IRC & instant messengers

Despite IRC and instant messengers being entirely different breeds, I’m going to lump them both together in the same tutorial, the very flimsy connection being that they can both be used to send private messages to users, much like email only instantaneous. Hey, that will be why they’re called instant messengers! Ahem, moving swiftly on…

So what exactly are instant messengers? Instant messengers are installable chat programs embodying a desktop interface or front-end, which allows you to communicate with other users whenever you are online simultaneously. When you first install an instant messaging client you are prompted to choose a unique nickname by which to identify yourself. These nicknames can be stored in a similar way to web site favourites allowing you to keep an address book of friends, family and work colleagues. Whenever someone who you have listed in your address book runs the client, you are informed that they are online and are available for a chat. If you click on their name, a window will appear into which you can type a personal message, which once sent will popup on their screen instantaneously. This is known as real time chat because there is no delay in sending and receiving replies just like when you speak to someone face to face only in text format.

When not in use, IM clients can be minimised to your system tray while still remaining in contact with the server from which communication is orchestrated. This allows you to get on with other things whilst maintaining your online status so that people can get in touch if they so wish. While both instant messengers and IRC provide you with the means to converse with other users online, the fundamental difference between the two protocols is their file swapping potential. While instant messengers such as ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger aren’t going to be of much use to you when searching for free software, they are extremely useful for staying in touch with friends and family, sending small files and checking your Yahoo or Hotmail email accounts for new messages. IRC, on the other hand is perfectly suited to exchanging files, both privately and in a free for all, public manner.

Having too much choice can sometimes be a bad thing, however. Your friends and family will each no doubt have a predilection for one instant messenger or the other, and because the various mediums are unable to communicate with each other, you have to setup separate accounts for each if you wish to stay in touch with everyone. This is entirely possible and remains free no matter how many accounts you have, yet it does mean that you have a conglomeration of different clients all running at once, possibly causing conflicts and most certainly hogging a ridiculous amount of system resources. Now if it were possible to create a single program capable of incorporating the features of all these networks that allowed you to talk to anyone no matter which protocol they happened to be using you’d probably be a happy bunny, wouldn’t you? Thank Cerulean Studios for Trillian!

Of all these protocols, Internet Relay Chat has been around the longest and is your best bet for locating the latest releases. Not only is it a superb resource of software, MP3s, movies and anything else which can be shared online, it is considered to be the ultimate chat portal bar none. In no other corner of the web will you find such diversity or the sheer number of willing participants. Briefly, IRC is a virtual meeting place where like minded people can gather together to discuss common interests, in addition to being able to share files. To jump on the bandwagon you first need to get hold of an IRC client. This is a piece of software that allows you to connect to the IRC network and begin chatting. As usual there is plethora of options available to you. Pirch and Virc are two of the most popular chat clients for Windows, but I’m particularly fond of Mirc. This is very simple to use and so is an excellent starting point for the IRC newbie.

While browsing through community web sites you have probably come across messages similar to “join us on #whatever @ Newnet”. If you’ve always been baffled by such tech speak, hopefully I can help to shed some light on the matter. This is a bit like a web site address, which enables you to find a particular site. If two people use the same address to reach a site you can safely assume that they are viewing the same pages. Similarly, if two people enter the same IRC address (known as a channel), you can assume that they will be able to converse with each other. An IRC address will also include a server name (the part after the @ symbol in my example above). To ensure that you enter the correct chat room you must use both the correct channel (the name after the # symbol) as well as the correct server. Incidentally, you can find my IRC channel by going along to #asb @ irc.darkfire.net so please feel free to join the party whenever you get the chance. You can even use it to help you get to grips with joining IRC channels now if you like; it’s not the sort of place where you will be flamed for the heinous crime of being a newbie so you have little to worry about on that score. Hopefully this practice run will help you to familiarise yourself with the way in which IRC works.

Now for a very quick ‘how to’ to help guide you through the process of setting up and using Mirc for the first time. Mirc constitutes one of the few programs that are completely standalone, hence no files need to be copied to your system directory for it to run correctly making for an effortless ‘installation’. If you double click on the program’s icon we can get the show on the road. When the Mirc GUI pops up you will be presented with the options dialogue box where you will be asked to fill in a few personal details. These include your full name (I would suggest lying) and your email address (again, tell a few porkies to avoid being spammed) and your username. It helps if this is the same as the name you use on the bulletin boards you visit so that people will be able to recognise you when you enter a channel. You are also required to provide an alternative username just in case you enter a channel where your first choice nick name has already been taken, in which case your second choice will automatically be used in its place. Now you need to enter a server name; you can use irc.darkfire.net if you like. If it’s not already in the list, click on the ‘add’ button, type it in yourself manually and press the OK button. Now go to the ‘file’ menu and select ‘connect’, and voila, you’ve joined the IRC network! That wasn’t so difficult was it. To enter my channel you would type /join #asb, or alternatively you can open the ‘channels folder’ and select a channel from there instead. Things should now start to look more familiar. You will find a list of users who are already in the room on the right hand side, you can type whatever you want to say in the box at the bottom of the screen and press enter to send it. To close the chat window, simply click on the x button as you would to close any other window, and that’s all there is to it. There are many other more complicated commands, which you can pick up along the way as you become more experienced, but until then, dive right in, start chatting and enjoy yourself!

