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The Other Side of the Nick or IRC, Communication, and Why Computers Are a Mixed Blessing

I’ve discovered a few things. They’re not really news at all.

Lately, I’ve been spending time on the EFnet Internet Relay Chat (IRC) network. It’s an interesting place. I’m impressed at the potential it has to connect people and allow them to discuss their ideas. The network and what it’s capable of has tremendous potential.

An instructor at my old high school once told me “Potential is a French word that means you’re not worth a damn yet.”

The potential is unrealized. And it will continue to be unrealized if things keep going the way they are. Text-based computer mediation is not expressive enough to be effective, both the real-time flavor (IRC) and the store-and-forward flavor (email). Vocal tone is impossible to transmit, short of an overuse of smileys (and can you imagine that? ick.). Body language is totally hidden behind keyboards and monitors. The people on the other side of the nick are not important to many of those on EFnet, on any channel. Or on any forum. The ‘nick’ here could really be anything that represents our self on the network, be it a nick or an email address. This idea of technological isolation despite the shrinking of the electronic connected world isn’t new. But I was disappointed to find it being so stark in a medium designed to bring people together.

I’ve read through logs of discussions held by the EFnet irc admins. It’s not promising. Truth be told, it’s depressing. Technical and personality conflicts taking precedence over getting it right and making it effective. In fact, it’s the same problem on the lists as on EFnet. It’s all about what’s behind the nick that’s important - and everyone’s missing it.

The mixed blessing is the speed and the network. They’re what make the communication possible. The fact that it’s possible at all is fairly amazing. Networks when I was a kid were things hooked together with 300 baud modems and guarded carefully. And the people on them were part of a community. It’s that sense of community which is missing, even at the channel level. Everyone’s there for the dig. The snappy comment. The joke at another’s expense without regard for that person.

It’s IRC’s very nature that makes that possible. It’s just text, right? Something for you to respond to by the glow of your monitor. The fact that the other nick has a person behind it too never much enters into it. And the reverse is true. It’s all too easy in the environment to take things personally - to read into text on the screen meaning, frustration, emotion that isn’t there. The blessing and the curse.

EF stands for Eris Free. Eris being the goddess of “Chaos, Discord, Confusion, and Things You Know Not Of.” Chaos, discord, confusion, and things we know not of are alive and well on EFnet. But not in the technical sense. It’s in the communicative sense. It’s still too confusing - too uncertain. Not enough is being done to push the limits of it.

I’m taking an IRC vacation. I’m not sure how long it’ll be. What’ll bring me back is a hint that things might be getting better. It might be that I finally bang out the rest of my client in some sort of attempt to make it reasonable - to make it work. I might just not be able to resist the pull.

We’ll see.

Have fun. Be good to each other if you can. Because it’s the only way it’s going to survive.

Chris / hawkeye