IRC on AustNet - an example of a virtual community

by Cyberrdewd

 Introduction

 IRC on AustNet

 Speculating on the Future

Acknowledgments
URLs
Notes
Appendix 1 - Op levels
Appendix 2 - IRCops

Introduction

From Tribal Village to Global Tribe

Originally, people lived in small tribal or village groups in which everyone knew everyone - a sort of single extended family.  As populations increased and societies grew more complex and urbanised, this original kinship was lost.  Cities developed, organised hierarchically.  People became alienated from nature, and from each other.

The culmination of this process came with the industrial revolution.  Factories needed labour, but the bulk of people, especially the impoverished workers, still lived in the country.  When these workers moved to the city, it was impossible for them to take all their aunts, uncles, etc along.   Thus the nuclear family was born.

Today we have reached a stage where, due to alienation and fear of crime, people are retreating more and more to the fortress-like safety of their homes.  And although Marshall McLuhan [1] claimed that the electronic media had made the world a global village, images of road accidents and murder victims, middle eastern terrorism and starving Third World children, are more likely to elicit a sort of perverse voyeurism.  News becomes indistinguishable from cop shows and other television fiction.

Television and radio cannot fulfill the promise of the global media because they are ëpush media".  With the exception of talk-back radio and letters to the editor, the mass media of the 20th century repeats the same monolithic pattern as offered by kings, popes and despots throughout history.  We talk, you listen.  Unlike the village tribe where communication was two-way and demographic.

The Internet is already changing all that.  I believe that the Net with its inherent interactivity has made possible for the first time a true global village or global community, a community that exists within or is mediated by an electronic virtual or cyber space [2] rather than the conventional physical space.  This is specifically so with the real time chat (a sort of huge party-line where you type rather than speak) that internet technology has made possible.  With real-time interactivity a true global village becomes possible for the first time.
 

Internet Chat

Although the boundaries can blur, there are basically five different forms of internet chat:: telnet [3], IRC [4], web chat [5], direct chat [6], and world chat [7].  All of these mediums are different ways of allowing people from all other the world to come together and interact and interact on a real-time basis.

For one who has led a less than exuberant social life, internet chat can be exhilarating.  In the first month on-line, I met more people then I had in 39 years of real life (i.e. non-computer-mediated) existence.  This is something that takes some getting used to, the sheer vastness and vitality of the chat scene.  It can only be compared to a gigantic party with tens of  thousands of rooms; a party that never stops, that includes people from all over the world, that is totally safe and non-threatening, that lets you put on any disguise, be any age or gender or appearance, and talk in half a dozen rooms simultaneously.

When I first got connected to the Net, I didnít have any chat program installed (apart from Microsoft Comic Chat, which I couldnít get to work) so I checked out some chat rooms on the Web.  I found some sites to be quite friendly, others to be incredibly cliquey.

On acquiring a copy of mIRC [8], a popular IRC shareware [9] program, I was able to access the IRC world and so compare the two.  IRC seems to be  faster and more frenetic; in part because the actual program is low bandwidth [10] and hence scrolls quickly (unlike some forms of web chat, where the whole page has to be continually refreshed [reloaded]), in part because it is very easy to access multiple channels at once, and in part because there are simply so many more people logged on to IRC.  There is also a strong visual and audio element in IRC chat, thanks to the use of popups (a tool that creates simple but vivid personalised graphics on the chat screen) and sound-files.  Although things differ from channel to channel (or room to room, or site to site), as a generalisation I would say that people on IRC are more likely to welcome strangers and newcomers than people in web chat.

While still getting the hang of IRC I stumbled upon Active Worlds, a form of "world chat" or virtual reality program where you interact with others in a 3-dimensional world.  Bandwidth requirements are large, because of the graphics-intensive nature of the program.  People express their personality not only through their nick, but also by selecting an avatar [11] (virtual body) [12] and through the virtual house they can build (the Active Worlds equivalent of a webpage).  The actual chat window itself is rather limited, and once the VR-novelty of th is wore off I did not find this any more interesting than standard web chat.  Eventually the technology will be developed that will let us do amazing things in virtual reality, but first bandwidth limitations have to be overcome.
 

Digital Communities

One thing I have found especially fascinating is the way that CyberSpace communities have all the characteristics of a real flesh and blood PhysicalSpace community. There is the same sense of community, and also the same exclusion of outsiders.  In general, what happens is that people settle down in a group and a chat format they feel comfortable with, or have managed to establish themselves in, and then log on primarily to that group.  In this way they establish an on-line circle of friends, who quickly become just as real and close and familiar as "real life" friends.

Some would argue that this is not possible, that you cannot have a "community" without actual physical contact.   These arguments come from a lack of understanding.  A real-time virtual community is something  that simply cannot be understood by an outsider.  Critics of the concept of a digital community are simply those who havenít bothered to experience it at first hand.  As with everything, it is not possible to understand something unless you actually immers e yourself in it.

Any real-time digital community - whether IRC, web, or VR-based - is formed when a group of people log on to the same channel (or channels) to chat with each other.  There are people who will log on every single day, and remain connect for hours at a time, even the entire day or night (baring the occasional irritation of being thrown off by their ISP [13], ping time-outs [14] etc).  It is not hard to see how a very close sense of community can develop in such a situation.

The amazing thing about this sort of thing is that after a very short time you forget that all you are doing is typing messages and throwing popups around.  The words and emotions come alive and it is as if you are actually there physically.  In this case it really is a true "virtual" community.
 

