Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a wonderful protocol with a 34-year history of helping free software, there at every step alongside the rise of the internet. Many real-time chat empires have risen and fallen during its tenure, some of them leaving behind lessons IRC might learn from. But even in its original form, IRC is a simple and beautiful protocol on top of which many independent, federated networks have been built, from simple line-oriented plain-text messages (mostly) adhering to open standards, and implemented with free software.
IRC has held a special place in my heart and in the hearts of my collaborators at SourceHut, both within the company and in the broader community. We rely on it every day, professionally and socially, and we want to help it be the best it can be. We want this because we love IRC for what it is: simple. There are many other solutions we could invest in, some of which are doing great things for free software (such as Matrix), and some of which are not (such as Discord). But, IRC is by far the simplest and most open, and these essential traits are both compatible with our culture and something we wish to preserve.
What can we do to make IRC better while honoring what makes it so good?
Our work focuses on making IRC easier to use and more accessible to a broader audience of free software contributors. While I might personally be satisfied with Weechat in a terminal on my other monitor, many new programmers have different wants. And while I was happy running my IRC bouncer for many years, I can’t exactly suggest that it is a good solution for IRC’s problems.1
The most obvious contribution to IRC from SourceHut is chat.sr.ht, our hosted IRC bouncer which provides a “just works” IRC bouncer for SourceHut users. A pleasant webchat (gamja, GNU AGPL 3.0) offers a jump-in-and-go experience, and our bouncer backend (soju, also AGPL) provides a scrollback, automatic log keeping, multi-device synchronization, and many other useful features that close most of the usability gap for IRC. The maintainer of these projects, Simon Ser, is also developing a new Android app for IRC (goguma, (also AGPL)). Importantly, chat.sr.ht is not a new IRC network: we just facilitate access to independently operated and governed networks like Libera Chat and OFTC.
chat.sr.ht is the face of SourceHut’s IRC work, but there’s also a lot of work you don’t see. Simon is working with the IRCv3 community to improve IRC for everyone. Simon and others working on our stack have forwarded a half-dozen new IRC specifications for review and standardization by the community, including support for push notifications, bouncer auto-configuration, and multi-device synchronization improvements. We also participated in the process of getting many other extensions standardized, such as chat history, account registration, and web socket support, and have offered many improvements to the documentation at ircdocs.horse.
Our approach is to make conservative, obvious improvements to IRC that close the usability gap without sacrificing the any of the things which we love about IRC. We believe in honoring and respecting our peers in the community, focusing on making the ecosystem stronger instead of seeking to make our foothold in it stronger. The fall of Freenode reminds us all of the importance of a healthy community of equal peers working to improve standards in the interests of us all, rather than in the interests of a small few. We’re proud to do our part. #sr.ht was registered on Libera Chat only minutes after it opened and we were one of the first projects to make the move.
I’ve been using IRC for most of my life. It has played a crucial role in my social and professional life, playing its part in the success of many of my projects and in establishing many long-term friendships and professional relationships. Come add your voice with us in #sr.ht (on-topic) or in #sr.ht.watercooler (off-topic), both on Libera Chat. See you there :)
I might acknowledge, however, that many traits of the ephemeral discussions that stem from IRC’s constraints are worth keeping even in the absence of these constraints. The lack of any expectation to scroll up and read the discussions you missed, and the cultural pressure to move important information out of chat and into more permanent mediums, like mailing lists or tickets, are two positive things that IRC’s ephemeral nature encourages. As we move into a better world for IRC, let’s be mindful of these things. ↩︎