One of the first global instant messaging services on the Internet was born as a summer job side project in 1988 in Oulu, Finland. Internet old-timer IRC, soon to be 30 years old, is still the main discussion forum for tens of thousands of users.
For many, the name Jarkko 'WiZ' Oikarinen says nothing, but he has had a dramatic impact on our way of communicating with each other. He developed one of Internet's first global instant messaging services in 1988. He is the man behind IRC.
In 1988, Jarkko Oikarinen held a summer job at Oulu University's Department of Computer Sciences, administering a BBS, or Bulletin Board System computer. The machine was connected to the telephone network, and dial-up modems were used to connect to it from users’ own computers. IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, was born out of a need to hold real-time discussions between users. During his spare time, Oikarinen started coding IRC as a replacement for the earlier, somewhat unreliable messaging system.
– The idea was to create a system that enabled real-time messaging between Internet users, and that would somehow be decentralised and not dependent on one server. This is why IRC became so popular in its day. Other chat programs existed, but they were all practically centralised, says Oikarinen.
IRC is a channel based instant messaging service that enables real-time text-based conversation between several people at the same time. Users can also send each other private messages. First you join a discussion channel, or create your own, and talk about a certain subject or just chat generally. The users select their own nickname or 'nick'.
After Oulu, IRC servers spread to other Finnish university towns, and thus the first users of IRC were mainly university students from around Finland.
– The conversation was free and nobody asked for advice on homework. It was social interaction from the start, there were no work or study related motives behind it.
Jarkko Oikarinen never intended IRC to be used for commercial gain but distributed it freely. After a while he was contacted by the Denver and Oregon State Universities in the United States.
– These universities had set up IRC servers and wanted to connect to the Finnish network. After this, IRC started to spread rapidly.
Jarkko Oikarinen developed IRC up until 1992. After this he concentrated on his studies, and IRC's development was left to people he knew and who were already involved.
– At that point, there were servers all over the world, on every continent. At some point, there even were users on Antarctica.
IRC's popularity grew with the growth of the Internet. More IRC networks emerged, each with their own rules and features, but the instant messaging protocol remained the same.
In the early 2000s, social media site IRC-Galleria (IRC Gallery) was created to serve Finnish IRC users, and finally the users had a face. This service must not be confused with text-based IRC, however; IRC-Galleria is a www service that any Internet user can join.
IRC's heyday was the early 2000s. In early 2005, the largest IRC network still had some 250,000 simultaneous users. The other three large networks also boasted over 100,000 users each. Additionally, there were tens of thousands of users on other networks.
After this the number of users started to decline rapidly, one of the reasons being the emergence of modern social media. However, 30 years after its launch, IRC still has a devoted user base. The exact number of users is impossible to judge, as many companies still use IRC in their internal networks. There are tens of thousands of users though, probably more.
Mikko 'ruottis' Ruotsalainen has used IRC actively for about twenty years. His first contact with the service took place in 1993.
– I was in middle school in the Northern Finnish town of Kiiminki, and text based Freenet had just come into use. Our teacher told us to do what we wanted, and we found the strange and exciting IRC. My first experience of IRC made me none the wiser – I was a kid trying to hold a conversation with adults, Ruotsalainen describes.
A few years later Ruotsalainen rediscovered IRC after moving to the town of Iisalmi, while his friends stayed in the region of Oulu.
– We had our own channel with about 15 people from around Oulu, and myself from Iisalmi. We traded a lot of information on games, but conversation was not limited to only that. I didn't have many friends in Iisalmi, so IRC was also important for my social life.
IRC has played a pivotal role in the birth of the Internet's chat culture, and in that sense it has shaped people's behaviour. Jarkko Oikarinen is less grandiose and says that IRC is just a link in the chain that led to modern chat systems. He emphasises IRC's importance on the level of the individual.
– I know people who have met their spouses on IRC. Many friendships have also been forged and jobs found through IRC. In that sense, IRC did play an important role.
So, social life is at the core of IRC. The people who discuss things on a channel are the lifeblood of the channel. IRC channels have always arranged meetings where users can meet their fellow users face to face. Jarkko Oikarinen took part in the first IRC meetings in Finland, Sweden, Germany and USA as early as 1989 and 1990. Mikko Ruotsalainen has also participated in many meetings, sometimes as a host.
Both Oikarinen and Ruotsalainen have long used other instant messaging services too. Nowadays, Oikarinen rarely visits IRC. Another user took over his IRC nick 'WiZ' a long time ago. Ruotsalainen, however, wants to hold onto IRC and sees many advantages in it compared to other instant messaging services.
– IRC is free of charge, agile and free of commercials. I also like to discuss things on English language channels to maintain my vocabulary. IRC discussions tend to be more straightforward and honest than, say, on Facebook. People stand behind what they say and refrain from insults. Discussions on IRC are more mature, more than mere shouting matches.
Jarkko Oikarinen lists IRC's non-commercial nature as one of the reasons for its continued popularity.
– From the start, IRC was licensed in a way that prevented it from being seized for commercial use. A new version cannot be distributed without free source code. I wanted to keep it free of charge and open for everyone. I think source code should be freely available for all software. Without the code, it's impossible to fully understand a program, improve upon it, or pinpoint security issues.
Although the development of IRC didn't earn Jarkko Oikarinen any money, as its developer he believes it has had a positive impact on his later job opportunities. At the moment he is working at Google, developing the Google Hangouts service.
Oikarinen has been awarded special recognition by the Finnish Millennium Technology Prize foundation and the Dvorak Award for his work on IRC.
– Recognition is a positive thing, as long as there's not too much of it. It's an honour to have created a service that has had an impact on so many lives around the world.