Being Accepted

As previously mentioned, some CyberSpace groups (channels or rooms) tend to much more cliquey than others.  This makes it very hard to become a member of that particular circle.  Everything depends on the type of people in the channel.  If they are friendly and outgoing they will welcome - i.e. acknowledge or talk to - strangers.  As in real life, itís the loudest, most boisterous and extroverted people who get ahead [15]

I have found in general the IRC channels to be more friendly towards newcomers then most web chat sites.  There are even special channels specifically devoted to helping "newbies" (to be fair though there are also a few web chat sites that do provide an equal degree of friendliness).  I found the Active Worlds community the friendliest of all (this was before the introduction of fees, so I donít know what itís like now), and also the one with the most international ambience (due to the fact that people from all different nations access the same server [16]).

Good channels for the novice IRC-er to try in the beginning are #CyberChat, #newbies, #ircnewbies, or #help.
 

IRC on Autsnet

Discovering AustNet

After roaming through various IRC channels on different networks, I settled on AustNet.  My main reason for choosing AustNet was because they have a server in Melbourne.  Hence less jamming of the international lines, and I would assume less lag as well.  I finally adopted two channels as sort of on-line homes.  One of these is a rather free party-type channel called the #Buzzroom, the other is a Trek channel called, o bviously, #StarTrek, where science fiction and specifically the Star Trek series provides a conceptual focus.  I found myself developing close friendships with people I had never met in PhysicalSpace and for the most part may never meet (although some IRC-ers do travel and meet their on-line friends in the flesh and in some cases form long-time relationships).
 

Distinct Cyber-Communities

Every cyber-community and sub-community seems to develop its own specific culture.  This is due to a number of factors, including the demographics of the participants, their common interests, the network configoration, and the software interface users employ.

We can conider the chat software interface first.  mIRC [8] is the most popular IRC program used on AustNet [16a] and probably the most popular IRC chat program in general.  There are other IRC programs that may be preferred on some other servers.  The type of chat program will influence the nature of the dialogue.  The Unix chat program cannot read mIRC popups for example, and hence a Unix user will express him or herself more with words and less with graphics.

For the casual IRC chatter, the precise network configoration is not really very impo rtant, and one can easily hop over different servers.  But if one is to become more involved in the operation of a particular channel it is nessary to take into account the specific setup and commands of that server, and the advantages it may offer over its rivals.  .In AustNet for example a type of program called ChanOP plays a big part in the maintenance of a channel.

Each network of linked servers thus constitutes a distinct digital environment which subtly shapes the flavour of the cyber-communities that use it; in a manner analogous perhaps to the way in which geography and economics shape the cultures of particular geographical area.

As regards demographics,  AustNet has servers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, and Singapore. Because in IRC the servers are all linked and hence give a common output, anyone can log on to their local server yet chat with people from other parts of the world who had likewise logged on to their local servers.  I have found that the majority of AustNet users to be Australian, with residents of Canada and the US in equal 2nd place, and only a few New Zelanders and Singaporeans, as well as the occasional person from elsewhere  [16ab].  I have never met anyone older than 47, although that is because I have only frequent certain channels [16b].  The average age varies from channel to channel according to topic and time.   #Buzzroom during the day gets mostly teenagers (with some older people); at night the median age rises to 20 to 30.  In #StarTrek (which is generally deserted during the week day) the average is around early 20s with some younger and a few who are older.

Because the linked servers can have hundreds or even thousands of channels, each reflecting different interests and shaped by the personalities of the main organisers and visitors to that channel, it is not hard to see how an extraordinary diversity can come about.  Unlike RealSpace communities, which lump a large number of different people with different interests and motivations into a single common setting, an IRC community enables people from different settings to come together in a virtual space orientated around a single common interest.
 

Nicks

A personís nick or nickname is their on-line identity, their basic "avatar" [11].  In world chat programs like Active Worlds, WorldChat, and Black Sun, the avatar is an actual virtual body.  In webchat it may be a small graphic image file.  But in text-based chat formats one has to rely on the name alone.   For this reason, many people come up with very interesting or extravagant nicks.   Like the names of music bands and race horses, nicks are often exotic, imaginative, anbe quite clever.  A quality of IRC nicks especially common among younger users is the alternation of capital and small letters, lIkE tHiS.  This may also be combined with alternative spelling ("ph" instead of "f" is a common substitution); this being a characteristic of the IRC dialect in general (see below)..

AustNet has the advantage over many other networks in that it allows you to register your nick.  The nick becomes your own personal identity - no-one else can use it.  Sometimes however, with a popular sounding name for example, people will add a _ or ^ or other small sign and thus be allowed a nick that still sounds the same as the already registered one.

 In different IRC channels nicks may follow or indicate the specific orientation of that channel.  In #StarTrek you may encounter such well-known names as Mr Spock, Mr Sulu, and Captain Picard, along with names of characters familiar only to Trek enthusiasts.  In a medieval roleplaying channel like #Bloodbane_tavern you may find a Wizard or a moonfang.  In a Christian channel some of the gospel authors may occaisonally be encountered.   Sexy guy, bigdick, cyberstud and honeypot will naturally congregate in one of the sex channels.  In relatively unstructured party-type rooms like #Buzzroom nicks vary widely.
 

Bots

A bot is a software robot, a simple program that automates a number of functions.  More precisely, a bot is essentially a series of remotes, such as autogets that respond to certain prompts

Unique to AustNet are specialised super-bots such as ChanOP that make it easy for people to set up and manage their own channel.  Essentially, all that ChanOP is is a well written bot that is automatically installed when a new channel is registered, but has to be invited to join.  Other servers only use standard bots, which are much more limited.

