Emergent features of old new media: The case of IRC backlogs

Disconnect! workshop in Stockholm, Södertörn University, 2016-12-12

Maxigas, Central European University, Budapest


Internet Relay Chat

  • Implemented 1988
  • Heyday 1992-1996:
    • dating;
    • “friends”;
    • file sharing, etc.
  • Contemporary use:
    1. free software developers
    2. hackerspace members
    3. Wikipedia editors
    4. Anonymous hacktivists, etc.

Peer production communities

Theoretical framework

Critique and recuperation in technological cycles:

  • critique & recuperation
    • requirements of capital:
      • social peace;
      • capital accumulation
  • authenticity → commodification → anxiety

Chat history


  1. Chat programs (talk, etc.): ~1983→
  2. Internet Relay Chat (IRC): 1988→
  3. Instant Messengers (IMs): 1996→
  4. Social media platforms, monopolies, walled gardens, etc.

→ Step-by-step from public service to surveillance apparatus.

What does the lack of backlog mean under changing historical conditions?

  • Backlog lost on logout
  • Server stores nothing
  • Ops don’t care

Users left to their own devices

Classic affordance

Thanks to lack of backlogs:

  • Business model not necessary
  • IRC “scales”
  • Détournement of fixed capital

Mass media

Resists commodification

Modern affordance

Thanks to lack of backlogs:

  • No logs = no surveillance
  • No platformisation (O.P.P)
  • Technical anachronism

Elite media

Still resists commodification

Even if you are in a hurry you should allow other participants some time to answer. Sometimes you are lucky and a helpful reply appears within a few seconds. But it is not uncommon that you will have to wait 10-20 minutes until the right person who is familiar with your problem talks to you. The pattern looks something like this:


10:07 Foo joins
10:07 Foo How can I install the shripdibble module?
10:09 Foo quit


(from “workaround.org: literacy and subtleties for open-source bigots and other weirdos”)


Lack of backlogs

0. Scales IRC in the 1990sallows mass adoption.

1. Keeps IRC elite in the 2010sforestalls recuperation.

Luddite lesson

Technical deficiencies can have positive social consequences.

STS question

Democratisation of knowledge or democratisation of technology?

Backwards compatibility

IRC as a time machine.

08:48 <dreamer> eh .. ok
08:48 * dreamer decide not to use diaspora any more then
08:48 <dreamer> seems quite useless like this
08:48 * realitygaps still superdisappointed in diaspora also
08:48 <dreamer> any other social network worth exploring? or irc all the way down?



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