First formally documented in May 1993 as part of RFC 1459 [IRC], most of the changes brought since then can be found in this document as development was focused on making the protocol scale better. Better scalability has allowed existing world-wide networks to keep growing and reach sizes which defy the old specification.
– C. Kalt; Internet Relay Chat: Server Protocol; RFC 2813; April 2000.
IRC leverages many of key features of the Internet, providing a powerful tool for extending human communication across geographical distances. Key features of IRC are described below:
- Distributed & real-time. IRC was the first world-wide chat system, bringing people together in real-time at minimal cost across great geographic distances, with a resultant cross-fertilization of human communications across the planet. No-one can say for sure what changes these billions of conversations have had on the development of world history, but we can safely assume that the overall net effect has been largely positive.
- Emergency assistance. In a fortuitous turn of timing, IRC showed its strength in facilitation of distributed communications in several emergencies shortly after it was created in the early 1990’s, similar to the way amateur radio networks have often been used, as described further below:
- Kuwait invasion. IRC first became known to the general public around the world in 1991, when its use skyrocketed as users logged on to get up-to-date information on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait through a single functional Internet link that stayed operational for a week after radio and television broadcasts were cut off. The logs of this remarkable event are still online here.
- Russian rebellion. In 1993, when Russian lawmakers barricaded themselves inside the Parliament building, a group of Russian and American IRC users set up an IRC channel to communicate breaking news to people around the world. The logs are here.
- California earthquake. In 1994, when the Northridge earthquake hit California and other communications went down, a group of Los Angeles IRC users set up a channel to communicate information about the situation to people outside the area. The logs are here.
- Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, when the Hurricane Katrina struck the city of New Orleans, breaching the levees and plunging large areas under water, many landline and cellular phone systems crashed within a few days. On the other hand, some Internet nodes remained accessible through satellite and dial-up connections, providing the infrastructure for Internet communications where other systems became inoperative. For the first few days IRC was one of the only communication mechanisms to gain information on the disaster; the server irc.psionics.net hosted the channel #hurricane-katrina; the company Intercosmos used IRC to help locate their staff.
IRC has even helped arrange a few weddings.