Thanks to ChanOP a channel can run even when the channel operator is not there; it is active 24 hours a day.  As Spacey, the Channel Operator of #Buzzroom explains

AustNet I personally l ike because of its Bots ... nickop chanop etc help keep it under control

NickOP is the bot that allows the user to register his or her nicks, so preventing other people from using them even when he or she is not logged on.

Ops

Channel Operators or Ops are the "elders" or people of authority in a channel.  There is a whole hierarchy of ops in IRC.  The following list gives the AustNet levels, from the lowly 25 to the channel founder at 200.  See Apendix 1 for more details.  Other networks - DALnet, etc - would have different ratings.

Kick means you can actually "kick" a person off that channel.  Ban means you can prevent them from returning once they have been kicked.  Bans can be either temporary or permanant.

An equal or higher rating op can ov er-rule or unban a ban placed by a lower op.  But a lower op cannot unban someone who has been banned by a higher op.

Because of the status and power an op has [16c], newcomers will sometimes beg for ops.  Op-begging is always considered very bad form.   People are generally promoted to op after the come regularly and/or show themselves to be worthwhile contributors to that channel.
 

Rules and Guidelines

Just as in PhysicalSpace communities, CyberSpace communities are structured according to rules.  This is especially important in IRC, where there are so many different channels, and where it is easy for a single person to be a nuisance and upset things for others.

Rules come from two levels.  The most immediate and are those imposed by the Ops themselves.   Ops are the guardians or supervisors of the channel, who have an obligation to keep things running smoothly.

At a higher level are the IRCops, volunteers who help the server staff maintain order by banning malcontents and shutting down their channels.  This doesnít happen very often, but it does happen.  In contrast to regular channel users, an IRCop may have an op rating of upto 500.  (for more on IRCops, see appendix 2)    To be asked to be an IRCop is considered a great honour.

Although the server as a whole does lay down certain guidelines, for the most part rules are determined by the senior channel-operator, and hence constitute the rules or guidline for that room.

A typical example of rules for behaviour in a channel are Spaceyís rules for  #Buzzroom.

Flooding means flooding the screen with popups, which drowns out what people are saying (typing).  Advertising is when some-on comes on and types something like

This is generally a kicking offense.

The above rules constitute the basic minimum.  Many channels also strictly forbid foul language as well, some ban coloured text, and some role-playing channels (like one medieval-fantasy one I visited once) will kick you if you say anything outside the roleplaying guidelines.  Generally the severity or laxness of the rules is a reflection of the channel operators and users.  So #Buzzroom and #StarTrek are not as up tight about strong language for example as #christian or #achristian.
 A channel called #lalaland was actually founded on the basis of no rules (apart from a bam on flooding).

Setting up new Channels

IRC differs from all other forms of Internet chat formats in that it allows anyone to set up their own channel.  With AustNet it is particularly easy to set up your own channel, thanks to the ChanOP system.   A channel may be for the purpose of allowing a group of like-minded people to meet and interact - e.g. a medieval role-playing channel.  Or it may simply be set up by someone who would just like to have their own channel.

Just like with anything new, it is hard to get a new channel going.  So the budding channel operator will risk being kicked or even banned from other channels just to jump in and say

Free ops are almost always offered as incentive whenever a new channel is being formed.

Very few new channels actually make it.  Itís the old story of too many chiefs and not enough indians.  Some people may join, lured by the glitter of free ops and the excitement of a new channel, but unless somethin g dynamic happens the channel soon dies.  All the large IRC channels are also old ones, are generally built around specific themes, and often have an associated webpage.
 

The IRC "Dialect"

Whenever you have any sort of minority interacting in isolation you are bound to see a distinct dialect emerge.  The virtual community is no different.  Only here it is a written rather than a spoken dialect.  There are three elements to consider here: abbreviations, alternative spelling, and emoticons (or "smilies")

abbreviations

In the IRC world abbreviations are common, generated by the all-important need to maximise the amount of information being conveyed (typing being so slow relative to speech).  A few of the more common "words" are listed here, together with their standard English "translation".

a/s/l &nbs p; age - sex - location? (a standard introductory inquiry)
bbl     be back later
bbs    be back soon
brb    be right back
cya    see you
j/k      joke
k        okay
lol      laugh out loud
np     no problem
ppl    people
puter    computer
rofl    roll on floor laughing
roflmao   roll on floor laughing my arse off
wb    welcome back
wtf    what the fuck?

The following are also used but are less common (This list is obviously not intended to be comprehensive)

4       for
i c      I see
l8r     (see you) later
r        are
RL     real-life
sup    what's up?
u       you
y       why?

 k, lol, l8r, and RL are general Net abreviations, not just limited to IRC.  This list of abbreviations could be extended indefinitely.  The experienced IRCer learns to read abbreviations in an almost telepathic manner.  e.g. in the course of one conversation the person I was chatting to mentioned "jp".  Since I know she's interested in dinosaurs I automatically understood she was referring to the movie Jurassic Park.

Abbreviation is a natural consquence of the need to convey information at a faster rate.  Paradoxically one also finds on IRC the opposite tendancy, making short words longer.  A common example is to substitute "wuh-huh" for "yes".

alternative spelling

Phonetic or alternative spelling and street lingo is also not unknown, especially among younger chatters.  It is common to substitute "ph" for "f" for example, and vice-versa.  e.g. "fone".

