Old School Virtual Meetings

Recently, I’ve been encountering (or reencountering) a lot of web-based group chat platforms, like Convore or Stack Overflow chat. Visually, they’re interesting communication tools and they’ve got some neat hooks into other ways I make myself present on the internet (Twitter and Stack Overflow accounts, respectively). But after the flurry of “new, shiny” activity that seems to accompany big social-web launches dies down, I’ve got the sinking suspicion that they’re attempting to solve a small problem with a giant, overwrought solution. I don’t see myself dropping or expanding my chat needs to any of these platforms and, in fact, they simply remind me of another platform that meets my needs already: IRC.

The compelling thing about IRC is that it works. And it has worked for, literally, decades. It worked when I first learned to use IRC in middle school and it continues to work today. In a lot of ways, IRC is like email: it’s a protocol rather than a platform (so it’s not under any centralized control) and it has managed to serve a huge number of needs, despite the huge growth of the internet.

In contrast to email, IRC is a great small group communication medium. It’s so good in fact, that I’ve come to regard the daily status meeting I “attend” via IRC as the single most productive meeting format I’ve ever dealt with. IRC eliminates all the nasty characteristics of an in person meeting, like:

  • the loudest person getting the most say
  • surreptitious email, texting, etc.
  • scheduling an hour-long meeting because that’s the default meeting duration in Outlook

And because meetings in IRC are mediated (as in through a medium, not having a mediator), there’s no demand for the participants to be perfectly synchronous. So I don’t have to respond to incoming messages right this second, just soon. It affords a certain thoughtfulness I don’t think I can muster in person.

Finally, since IRC isn’t just some website, I can do things like automate certain (repetitious) activities that are harder to work around in a browser. For instance, on my employer’s IRC server it’s customary to append “brb” to your nickname if you’re going to be away from the computer for a minute. Here’s my AppleScript to quickly toggle my nickname in Colloquy:

tell application "Colloquy"
	repeat with conn in every connection
		if URL of conn contains "myjob" then
			if status of conn as rich text is equal to "connected" then
				if nickname of conn is "daniel" then
					set nickname of conn to "daniel|brb"
					set nickname of conn to "daniel"
				end if
			end if
		end if
	end repeat
end tell

Presto and voilà: a one click shortcut. There may be a way to do such a thing with a web app, but IRC is so well known that this method is already present in the skill sets of many internet users.

All that said, IRC isn’t perfect. Those newfangled web chat services do a much better job of providing persistence to the conversation. For the most part, an IRC conversation starts and ends on log in and log out for each participant. It’s a hassle in the case of a broken connection (“What was the last thing you said?”) and it’s a huge barrier to participation in the case of joining a conversation in the middle (“Can you recap the last thirty minutes?”). Services like Convore allow you to see the conversation already in progress and review long-passed logs. Many IRC servers don’t offer easy-to-use logs, so IRC is sort of stuck in the now, with only a tenuous connection to past and future conversations.

Convore and StackOverflow chat end up providing beautiful examples of how to help a conversation keep momentum despite time and space, but in doing so, ignore or reengineer all of the existing benefits of IRC. I would rather all that brain power go toward a better IRC server, rather than a relatively immature (though technically impressive) web application. Perhaps the next time someone decides to take a crack at improving the chat experience, we’ll see an augmentation of the existing tools, rather than a reinvention of the wheel.

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