The Old IRC Chat Rooms
It’s my understanding that the IRC (Internet Replay Chat) still exists. I’ve not visited a channel in about 18 years, I guess because making new Internet friends became easier with the programs using a graphical user interface that came along in the late 90s — ICQ is one for example. Little by little people also began to move to Yahoo! and AOL chat rooms until the popularity of the IRC began to fade. According to Wikipedia, after 2003 the IRC chats lost 60 percent of their users. Well, let’s continue with some more history…
Back in the late 90s, you connected to IRC channels with simple programs like mIRC. You could download mIRC on your computer and it would connect you via dial-up modem to the chat servers which were located all over the world. From there you selected which server you wanted to connect to and which channel or rooms you wanted to join.
I also remember using the Linux command line to connect to IRC chat room servers via Telnet. I wish I remembered which distribution it was, but I’m betting it was UNIX. I’ve always liked shell environments.
There is an episode in one of my favorite TV shows, “Halt & Catch Fire” (AMC), where a young teenager approaches one of the main characters, Cameron (played by McKenzie Davis), to thank her for creating “Community” — an interactive platform that McKenzie had created for her gaming company, “Mutiny.” The storyline in the episode is taking place in the late 80s, I believe, but it was indeed in the 1980s when these platforms where regular computer users could communicate with one another in interactive ways to chat or play games began.
The young teen tells Cameron that with “Community” she had finally found a way to make friends. The chat rooms had become a refuge for many teens that hadn’t been able to really connect with like-minded people elsewhere in the “real world.” For these teens, computers were an integral part of their lives and making friends who thought like them or shared the same interests was like finding lost family.
That is exactly how the IRC chat rooms felt to me — like finally finding my own tribe, people who understood me and liked the same things I did. Back in the day, you could easily go from one type of chat room to another to connect with others. Some rooms were topic-oriented, others catered to specific groups of people like LGBTQ folks. The possibility were endless too since you could create your own channel and have it be about whatever you liked.
The anonymity in IRC chat rooms was real, you could change your nickname anytime you wished and pretend to be whoever you desired. Of course, some people did abuse the system and took advantage of others’ trust, but as soon as they were found out they were reported and quickly banned by channel moderators. The atmosphere in the rooms had to feel safe and I liked that. To me, it was a very egalitarian community where I felt valued as a user.
I had many friendships in those channels, but unfortunately I never got to meet any of them in person. Still, the experience of getting to know others, especially those who lived in other countries was amazing and unique at the time.
Sometime in 1996, I took a full-time job working as a file clerk for a university hospital well-know in my city. I was still bartending at night and at some point I also began attending college.
Every so often during my job at the university hospital, I had students come to my department to help with office tasks as part of their work-study programs. There was one I became very good friends with and who taught me how to log-in to the Internet via Telnet using the university servers. My work computer at the time was running Windows, but there was no Internet browser. Using Telnet as a way to visit Yahoo! or other websites at the time was awesome even though you couldn’t view any images.
During those days, Internet pen pal forums were also a thing. So, I made friends with someone living in New Jersey and one in Japan. I still remember their names: Antony (from NJ), and Nabuko (from Japan). I don’t know if those people were REALLY who they say they were at the time, but I guess I was very innocent (or naïve) back then to have believed their stories. I guess what mattered to me most was to have someone to write to when work was slow or at lunch time.
My file clerk job at that prestigious university came with an ID badge that gave me access to the many campus libraries, so I would spend a good deal of time after work, going from one library to another to use the computers and surf the Internet. It was really great and I felt so lucky.
With the money I was making I was able to buy my first PC eventually. It was a Pentium II, 386. I remember adding to it little by little — more memory, a faster CPU, a sound card, etc. I used to love taking that thing apart. Once I had my own computer at home I could connect to people online from there. Unfortunately, that very first computer I had ended up getting a virus I couln’t get rid of it. I uninstalled and installed Windows 95 on it a few times, but the pop-ups would eventually return. It was a sad day when I had to trash the motherboard and hard drive. I hated Windows with a passion for many years after that.
Up next! My first Mac and my losing battle to major in computer science…