In addition to genuine alternative spelling are the infamous typos or typographical errors; like abbreviations a natural consequence of the need for speed.  Interestingly, even the most inexperienced IRCers seem to have no difficulty in understanding quite strongly typo-garbled chat.

emoticons or smilies

Another standard element of the irc dialect are the well known "emoticons" [17]

:-)   or   :)    smile
;-)   or   ;)    wink
:-)) or :))    laugh or big smile
:))))))))))    very happy
:-(   or   :(    frown or unhappy
:((((((((((   very unhappy
:-/ or :-|  or :/  or  :|   perplexed
:~(           sad (tears)
:~~(       very sad

Although long lists of emoticons have been drawn up (smile with glasses, tongue in cheek, etc etc), the above are the standard ones.  Exotic "smilies" are generally rare.

Emoticons can do more than just convey expressions.  They can also serve as personalised signatures as well; for example cartoon faces [18] such as   :c)   :o)   and   =o)

A customised emoticon like th is can thus provide very effective visual signature, analogous to recognising a person's face in real life.   But because of the very limited number of possible faces, smilie signatures remain rare on IRC.  In contrast some web chat and non-mIRC IRC applications, such as VirtualPlaces, do allow for a small graphic file "avatar"

An interesting twist on emoticon smilies can be found in #StarTrek (and presumably elsewhere too) where there are several emoticons based on Star Trek races.  The limited typeface available places severe restriction on the total number of versions, but these three have apeared, although they are only rarely used, or familiar only to a few.

{{:-)    Klingon
 }:-)    Vulcan (without ears)
 P-[     Borg

Just as in PhysicalSpace, different dialects and accents develop in different parts of CyberSpace.  In web chat for example, emoticons are often replaced by asterixed gestures, such as

*s*  and *smile*
*g* and *grin*
 
There is much less abbreviation in web chat as well.  Although lol is still widely used, most other IRC words are not, and in some places it is considered a sign of immaturity to use them.

Inter estingly, representing hugs by brackets, e.g. {{{Lisa}}} although mentioned in other internet chat contexes [18b] does not play any part in the AustNet IRC dialect.
 

The Disjointed Quality of  IRC Dialogue

More than any other chat format - IRC dialogue is incredibly chaotic.   This is due to Lag, Multitasking, and in some cases a crowded channel.

lag

Lag is the great bugbear of IRC, and people on-line are continually complaining about it.  Lag comes about because it takes time for the signal to be routed from your computer terminal to the server, then back again.  Hence IRC - and all other forms of Internet Chat - are not literally "real time" - there is a lag, usually of a second or two.  In some cases - if the connection is jammed or the userís ISP has too many users per modem-line - lag can extend to several minutes/  A whole page of text can scroll by before the unfortunate user gets their reply in.

Lag causes the IRC dialect to have a curiously disjointed quality.   It is not uncommon to simultaneously carry on two distinct threads  of conversation when talking to soomeone.

multitasking

The other side to multiple conversations is long periods where nothing at all happens.  This is due to the fact that practically everyone on IRC multitasks.  That is, they work several screens and programs and tasks at once.  Most people will have at least two or three IRC screens open and going at the same time, and so follow the events and carry on a conversation in several different channels or rooms at the same times.  They may also be doing other things as well, such as web-surfing, working, sending messages by ICQ, or even recording music.

It is the low bandwidth requirements of IRC that makes multitasking so easy, the huge number of public channels, and ease of establishing private (DCC) conversations.

Lag, multitasking, typos, and the fact that a number of people will generally be contributing to a converstaion - or carrying on several different conversations, in a channel at any one time, are responsible for the fractured and disjointed nature of  I RC conversation.  Unless you are familiar with this sort of discourse, the following section of dialogue is likely to be pretty incomprehensible.



*** leanne has joined #Buzzroom
<spacey> Hello leanne welcome to the Buzz!
<Cyberdewd> hi leanne
<leanne> hello everyone
<NONE> Im new all in this chatt thing
<spacey> hi leanne welcome back
* chewwie looks for han
<Cyberdewd> yeah, it's confusing at first
<Cyberdewd> then yu get teh hang of it
<spacey> Drug_e speak to me
<leanne> hiya cyberewd
<DRuG_E> hello
<Cyberdewd> wots happening with u leanne, anything much?
<DRuG_E> hello
<Cyberdewd> hi drug
<DRuG_E> hello
<DRuG_E> hello
<DRuG_E> !!!!!!
<chewwie> :0)
<leanne>
<chewwie> hi all
<leanne>  nope
<NONE> hi all


The seasoned IRCer however has absolutely no difficulty in following this line of conversation, and moreover will choose, as I said, to have two or three of them running at any one time.
 

Remaining Connected

Enthusiastic chatters will remain logged on to a particular channel, or a  number of channels, even when they are not actually participating.  Sometimes they will change their nicks by adding suffixes such as _busy, _away, _work, _eating, _shower, or _brb to indicate some RL (real life) business is being attended too.

At other times they will be away or on another screen but not give any indication.  . In such a case they are jocularly referred to as "sleeping" or "dead".  A standard esquire upon entering a room (channel) with a number of people but nothing happening is "is anyone awake?" or more rarely "is anyone alive?"

By remaining constantly logged on to a channel, these IRCers affirm their identity as citizens of a virtual community [19].  Just as they live in a PhysicalSpace home, so they have a CyberSpace channel that serves as an home for their on-line existence.  Telnet's orientation around role-playing allows this alter-ego element is even more emphasised, whi le the world chat program Active Worlds allows you to actually build a house in cyberspace.

Public and Private Channels

There are three types of IRC communication - Public, which is in a public channel, and message and private (or DCC).  These two latter are for one on one communication only.  DCC stands for Direct Chat Connection and is the most secure.

