The trouble with IRC

I’ve been fussing about whether or not I want to use IRC for ages now. So I’ll put my dilemma out there into the void so that years later people can remind me how silly I was back in the day.

In this post ‘IRC’ means ‘hanging out on semi-technical IRC channels with people I barely know [in any sense of the word]’ and ‘hanging out on mostly-social IRC channels with people I do know.’ My feelings aren’t readily extensible to person-to-person IM, with which I’ve had so few obviously positive experiences that I seldom bother with it, and with IRC private messages, which I regard as essentially a more reliable way of getting Andrew to answer questions about his whereabouts and doings than email (he’ll answer about 50% of them rather than none).

Reasons why I keep using IRC

In order of decreasing importance:

  1. There are several people I know slightly for whom I have some substantial degree of fangirlishness (in the nicest possible way, I love smart people), respect or general admiration who it is not practical to interact with in any other way: typically they live in other countries; and I’m not close enough to them to be comfortable taking up their time for a one-on-one conversation in any forum whatsoever. This leaves spending thousands of dollars flying to the conferences they attend or hanging out in their IRC channels as the sole means for me to bask in their company.
  2. For several projects in which I’m interested, IRC is an important or essentially sole means of decision making.
  3. For one social group I’m peripherally involved in, IRC is a fairly important medium for making social plans.
  4. There are some coding activities that are easier to coordinate and some discussions it’s much faster to have on IRC than on a mailing list.

Reasons why I keep wanting to give it up

  1. The vast majority of IRC conversations are dross. I’m not sure whether this is a function of the higher social bandwidth that comes from seeing people’s faces, but while I’ve had very good conversations with people on IRC, I seem to have them in person more often.
  2. IRC is mildly addictive for me, and not in a nice way. The setup is much like the computer game model where there’s a certain amount of back-off in reward (to get from level 1 to level 2, you need to kill 3 rats, to get from level 29 to level 30 you need to kill 3 dragons and date two princes without either finding out about the other). On IRC, there’s always at any moment the possibility of fusion happening and a great (or important) conversation springing up from nowhere. Hence, just as I will tend to keep playing a computer game until the next reward state is reached, I’ll tend to stick around on IRC waiting for it to catch fire. Neither computer games nor IRC are terribly addictive for me, but both of them tend to have a net negative effect on my mood thanks to this usage pattern.
  3. A small minority of the time, IRC conversations, typically political ones, absolutely infuriate me due to some conversation of the content being expressed and the manner of that expression. This probably isn’t noticed most of the times that it happens because I tend not to participate in them, but I absolutely loath having my blood pressure raised like that and each time it happens I’ll vanish for some days if not weeks.
  4. Partly as a result of not valuing IRC very highly, I’m never in the inner circle of any channel I participate in. This means that every so often people will indulge themselves in a comforting social ritual that makes me feel like an alien anthropologist (various Twisted people like virtually squishing each other, some of the LinuxChix like to pretend to be cats…) and an unwelcome one at that. (Also, and I’m notoriously bad at explaining this and people keep misunderstanding me and thinking I’m claiming sexual harassment but here goes: this kind of thing would be extremely intimate behaviour coming from me and being in a place where people indulge in what I consider an extremely intimate behaviour and they consider to be a kind of mild social lubricant is just, well, weird.)

And a pony

So really, the upshot is that somehow I wish I could have the positives of IRC (working with some smart people I know on some interesting things they work on; and/or shooting the breeze) without the negatives. One alternative would be to give up on IRC and seek those things elsewhere, but unfortunately that means accepting losing most or all contact with a number of people who I don’t want to lose contact with. So far I have no alternative plan.