I know I’m biased. When you meet your wife and two of your best friends in the same place, the nostalgia can get pretty thick. Even if that place only ever existed on a server in New York City.
Internet Relay Chat still exists. Like Usenet, it’s not and will never again be what it was, but you don’t have to look very hard to find an IRC chat room. They’re used mostly for support these days – sometimes the thing they’re supporting is downloading cracked software – but I guess there are still people out there goofing off with people they’d never met like in the old days. I really don’t know. I can’t even bring myself to log on for research, anymore. My memories of those days are too strong. I don’t want to talk to ghosts.
There was something really free and insane about being in IRC, something that was lost as the internet looked for more managed and controlled ways to get us to socialize. In IRC, you could drop into a couple chat rooms while juggling a handful of private chats and it all made perfect sense. Some people were exclusive to one room, but the rest were doing the same thing I did. You’d be talking about Babylon 5 in SciFact’s and rehashing MST3K jokes in the Armageddon Cab Company, and maybe you’d drop into a one-off chat room you just created to force someone to listen to a story idea you now regret telling anyone. It was social anarchy, controlled only by the barest of administration tools and the threat of group disdain should you make things crappy for everyone else.
Things have changed. You don’t meet people online like you used to. Vestiges of the old internet remain, in practice or in spirit, but are scattered into niche communities so small and focused that you only run into them if you’ve got a reason to look. The really anarchic societies on the net are the Reddits and the Metafilters, but there you’re trading in ideas. It’s not social, at least, not in the way I mean. Anyway, message boards and Livejournal communities aren’t immediate. The best memories of IRC are of single, wonderful nights where conversations took on lives of their own and I stayed up into the early morning because I couldn’t bear to miss what would happen when I was gone. That’s not something that happens on a message board.
Facebook and its like have pushed us back into boxes where the people we meet are the people we met ten years before, while Instant Messaging programs like Google Chat and Skype keep us locked into one-to-one conversations with people we already like. It’s not that you never meet people, but you don’t meet them the same way. You don’t meet them in a hailstorm of silly, self-generated memes and shared sound clips from movies. You don’t get that crackle of meeting someone over a drink for the first time and not knowing if you’ll ever talk again. IRC was like that. It was bar hopping for anti-social teenage nerds, and now it’s gone.
When I talk about the old days to Brennen or Brent or Rachel – all people I met in those wild, old days – we end up circling around to Twitter. Like IRC, there’s a bit of anarchy in its blood. It’s not the same: It’s time delayed; you can’t split a conversation off into its own room; if you don’t individually follow every participant in a thread you’re missing the conversation. There are still some weird barriers to meeting people that IRC never had. It’s close, though. It’s really, really close. I know it’s close because, for the first time since IRC, I’ve made friends – real, serious friendships – on Twitter.
When the economy came crashing down around our heads in 2008, I found my way to a podcast called Planet Money. Within a few months, other listeners had found each other on Twitter. It started with a shared fear of where everything was headed, but it wasn’t long before it became a lot more for some of us. Laura Conaway, who was in charge of wrangling the community around Planet Money, called us the Recession Club. We’ve kept the name, but for those of us who still talk, we’re not a club anymore. We’re just friends. We’ve met in fleshland; some of us multiple times. We wouldn’t have gotten there on a message board. There’s something about being able to drop into a conversation and burn an hour with people that writing public emails can never do. Twitter gave us room for anarchy. Friendship needs a little bit of that to grow.
Last night was one of those nights. I don’t know what started it. You never do. At some point, running gags start overlapping and merging and people slip in as they realize there’s an anthill to be kicked. Your wife or roommate or parents or cats – whoever’s sharing meatspace with you – walks past and wonders what the hell you’re laughing at. You try to explain, but it’s impossible. It’s not just unfunny to anyone on the outside. It’s silly and stupid and weird. You’re either part of the moment or you’re not.
That’s what the old days of IRC were about. It was as close to most of us boring, suburban types will get to living in a big, bohemian house, drinking vodka out of coffee cups and sharing jokes that stop being funny when you walk out the door in the morning. I’ll never get those old days back. The world that created them no longer exists. Nor has it gone away forever. Nights like last night, the feeling that when the parties are over you’ll have stumbled out with a new friend or two…I thought those days had passed. You can’t go home again, especially when you’re home is filled with Russian bots and Warez trading squatters, but I guess the road ahead isn’t always as unfamiliar as I feared.