It is also possible to set up a channel which is by invitation only, and which is not displayed in the conventional channel list.  This allows a number of participants to get together for a conference or without anyone knowing.

All this adds to the multiplicity of channels the user interacts through.  I find - speaking for myself - on average on IRC I would have about 3 public channels open, and an equal number of DCCs.

In contrast most other forms of Internet Chat  only allow a single public channel.  Some forms of  Web Chat do allow you to use a "whisper" or private message mode as well.  In at least one case with a popular Web Chat site you have to be a registered paying member for this, although other web chat sites I have investigated allow you to do this (along with giving you registration) for free.
 

Cybersex

This essay cannot be concluded without a reference to cybersex, if on ly because it has captured the popular imagination to such an extent (that alluring marriage of high tech and good old lust).

It can be stated first of all that any the mythological status of cybersex in the public imagination is out of all proportion to its actual importance or relevance to internet chatters.

Cybersex also has to be distinguished from cyber-flirting.

Almost everyone on IRC with any libido to their name seems to engage in some measure of flirting.  And because of the discrepancy in sexes - there being more males than females on-line at present - females (or males who have given themselves female nicknames) are always the centre of attention.  Popups are often used here; sending images of flowers, hugs, kisses etc to each other.
 
On-line flirting enables people to come together in a safe and friendly environment.  It makes it possible to really get to know the other person, without being judged before hand.  It doesnít matter what you look like in PhysicalSpace; whether you are old or young, fat or skinny, plain or beautiful.  In CyberSpace it is the personality and the way you express yourself that matters.  This is an especially safe environment for females, because there is no possibility of coercion, assault, stalking etc.

Cybersex involves at the very least sexual arousal and expli cately telling the other person how you are feeling.  It can be very exciting but in my experience it has never gone beyond that.  Cybersex of this nature (at least in my own experience) always occurs in private 2-person channels, such as the DCC connection in IRC.  Occasionally people may type this out in a public sex channel but this is more just for show.

Despite their associated glamour and mystique, the most unfriendly of all the chat channels if you are a male (and hence the most difficult to get accepted in), are the sex, adult, and singles-bar ones.  You can go there and talk for hours with barely a response.  The experience of a reviewer for an Internet Directory who accessed the channel #20-25sbar pretty much sums it up:

Now this is what singles bars are all about.  Let me set the scene.  I walk in alone to a crowded room.  Iím nervous.  I want to say something, but I donít know who to talk to.  No-one notices me, or if they do they ignore me.  I hang around feeling self-conscious, then I leave. [20]

The person who wrote this was obviously either a male, or used a male or an asexual nick.  As far as being a woman goes just the opposite is the case.  As an experiment I gave myself a female nick and logged on to a  crowded sex channel.  Within minutes I was inundated by DCCs.  It was quite amusing at first, but as more DCC windows opened I began to feel like I was under seige.  At least three dozen guys would have logged on asking for cybersex.  The whole t hing gave me a new new insight into the sort of harassment women have to go through in any male arientated society.  And it also explains why so few females are ever to be found in cybersex channels.

Actual mutual masturbation would be rare, as the number of females that frequent IRC sex channels is certainly quite small.  Cybersex does not play a significant role of any kind in the IRC coimmunity.  As with all these things, a few events have been glamourised and sensationalised so that they seem to constitute the norm rather than the exception.  The general consensus on AustNet IRC channels I frequent is that mutual internet masturbation is pret ty unattractive [21].  The popular caricature of the spotty-faced office geek getting his rocks off on-line is pretty much a shallow fiction.  Most IRC people do have a life outside of cyberspace, and even those few who donít still are not keen on this sort of sexual stimulation.
 

The Dark Side of the Chat World

Considering the human propensity for disruptive behaviour, the Internet community is on teh whol remarkably harmonious.  But it is inevitable that some ppl will bring their antisocial attitudes with them when they go on-line.

Like anything else, antisocial behaviour adapts itself according to the medium it has to express itself through.  Human nature is remarkably inventive in this way.  In the Active Worlds community for example, which is orientated around actually building things in VR, vandalism is a problem.  This is possible because the AW program allows ayone to build and tear down their own creations, but not anyone else's.  So a vandal can build useless structures in front of or in the middle of soemone's dwelling, and these cannot be removed (except by the vandal who put them teher).  The problem became so severe that a committe had to be set up to deal with it.

In the fast and fluid world of IRC the most common forms of anti-social be haviour are flooding, throwing insults and channel-baiting.   for example someone may come in and flood a channel with bad tatse popups along the line of ""yo momma's so fat..." etc, until being kicked.   Sometimes an individual will enter a channel and for no good reason just start abusing people.  Such people are generally kicked or banned straight away by ops.  If there are no ops there, or if the op isn't looking at what's happening though, such an individual can make things pretty umpleasant for legitimate channel users, filling the screen with obscenities or whatever.

Usually an IRC heckler will jump in to a channel, throw a few insults, then exit before they can be kicked [21a].  Sometimes though such individuals will remain in the channel and actual beg to be kicked or banned.  Why anyone would wish to be banned from a channel is beyond me, but this is what they ask for.

IRC hecklers are relatively rare (although not unknown) in general channels, but are frequently encountered in #StarTrek and other special interest channels.  The fact that a channel has a special interest, and hence a specific identity, makes it easy to target.  Christian channels are often particularily targeted.

