IRC – ‘Internet Relay Chat’ – is one of the oldest forms of communication on the Internet, predating the World Wide Web by several years. In its simplest form it allows two or more users to see the same scrolling ‘window’ with a prompt box into which they can simultaneously type text messages. Pressing Enter sends the latest message to the bottom of the window. Computers which host these chats are called ‘IRC servers’, and where a choice of different forums are offered to participate in, these are called ‘channels’.
Figure 25: XChat IRC
Despite its age, IRC remains a popular means of interacting between groups. Both Mint and its ‘parent’ program Ubuntu provide chat channels for their users to discuss problems and share discoveries. There are many other hosts providing access to users around the world, including some that specialise in ‘adult’ chat; so be aware that what you find on IRC may not always be safe for work.
Connecting to a host
As mentioned above, Pidgin supports IRC as well as many other communications networks. XChat works in a similar way but with some more powerful features relating to IRC alone. Selecting XChat IRC from the menu will start the program and – if you have an internet connection – connect you up to the Linux Mint server, which is likely to be very busy at any time of the day. To sign out, click on the Server menu and Disconnect. You can Reconnect in the same way. You’ll be given a nickname which will be the same as the <username> with which you set up Mint. If someone else on the server already has the same nickname, you’ll be prompted to change it.
After you connect to a host, you can bring up a list of that host’s channels with Server/List of Channels. The list will show the name of the channel, the number of people currently connected, and a comment that may or may not tell you something about what you’re likely to encounter there. Once the list comes up, double-click on a channel to connect to it. You can be connected to several different channels on the same host at once. The channels you’re currently in will appear as buttons on the bottom left of the screen. Channel names normally turn red when there’s a new post, but by right-clicking on the channel name, you can choose some other kind of alert.
Currently popular channels on the Mint server include #pimpmymint, #linuxmint-chat, #linuxmint-debian and #linuxmint-help. The channel list can be searched by name or filtered on the number of current users per channel. Channels with five users or fewer are unlikely to respond to newcomers, so look for a fairly busy channel to start in.
Communicating with users
When you’re logged on and using an IRC channel, you should see a list of nicknames at the right of the screen. These are the current users of that channel. If the list isn’t visible, check the View menu or press Ctrl-F7. Users at the top who have a green bullet icon next to their names are moderators with control over the channel. They can kick you out temporarily or permanently if you’re offensive or silly, so be nice to them! Ordinary members like you appear underneath, in alphabetical order.
Right-clicking on a user name brings up a short menu of options. These include Open Dialog Window, which requests the user to join you in a separate window for a private chat, and Send File, which will send a file directly to them if they choose to accept it. You can also ask for user information, using a protocol called ‘Whois’. This will appear in the dialog window as something like the following:
* [jon] (jon@SpotChat-jptbi8k6.bigpond.net.au): Jon
* [jon] is connecting from jon@CPE-121-216-164-246.lnse2.ken.bigpond.net.au 188.8.131.52
* [jon] +#linuxmint-chat +#linuxmint-help
* [jon] harpy.de.SpotChat.org :is it a Bird?
* [jon] is using modes +ix
* [jon] idle 00:19:59, signon: Sun Mar 3 15:53:52
* [jon] End of WHOIS list.
Note that you can ask for user information about yourself as well as any other user. Moderators can use the Username list to kick or ban users, or assign other users moderator privileges.
To see a list of IRC channels, go to XChat/Server List. A drop-down list will appear showing a hundred or so of the most popular global IRC servers, Double-click on one of these to connect, and once the connection goes through you’ll be able to bring up a channel list for that server. Note that you can’t be connected to two servers at a time. To join a server which is not on the list, click on ‘Add’ then ‘Edit’, and provide the server details. You can include a shortlist of channels that you will be connected to automatically when logging on to that server.
Some servers will allow you to set up your own channel. The easiest way to do this is to type ‘/join #channelname’ in the prompt line at the bottom of the screen and press Enter. You will be the moderator of the channel and the only member to begin with, but your channel will now appear in the channel list, and others can choose to join it if they want to.
Uses of IRC
Although there are now many alternatives to IRC, it is still very popular, and a good way to provide support and help to new users, particularly in areas where communications bandwidth is low. If you think it might be of use to you then start with the Mint help channels first, and experiment in those until you’re familiar with the etiquette of online chat and what to expect from the other participants. Other specialised hosts and channels can be discovered via web searching or just asking around.
Generally the people you meet on IRC will be kind and helpful and the moderators will do their best to get you up and running. Unfortunately there’s no way to keep out thugs and hooligans completely, and abusive attacks will occur now and then. If that happens while you’re in a channel, just log off or find somewhere else to go for a while until things calm down.