs and 
symbols. But this is not to imply that the IRC community is 
democratic or liberating. This freedom - from old conventions and to 
create new ones - can be both positive and negative. 'Positive' forms 
of human interaction exist on IRC - there is friendship, tolerance, 
humour, even love. There is also hatred, violence, shame and guilt. 
The 'freedom' of computer mediated communication is expressed in a 
lack of conventional social controls, not in any utopian implication.

I feel that it would be a mistake to project future societal effects 
from the kinds of phenomena that I have described as happening on 
IRC. But the temptation is there. On this issue, Johansen, Vallee and 
Spangler say:

     Whenever a new technology emerges, it is tempting to predict
     that it will lead to a new and better form of society. The
     technology for electronic meetings is no exception. The new
     media invite a look at alternative organizations and alternative
     societies. Combined with current social concerns, they also
     encourage utopian visions... In this vision, electronic media
     create a sense of community and commonalty among all people of
     the world...(77)

Such a wide-ranging conclusion is unjustifiable. As I have shown, IRC 
users can share a sense of community and commonalty, but they can 
also exhibit alienation and hostility. It is impossible to say which, 
if either, will prevail in IRC's future.  

Nevertheless, the cultural play that occurs on IRC does have 
implications for individual players beyond the scope of the 
virtuality of the computer network. If, as Hiltz and Turoff have 
said, users of CMC systems can come to feel that their most highly 
emotional relationships are with fellow users whom they rarely or 
never see, then this indicates the potential for computer-mediated 
communication systems to influence the lives of their users. 
Certainly for 'Lori' and 'Daniel', and for 'Allison', the virtual 
reality of Internet Relay Chat has strongly affected their 
relationships with others and their view of themselves. For them, and 
others, 'virtuality' is reality. 

IRC has the potential to affect users of the system in many and often 
opposing ways. For the shy and socially ill-at-ease, computer 
mediated communication can provide a way of learning social skills in 
a non-threatening environment. It may also provide a crutch and an 
excuse not to develop social skills that can be implemented in the 
'real world'. Relationships formed on IRC may be supportive, deeply 
felt and may give users much happiness. They may also lead to a 
reluctance to form relationships outside the electronic medium, and 
may be in themselves painful due to the lack of possibilities for the 
expression of more conventional forms of affection. The cross-
cultural, international nature of IRC can create a sense of empathy 
and tolerance for differing cultures. It can also provide a medium 
for the uninhibited expression of racial hatred. Little is as yet 
known about the potential psychological and social effects of 
computer-mediated communication. At present we have, as Hiltz and 
Turoff admit, "only the skimpiest of insights" into what those 
effects might be, and which might predominate.(78)

It would be easy to gloss over the less attractive aspects of IRC and 
to stress the more positive side. IRC is, after all - as it was 
intended to be - fun. Nevertheless, those unattractive aspects cannot 
be ignored. IRC, in common with other examples of computer mediated 
communication, has no intrinsic moral implications. It is a cultural 
tool, of a kind whose specific discursive background I have located 
in postmodernism, that can be used in a number of differing and 
contradictory ways.

Moral judgement of IRC is fruitless, since the possibilities are so 
balanced that it is unclear which aspects of IRC might be dominant - 
if any are. IRC is essentially postmodern, and as such its cultural 
subversion can be as effectively channelled at egalitarianism as at 
racism, at feminism as at sexism. IRC cannot be made to serve a moral 
point - but it can be used to problematise the discourses of many 
academic disciplines. 

Interaction on IRC presents many anomalies that cannot be understood 
in the light of present discourse. Its mode of communication is 
synchronous, yet interlocutors are neither proximate nor necessarily 
known to each other. There is a lack of conventional social and 
emotive context cues - yet conversation can be highly personalised, 
and a social structure has emerged. IRC is a social phenomena, yet 
its existence is in the nowhere of electron states and its artifacts 
in magnetic recordings. If IRC, and computer-mediated communication 
in general, is to be fully understood and analysed, then the 
conventions of many disciplines must be deconstructed. Linguistics, 
communication theory, sociology,  anthropology - and history - are 
challenged by the culture shared by the users of IRC. The divisions 
between spoken and written, and synchronous and asynchronous forms of 
language, are broken down. The idea that as the communication 
bandwidth narrows interaction should become increasingly impersonal 
does not hold true for IRC. Understandings of cultural significances 
as relying on physical display are challenged. Factors of authority, 
hierarchy and social control are reconstructed. IRC deconstructs and 
reconstructs not only its own structure but also the conventions of 
the discourses that might address it.

If these disciplines are to be able to address postindustrial, 
postmodern phenomena, they must be able to incorporate the challenges 
that those phenomena offer them. IRC is only one example of the kinds 
of interaction that are increasingly common in media utilising high-
tech, computerised technology. As it becomes more common - as more 
corporations take to electronic mail and news systems to facilitate 
communication, as more academics from non-science disciplines begin 
to utilise the facilities offered by the Internet, as more people 
come to rely on the styles of communication, community and culture 
that have developed on Internet Relay Chat - discourse, and therefore 
disciplines, must alter to encompass these media. 


The IRC user interface consists of a status line on the second line 
from the bottom of the user's screen, and a command line on the 
bottom of the screen on which typed input from the user can be seen. 
The remainder of the screen shows the activity of other users, 
results of input to the command line, or the results of information 
requests of the IRC program. From this interface a number of commands 
can be issued. The syntax for a command is:
There are th

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