Here we have the flip side of the IRC-world.  Just as the anonymity and ease of contact of the c hat medium allows people to connect in annonymity, without having to worry about shyness, physical appearance, etc, so it allows malcontents to make a nuisance of themselves without fear of reprisal.  No-one would go up to a group of people in PhysicalSpace and say "you all suck!"  But in CyberSpace this is easy to do.

Rarer than simple heckling and channel baiting, but still occuring, is nuking.  By means of a special software program [21b] that takes advantage of a loophole in the network area of Windows 95, it is possible to "nuke" someone - that is, throw then off their ISP and even cause their system to hang [21c].  Because disconnections occur all the time anyway (the main cause being the ISP itself is overloaded and so drops a user), one assumes this was just a normal disconnection.  On AustNet an entire channel was reecently set up called #Assassination, the ops of which gave themselves the nicks like Assassin1, 2 or whatever.  They would go to other channels and nuke the people logged on there.  The Channel was shut down by the IRCops.
 

Speculating on the Future

Digital Nations

I confidentially predict that real-time digital communities will come to play a greater and greater role in peoples lives as t he 21st century unfolds.  The question is, what form will these communities take, and what computer-mediated  environment will people interact in and through.  It may well be that eventually entire digital nations will form, along the lines of John Perry Barlowís Declaration of Cyberspace Independence, but in a far more fragmented sense.  Rather than a single huge cyber-nation, I would expect tens or even hundreds of thousands of tiny ones, each one focused around and influenced by a specific topic, common interest, and program format.

It is likely that increasing automation will allow, and environmental and perhaps also social decay force,  people to spend more and more of their time within the home.  The virtual community will thus increase in importance vis-a-vis the PhysicalSpace community.   Developing technology will enable greater and greater immersion and participation in these computer-generated environments.
 

Future Technology

Computer technology is dynamic.  Computing power is increasing at an astonishing rate.  Todayís computer is obsolete in two years time.  When I was a kid, personal computers as such didnít even exist.   Teenagers on IRC today will mature as adults in a very different world.  What will happen to a cyber-community based on l ow-bandwidth chat as increasing computing power and more efficient and higher bandwidth internet link-up render present IRC software obsolete?

As a science fiction writer I like to speculate on the way that internet technology will develop in the future.  I suggest four stages in the development of  virtual community technology.  Whether everyone will go along with the new technology is another matter.  In any case, it is almost certain that standard low-bandwidth IRC will continue for decades yet.

1. Teleconferencing.  Within the next 5 to 10 years or so we can expect teleconferencing to become an integral part of all personal computer operating systems.  Teleconferencing, which is already available now, involves not only voice but also a video image of oneself.   Internet chatters will talk to each other via their computers, with a little video picture of the mselves in one corner of the receiverís screen.  A teleconferencing IRC program will incorporate the present text- and popups-based window, a "whiteboard" for free-hand drawing or writing, and a little video image of that personís face (with their nick underneath), filmed via their plug-in video camera.

2. Masking.  The main let-down here will be the loss of your avatar, your dramtic on-line persona.  If youíre a plain and chubby 14 year old with horn-rimmed glasses you can no longer palm yourself off as Darth_Vadar.  I would expect that before too long however, software will be developed that will let you mask your features by superimposing an animated image of some movie character or supermodel over yours.  So people wonít see you; theyíll see a simulated version of your avata r persona of choice instead.

3. Virching.  So far, everything is still done with the person sitting in front of their computer (or digital TV, if the two technologies are integrated in the next decade or so, as certainly seems to be the way things are heading).  The next stage will involve a more complete immersion in the computer generated 3D reality.  A true virtual immersive environment (which will no longer be chat) will be achieved through full bodysuit interaction.   I call this virching.  It wonít be the same as actually "being there", but it will still give a pretty damn good illusion, especially when the user's imagination gets really caught up in the unfolding virtual scenario.   And it would certainly add an entire new dimension to cybersex [22].  The technology for this is at least 10 or 15 years away, if not more, and it would take even longer for models within the average computer userís price-range to hit the streets.  Probably we will see cybersuits develop quickly over a span of 10 or 20 years into more and more efficient models, complete with frames, harnesses, etc to simulate movement.

4. Direct Neural Link-up.  Virching is as far as we can go and still imagine things as they are in the world today.  The ultimate stage of virtual community would require a further stage: direct mind - computer interface and the generating of "a shared consensual hallucination" as predicted by science fiction writer William Gibson.  This may be possible through an external headset (as in the Katherine Bigalow movie Strange Days, which borrows a lot from Gibson), but is more likely to involve some form of surgical implantation, a sort of socket or set of sockets so you can literally "plug yourself in".  I would not expect anything like this to be possible for at least 30 or 4 0 years, add on another decade before it becomes cheap and widely available.   Even if and when it does become possible, it is probable that even the most enthusiastic net junkies would relish plugging themselves in to a virtual world and leaving the body behind.   Those who do wish to participate however will be able to interact, for the first time, in a true computer generated simulated reality.
 

The Future of IRC

Even if such developments as virching and direct neural interfacing occur (and I for one am sure that they will) there will still be a place for present-day style low-bandwitdth multi-channel IRC.  There are at least three reasons why this will be so.

In any case it is almost certain that future digital technology will be portable and involve some sort of sysnthesis of a number of Chat modalities (IRC, Direct Chat, etc), Web, email, TV, radio, newsgroups, and video-telephone in a single package.  IRC will be with us for some time to come.
 :-)


Acknowledgments

The author would especially like to thank Spacey of #Buzzroom and Picard of #StarTrek for their help during the writing of this article.


