The IRC Paradigm: An Alternative Approach for Alternative Social Networks

By Stijn Peeters

It’s become an almost reassuring ritual: whenever Facebook changes its layout, adds a feature or modifies its privacy policy, the internet will quickly be filled with people screaming bloody murder, sharing ways to keep using the older settings and setting up petitions to let Facebook know that this time they’ve really made a mistake.

In the end, Facebook usually pushes their changes one way or the other and inevitably, the process repeats itself after a few months. It is amongst other things this practice – a social network changing its service and conditions without consulting the users – that has fostered the emergence of so-called “alternative social networks”. Such networks often allow people to socialise online like on Facebook and other big, monolithic networks, but also offer people more choice with regards to customizing their experience and managing their personal data.

However, even these alternative networks are often rather similar to Facebook with regards to the features they offer to users; friend lists, group pages and personal “walls” have become a staple of services both alternative and mainstream. At a glance, it would therefore be easy to conclude that this is all there is to social networks online. Even on these alternative social networks such as Diaspora1 and Lorea2, the user experience is to a large extent fixed on the template set by current and previous social networking giants.

There’s more, though; when looking further than just the immediately obvious, there are several services and technologies that do not fit in the Facebook-sized box. A peculiar example is IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. First developed in 1988, which makes it almost prehistoric by internet standards, this chat protocol continues to enjoy a niche popularity and still boasts hundreds of thousands of concurrent users. IRC users connect to an IRC network, where they join a chat channel – often specific to a certain topic or community – and take part in discussions with other people in the room. People often stick around in certain channels, which fosters a sense of community with the other people present.

This makes a good case for seeing IRC as a social medium and, given the way users gather in specific rooms and form ad hoc communities, perhaps even
a social network. Yet it is fairly different from the current “big” social media such as Facebook in the way it is set up and the software for it is developed and released; there is no central authority or entity that develops the software or controls the networks, and much of the software used by IRC users was made by these users themselves. This is especially interesting with regards to “alternative” social networks such as Lorea or Diaspora, which often claim to offer a higher grade of user empowerment. At the same time, these projects are often – as I will argue in this article – quite similar to the larger, more mainstream networks in several aspects, some of which in fact impede the ways in which users can have a say over their social network experience. Perhaps taking a page out of IRC’s book could be beneficial to these alternative networks with regards to increasing user empowerment.

In this article, I will therefore explore what features or paradigms specific to IRC could be beneficial for wider use within alternative social networks. It can be expected that the user-driven development and, importantly, deployment of features on top of the IRC protocol both fosters a sense of community and allows for a feature set that is customizable enough to satisfy all involved users. As such a degree of user involvement has not been employed by any (alternative) social networks yet, this can be a viable new approach for them.

I will first attempt to establish a clear definition of what “alternative social network” actually means. To do so, I will first explore the general definition of what a social network is. As a starting point boyd & Ellison’s general definition will be used, taking into account the criticisms it has received from David Beer and Thelwall. Having established this, I will investigate in what way alternative social networks are different from “mainstream” social networks. I will then take a look at how the way the software alternative social networks run on inhibit or enhance user empowerment, a core value of many alternative social network sites.

I then turn to IRC and analyse how the protocol makes for a software ecosystem which fosters user empowerment. I compare this with FOAF, a prominent example of an approach to social networks that resembles the “IRC approach” in some aspects. I specifically focus on the role network architecture plays, as it is one of the major differences between the two technologies. Based on this analysis, I identify strengths and weaknesses of FOAF – as a prominent example of an IRC-like approach to social networks – with regards to its suitability as underlying technology of a user empowering social network, based on my analysis of what makes IRC’s approach successful.

Stijn Peeters worked as a research intern for the Unlike Us program at INC. Download his final essay The IRC Paradigm: An Alternative Approach for Alternative Social Networks as PDF.

Also be sure to read Beyond distributed and decentralized: what is a federated network? and Open source alternative social networks: empowering users or same old?