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I think almost everyone has heard of Skype for audio and video calls.  What some people are less aware of is that the text chat functionality can be used for persistent chatrooms like those available through IRC and other chat protocols.  Whether you've heard of IRC or not, you've surely heard of IM.  IRC is a text based protocol that supports very large chatrooms.  Anyone with a server can host multiple rooms and there are many highly active IRC servers still around.  There is huge traffic on irc.freenode.net and I regularly discuss iOS/Android development with other developers there.  The huge advantage over trawling and posting to bulletin boards is the real time feedback you can get from experts in the field. Of course the experience can be mixed and less hot topic related rooms, e.g. AI and P2P might lack anyone to answer your question, while other rooms, particularly on other less reputable servers, might well be filled with anarchistic script kiddies, but even then the conversations can be hilarious if not totally productive.

IRC can also be hopelessly addictive, and I carefully limit my exposure in order to get work done.  Also, frustratingly, if you get logged off, or you sleep your computer, you miss any chat activity that occurred while you were away.  Not so with Skype, which delivers the entire log of a chatroom to you when you log back in.  This makes shared Skype chat great  for my HPU Computer Science classes, and the HPU Computer Club chatroom I created seems to have really taken off.  That's not to say everything is perfect.  I'd love to see email notification integrated properly, since if someone types into a skype chat while you are logged off, and then logs of themself, you won't neccessarily receive the chat message until both you and the person who posted the message both log in together.  Also Skype no longer provides public chats so you have to be invited in, although that has both pros and cons :-)

However one huge advantage of Skype is the great support for mobile, which is lacking in IRC.  I have it set up so that whenever any of my students asks a question in chat my phone vibrates, which helps me give them instant feedback.

Anyhow, I've created a TechHui chatroom, and if anyone is interested in joining just hook up with me on Skype (username "tansaku") and I'll add you in and show you around!

 

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Comment by Sam Joseph on November 21, 2011 at 12:23am

Dan: I think the ongoing popularity of irc does come from critical mass.  To be honest I still use IRC a lot and it is invaluable for working through problems with others of a technical persuasion; however it is next to useless for communicating with students unless they are all technically very savvy, and even then, the fact that in general IRC servers/clients do not provide an integrated service to see what was said when you were not logged in means that one generally cannot achieve critical mass in an IRC chat with Students.  @Paul makes a good point that the technically minded can set up a persistent IRC arrangement, but this is beyond non-technical users, or those studying to become technical, so is not really an option.

 

Skype on the other hand keeps you updated with everything that was said while you were away without you having to take any special steps, and works on lots of mobile platforms making it extremely useful for co-ordinating small group chats with a mix of technical and non-technical folks.  Of course as @Paul points out it is run my a monolithic company (MS) now I believe, and so there are a number of drawbacks associated with central control, and they will probably break it before too long and it will become unusable for my purposes.

Interestingly Skype removed their public chatroom options, and this is I think one of the reasons that IRC continues to be so popular in that discussions can easily be made public and be joined by anyone.  I'm taking the AI and ML classes that Stanford is running free this semester and the IRC chatrooms for those classes are very active. 

 

As @Paul points out IRC is a free protocol, which is great, and so I tend to agree that there's a reasonable chance that MS will break the IRC-like functionality of Skype if not remove it altogether at some point.  The problem seems to be that if you want to have the persistent aspect of Skype chat then you need to rely on someone running an always connected server ... unless one could put some sort of p2p like thing on top or IRC that would distribute updates like NetNews used to do ... of course then you'd have to get all the irc clients to update to support that.  A good free IRC client for iPhone and Android would be a start ...

Comment by Paul Graydon on November 19, 2011 at 2:35pm

ssh+screen+irssi = persistent IRC, multiple servers with minimal hassle.  You can even choose to log all conversations (but good netiquette is to let people know you're doing so).  Mark yourself away ('/away reason') and then when you clear your away status ('/away') it will show you all the messages you missed whilst you were away.  I run such a setup to keep in touch with other Sysadmins day-to-day, along with former colleagues.  It's invaluable to me to be able to keep up to date with whats going on in the field, and to be able to seek advice of others when particularly baffling problems occur (and give advice in return).

One big reason why Skype probably won't replace IRC, and really shouldn't, is it's not a 'free' protocol.  You're reliant on a single central organisation for authentication and confirmation, and you have no control over what is going on with your traffic, you've no control on what Skype may be doing with chat communication.  We've seen numerous cases in the last few years where Skype have had some real problems with their authentication systems and people have been stuck unable to use the services at all.

 

IRC is decentralised and easy.  If the nick authentication systems like NickServ are down, the whole thing won't fall apart.  At best people are inconvenienced.  If your usual irc server is down, it's easy to jump onto another one, or spin one up yourself.  Its a very quick and simple process, same if you want guaranteed private chat services inside a business setting up an IRC server takes less than 10-15m.

 

IRC was an invaluable tool at $job-2 where staff were working in multiple different locations across Europe.  Sysadmins, developers and support staff were able to directly resolve problems without having to go through the well meaning but slow bureaucracy.

Comment by Daniel Leuck on November 19, 2011 at 7:50am

Although it definitely has its place in internet history, I'm curious why IRC maintains such popularity after 20+ years. The IRC protocol has a lot of issues - no i18n (character encoding isn't specified in the RFC), no real identity management, susceptibility to malicious peer servers, no standard for persistence and search, etc. It seems like it should be replaced by something. Of course I could be talking out of my okole given that I haven't used it in a decade. I suppose the main barrier is moving the large IRC community to something that a critical mass can agree upon. Commercial options will probably run into problems with the IRC culture.

I think its great you are finding ways to engage distance learning students. I confess I was unaware of this Skype feature. Thank you for pointing it out. I look forward to joining you in the TechHui chat room.

Comment by Sam Joseph on November 15, 2011 at 8:02pm

None taken, I'm always out of my depth :-)  But I'm not sure why a tongue-in-cheek phrase like that should indicate so?  Have you spent much time on IRC? 

Comment by Brian on November 15, 2011 at 6:57pm
Anarchist script kiddies on less reputable networks? No offense, but I think you're out of your depth.

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