URLs

Cyberrdewd's email addresss - akazlev@kheper.auz.com
AustNet website -  http://www.austnet.org/
#Buzzroom web page - http://www.nq.net/buzzroom/ email: the_buzzroom@hotmail.com
#StarTrek web page -  http://www.geocities.com/Area51/dimension/3782/
mIRC Home Page - http ://www.mirc.co.uk/


notes

[1] "The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village,"
Marshall McLuhan, 1962, The Gutenberg Galaxy.

[2] The term Cyberspace was coined by sciece fiction writer William Gibson who used it to designate a shared consenual hallucination by which people are able to manipulate data in "the Matrix".   Modern day cyberspace has no-where near the quality of Gibsonian cyberspace - tremendous technological difficulties would have to be overcome first.  Nevertheless, the emotional "charge" of chat conversation, the evocative quality of many peopleís nicknames, and the simple graphics already available do have a vivid effect, albeit only a  subjective one, on the chatterís imagination.

[3] Telnet is the oldest, and uses a type of software that allows you to log on to another computer and use it directly via your own computer.  This was originally for accessing university databases etc but is now used mainly for chatting.   These involve incorporation of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons.  There are two types of telnet - MUD (Multi-User Dungeons (or Dimensions) and MOO - (Multi-user Object-Orientated) with differ in only minor respects.  Both allow many different users to converge and meet in a virtual space on a single server [16].  The interface is just a basic text screen, there being no scope for fancy graphics and so on.

[4] IRC - Internet Relay Chat - allows many users on a network of linked servers at different locations around the world to converge in one "room" or "channel" and have a discussion, similar to a conference call or telephone party line.   Most IRC programs also allow funny little graphics and sound files.

[5] Web chat is a term that can be used to describe any real-time chat that i s run off a website and can be accessed through a standard web-browser like Netscape Communicator or Microsoft Internet Explorer.  These are generally slower than IRC, due to the webís greater bandwidth requirements.

[6] Direct chat involves chat programs that allow you to connect to a friend or group of friends directly, instead of meeting on a server as in Telnet and IRC.  Many of these (such as the very popular ICQ) can just be left to run in the background on your desktop, so your friend can page you when he or she comes online, or let a group of people chat together.  Depending on the program, they can use voice (PowWow), video (Intel video phone), and/or shared whiteboard (for freehand drawing - e.g. Microsoft Netmeeting) as well as text.

[7] world chat provides a sort of virtual reality simulation in which you can actually explore your surroundings as well as intereact with others.  On form of world chat, Active Worlds, also allows you to build a virtual house.

[8] mIRC is an inexpensive shareware program, and comes complete with a listing of world IRC servers.  Once installed it is fast and easy to load, and as does not require much bandwidth or even a fast modem.   It enables one to send sounds and basic pictures to the other people you are chatting with.  Of especial interest are things called "pop-ups" - little graphics that are used to communicate visually with other people in the same channel.

[9] Shareware is a means of marketing software on a "try before you buy basis".   The software is distributed free and the user, if he/she likes it and wishes to continue using it past the trial period, is then asked (and in fact required by law) to register it for a minimal feel.   In fact, very few people actually register their shareware.  The reason for this is partly financial or practical (not everyone who accesses the Net is employed and has a credit card) and partly ideological (the idea that all information and software should be public domain and therefore free).  Along with Netscape Navigator/Communicator and McAfee ViruScan, mIRC is probably among the most widely used unregistered programs.

[< FONT SIZE=-1>10] Bandwidth is the amount of information that can be squeezed through your transmission medium.   The higher the bandwidth requirements of an internet program, the longer it takes to download through your modem and hence the slower it runs.   The term also refers to the amount of  information that is broadcast and received.   So irc for example is a narrow bandwidth medium, whereas worlds chat is a broad or high bandwith medium, which requires a good internet connection to work well.

[11] The term Avatar was originally coined by sci fi writer Neil Stephenson in his book Snow Crash to designate the virtual reality persona a person adopts (by analogy, just as in Hinduism a deity incarnates as a human avatar, so in cyberspace a human person can "incarnate" as (express him/herself through) a virtual persona.  Stephensonís book actually exerted a strong influence on the programmers behind Active Worlds, one of whom chose the nick "Protagonist", after Hiro Protagonist, the central character in Snow Crash.

[12] there are still only a limited number of avatars to choose from, and these are available to "citizens" only.  "Tourists" have to contend with being a "gray" - an alien.  Originally Active Worlds was free, now they have introduced a nominal fee for citizenship, which makes it hard for people who donít have credit-cards or whatever.

[13] ISP - Internet Service Provider.  An ISP is a company that for a fee allows you to log on via computer and modem to their computers.  The ISP computer then connects your computer to the Net.  If their lines are crowded however - that is, if a lot of clients are accessing their computers, users inevitably get pushed off (disconnected).  The only thing to do is just log back on again.

[14] Ping time-out.  The IRC server checks to see if your computer is responding by sending "pings" (signals).  If there is no response after a certain period of time (you may for example have left your system logged on but gone off to have dinner, or been working on another application, say some wordprocessing) it disconnects you.  In that case, you have to log back on to the server, which isnít difficult.

[15] In a strange room there are two ways to get accepted into the group.   We can call these Loudmouth and softly-softly.  Loudmouth is t he quickest way to get attention - just make a pig of yourself - eventually someone will start talking to you (if only to get you to shut up) and you can take it from there.  It helps to have a lot of popups to throw around as well.  Softly-Softly means you just keep coming back to the same channel, and maybe chip in something here and there.  Even if people ignore you at first, theyíll see you are now a regular and start including you; saying hello etc.  Actually Loudmouth and Softly-Softly are just too opposite poles of the same spectrum.
I always make a point of being friendly to newcomers, partly because Iíve been on the receiving end of rudeness and snobbery a few times and know how painful it can be, and partly because its just fun to meet new people.