Once you become competent at using Mirc to chat, inevitably you will want to know how to use it to exchange files, that is after all the purpose of mentioning it in the first place. One method would be to just type in “does anyone know where I can find…?”, press the send button and wait for a response. If some kind soul says “yes, I’ve got that, I’ll send it to you”, you can receive the files via a direct client to client (or DCC) connection. Whenever someone offers to send you a file, a new private message will pop up containing the username of the person who has made the offer, in addition to any message he or she wishes to convey. You now have the choice to either accept or decline the offer. If you should choose to accept (this is starting to sound like a Mission Impossible scenario isn’t it) the file or files, you will then be asked where you would like to store them. Subsequent to choosing a suitable directory, the file transfer will begin. Remember it’s always nice to give as well as receive, so when someone else requests a file that you possess, offer to send it to them. To do this select ‘DCC’ from the Mirc menu bar and click on the ‘send’ option. Now type in the nickname of the person you wish to send a file to, select the files from your hard drive using the Explorer style interface and press the ‘send’ button.

Unsurprisingly these pleas for help can become lost in the melee of banter and hence go unanswered, or even unseen. Luckily, there are better ways to go about transferring files using IRC, one of them being to allow the software to come to you rather than seeking it out yourself. It sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?, but this is generally the way things are done using IRC. So for example, while you are happily chatting away about your latest knitting pattern or muffin recipe, a colourful line of text may pop up to advertise a new ‘Fserve’. This text will contain other useful details such as the trigger code, the number of users connected to the server and the total number of files sent. I know I’m jumping ahead of myself here and have probably lost you along the way so I’ll backtrack now and try to explain what some of these terms mean. Firstly, Fserve stands for file server. An Fserve is an IRC script used to enable people to access the files on a remote hard drive in a similar way to connecting to a file server using an FTP client. A ‘trigger’ is a code which is typed into an IRC chat window in order to join a file server. When you type in this code you will be given the option to join the Fserve via a DCC chat request. By accepting the kind offer you can join the Fserve and begin downloading whatever is available. As the session opens you will be presented with a list of available commands. The person who wrote the script for the Fserve you have joined decides which commands are incorporated into it, but many of these are fairly standard and so can be used in most Fserves (tip: if you want to know which commands are supported in an Fserve type ‘help’). For this reason it is worth learning the most common ones that will crop up over and over again. If you can cast your mind back to the days when real DOS still existed and dinosaurs roamed the earth, the majority of these commands will already be familiar to you. Here’s a list of the most common ones:

dir = This will give you a list of all the files and directories that are present in the current path.

cd = Shorthand for change directory. Can you guess what it does? Just type ‘cd’ followed by the name of the directory you wish to enter.

cd.. = This one will place you back in the previous sub directory.

get (followed by a filename) = This is the one you will be most interested in – it is used to download whatever file it is you have typed in after the ‘get’ command.

stats = This will list the statistics of the current Fserve. Number of users connected to it, number of files available and the number of people in the file queue for example.

who = Lists the usernames of the people who are currently online.

read = If the current directory contains any text or nfo files they can be displayed by typing ‘read’ followed by the filename.

exit = Allows you to leave the current Fserve.

An even more straightforward method than this, however, is to use ‘triggered sends’. These are known as TDCC or XDCC transfers, they are much quicker than trawling through directories and are often used to make requests for individual files. Each file that is available will have been allocated with its own trigger code. When this code is typed in, the file which it is associated with will automatically be sent to you. TDCC servers are used to advertise single files whereas XDCC servers are capable of hosting anywhere between two and forty files. And that, boys and girls is the end of today’s introductory IRC lesson. Remember, practice makes perfect so if you’ve got time see if you can put your new found skills to the test, and hopefully the next time you enter an IRC channel you won’t be so confused when Fserve adverts start to appear left right and centre.

ICQ, while still in the beta stage of development is constantly being improved and updated so is well worth the download even if you don’t intend to use it for sharing files – one of my favourite options is the ‘find random chat partner’ button, which probably doesn’t need any more explanation from me. Unsurprisingly enough you can download it from www.icq.com and will soon be making new friends from all over the globe. But how does this help you find the latest games and applications? Well, if you find someone who is willing to send you a particular file (you can usually find member’s ICQ numbers listed on bulletin boards) you can simply drag a file over the person’s name in your contact list and it will automatically be sent to that person, and obviously this also works vice versa.

Another versatile feature of ICQ is the ability to join ‘active lists’. These are much like email mailing lists; you find the number of an active list which interests you and enter it into your ICQ interface. From then on, messages will appear whenever someone makes a post to that list. If for instance you joined an MP3 active list, every now and again messages would appear on your screen containing links to MP3 files, requests for particular music or just helpful advice. To get started you will need to venture over to the ICQ home page and search the active list database. All that remains to be said now is go and download it – you’ll be amazed!