The Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, is an ancient online, real-time chat system. When I say ancient, I mean that it started in 1988. There are hundreds of public IRC networks for various purposes. Two important general networks for free software developers are [OFTC] and [FreeNode]. Many larger free software projects have their own networks.

IRC has grown to become one of the main ways in which free software developers keep in touch. It is very useful to know how to use IRC, even if you decide that it isn't something you want to often. On the other hand, many strong friendships have been formed via IRC.


IRC has users, who can send private messages to each other, and can join channels, which where many people can discuss things together. Anything you send to a channel is visible to everyone on the channel.

There's a lot more details to learn, eventually. To get started, you need to get an IRC client, connect to a server, and join a channel. Some popular IRC clients for free operating systems are:

  • XChat, for GNOME.
  • Empathy, also for GNOME.
  • Konversation, for KDE.
  • irssi, for terminal lovers; also good if you want to always be on IRC.

A good first network for those interested in free software development is [FreeNode] or wherever the support channel for your operating system of choice is located. For example, Debian uses the [OFTC] network. You could try one of these:

  • server, channel #baserock
  •, channel #debian

All IRC clients have an input box of some kind, usually at the bottom of the window or screen. Anything you write there goes to the channel you've joined, or the other party in the private discussion.

You can also type in commands in the input box. These start with a slash (/). Some examples:

  • /quit exits IRC.
  • /join #foo joins channel #foo. Anything you write that is not a command will now go to the channel.
  • /part leaves a channel.
  • /msg liw_ hi there sends a private message to the user known as liw_ (that's called their nickname on IRC).
  • /query liw_ opens a window or tab for a discussion with the user. Within this window or tab anything you write will go to the person.

There's tons more commands. Some will be specific to your IRC client, others will be interpreted by the server. The above will get you started, however.


If you join a channel full of people you don't know, you should be careful. You are effectively entering their shared livingroom, and you should take not to make a fool of yourself. A good rule of thumb is to be polite, and listen more than you speak. There's no need to grovel, though.

Avoid sending private messages to people you don't know. It's like calling someone you don't know: you're intruding on their time, and demanding attention.


IRC discussions are often full of jargon and special acronyms. You'll learn these eventually, and looking them up in, for example, the [Jargon file] is a good idea. Sometimes Wikipedia, or a general search engine lookup, will also be quite useful. In other cases, the word or acronym is special to that group of people, and you may need to ask them to explain.

Some examples:

  • afaik: as far as I know
  • brb: be right back
  • iirc: if I recall correctly
  • lol: laugh out loud
  • RFTM: read the f... manual