[16] a server is a powerful computer dedicated to a specific task.  The entire Internet itself  is nothing but a  network of linked servers, none more important than the other.

[16a] mIRC only works on Windows 3.1 and Windows 95.  There are other chat programs for the Macintosh and Unix platforms.  These programs are not able to read the mirc popups apparently.

[16ab]  In contrast, the big-name networks like DALnet and Undernet are each more primarily American and European, and hence reflect a different mix of cultures and nationalities on their channels.

[16b] there is one AustNet channel called #35++, and another called #46ish.

[16c] In #StarTrek the op levels are equated with StarFleet ranking as follows

[17] emoticons p redate IRC and the Internet; being originally employed by the electronic bulletin board users of the ë80s.

[18] these are not unique to IRC by any means.  A friend from Active Worlds uses one of these as her  "signature"

[18b] see Caitlin Sullivan & Kate Bornstein, Nearly Roadkill, 1996, (High Risk Books/Serpent's Tail, New York & London) and chapter 3 of Robin Hamman's Cyborgasms - Cybersex Amongst Multiple-Selves and Cyborgs in the Narrow-Bandwidth Space of America Online Chat Rooms at http://www.socio.demon.co.uk/home.html.

[19] this virtual alter-ego existence is even more pronounced in the roleplaying MUD/MOO Telnet communities.

Often the most avid participantsÖare people who work with computers all day at their "regular" job.   As they play on MUDs they will periodically put their chracters "to sleep", remaining logged on to the game but pursuing other activities.  In this way they break up their working days and experience their lives as  a "cycling through" between the real world and a series of simulated ones"
Sherry Turkle, "Netsex - more than playing with yourself", in Focus - Technology, life, and outrageous science;  September 1997, p.81

[20] The Australian Net Directory; issue 4, (Autumn 1997) p.112

[21] It seems that web chat "singles bars" have taken over from IRC as the main medium for cyber-masturbation..  At least one of these web chat sites actually allows you to post porn pictures along with the dialogue.  This slows down the refresh rate of the page quite a bit, but then it certainly adds titilation!

[21a] This doesn't protect them against beingg banned though; as it is still possible for the op to ban someone though even after they are no longer logged onto that channel.

[21b] As with archived viruses, this program is available for downlaod from the Net.  It is not easy to find however, and most versions probably don't work.

[21c] Servers like AustNet offer a patch that supposedly fixes the win95 loophole.

[22] an imaginative but quite plausible projection of the future of cybersex is to be found at the http://www.reactoronline.com/cybersex.html.  I have doubt that the sort of devices described here (under the heading the evolution of Cybersex, from "3rd generation" onwards) will replace current masturbatory cybersex within the coming decades.
 


Appendix 1 - The Op levels

The full list of options available at each op level in AustNet are as follows:

200  Founder (Maintains channel registration)
                    Commands: DROP - deregister channel

190  Co-Founder (Maintains channel configuration)
                    Commands: ACT, SPEAK - act and speak through the ChanOp
                    MDEOP - mass deop
             &nbs p;      SET - configure the channel's various settings. These settings affect status and operation
                            of a channel.

150  Channel Administrator (Maintains access records)
                     Commands: ADDUSER, DELUSER, SETUSER, - set or modify op status for a channel user
                    (permannet - applies whenever the person joins the channel)
                     JOIN, PART - make ChanOP join or leave the channel

100  Channel Operator (Control over channel)
                    Commands: CLEAN - remove all modes on a channel
                    DEOP, OP - give or remove op status (temporary)

75  Channel Manager (Manage ban database without ops)
                    Commands: BAN, UNBAN  - ban or unban someone from the channel

50  Channel Guardian (Limited access)
                    Commands: KICK - kick someone off the channel,
                    TOPIC - change channel topic

25  Channel Member (Ability to join channel)
                    Commands: INVITE - remotely invite someone to the channel


Appendix 2 - IRCops

-HelpOP- *** What is an IRCop and how do I become one? ***
-
-HelpOP- An IRCop (IRC server operator, not IRC cop or police)
-
-HelpOP- is an IRC user who has an O:line on an IRC server.  This
-
-HelpOP- enables them the ability to perform certain commands on
-
-HelpOP- the se rver for several purposes: maintain the network,
-
-HelpOP- remove users causing trouble, answer questions users have
-
-HelpOP- about IRC or help them handle problems.
-
-HelpOP-
-
-HelpOP- How to become an IRCop: You are given an O:line by
-
-HelpOP- 1. being noticed as being helpful to the network such
-
-HelpOP-    as providing technical support on #help, mailing lists,
-
-HelpOP-    channel and have general IRC experience.
-
-HelpOP- 2. having a server administrator who needs another operator
-
-HelpOP-    for his/her server.
-
-HelpOP- 3. being voted and approved by current AUSTnet IRC server
-
-HelpOP-    operators.
-
-HelpOP- 4. It is assumed you are familiar with services and its
-
-HelpOP-    rich var iety of commands and abilities.
-
-HelpOP- 5. On NO occasion should you ever ask for an O:line as
-
-HelpOP-    rejection often offends.  Asking shows you are wish
-
-HelpOP-    to be a server operator for reasons other than to
-
-HelpOP-    help this IRC network.  Such persons will not be of
-
-HelpOP-    assistance to the network.
-