Old new media: For a social history of IRC

by Maxigas, UOC/IN3 & Guillaume Latzko-Toth, Université Laval

Social Media & Society, July 2015, Toronto

Critique of “new”

Modern myths

  • Technological progress = social progress.
  • Old technologies = backwards values.
  • Newer = better and more important.

→ Literature bias.

From innovation-centric accounts to use-centred accounts

  • Can be truly historically/geographically specific.
  • Can be truly gender, race, class, etc. inclusive.
  • Who, where, how long, what purposes and what effects?

(Edgerton 2008: The Shock of the Old)

IRC use


  • “Real time” written conversations
  • RFC: federated protocol (vs. proprietary platforms)
  • Channels: collective voices (vs. profiles of posessive individualism)


  • 1988: Jarkko Oikarinen a.k.a WiZ
  • RFC1459: open standard
  • unfinished artefact → fends off stabilisation → splits

By the community, for the community

  • development (clients and servers)
  • provision (material infrastructure)
  • management (policy and governance)

Contemporary user base

  • Free software developers (growing network)
  • Anonymous (big since 2006)
  • Hackerspaces (big since 2007)

Peer production projects: Wikipedia, Linux kernel, botnets, etc.


Undertheorised and understudied

Even if:

  • comparatively significant in real world;
  • offers valuable theoretical lessons;
  • contrasts mass media monopolies (Google, Facebook, Twitter).


For a full user experience you need:

  1. basic terminal knowledge;
  2. access to a shell server;
  3. some scripting skills.

→ Prevents mass adoption but not hackers’ use.


The same limitations prevented:

  1. recuperation;
  2. cooptation;
  3. commodification;
  4. massification too!

→ Technology rejection as resistance.

(Boltanski & Chiapello 2005; Barron 2013)



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