Before the age of the Internet flourished, communication came in a handful of protocols. The earliest forms were the
- Electronic mail, or e-mail (for kids who don't know what the e stands for).
- Networks news aka Usenet aka net news aka newsgroups, a gigantic worldwide distributed bulletin board system.
- World Wide Web, or WWW, no need to explain what that is.
Although communication had different flavors, it was either limited to one way exchange of information, for example with the WWW you can only read what the author wrote but can't initiate a dialogue about it, or communication had delays and exclusivity, like with e-mails (mainly limited to universities and corporations, there was no Gmail or Yahoo Mail at that time), or with Usenet (you could have discussions about tens of thousands of topics, however the responses were delayed and servers propagated the information once every 24h or so). Imagine Tweeting and reading replies once a day! Those were the days when the Internet was still a baby.
The Internet was missing a good means of communication...
T'was the summer of 1988, around the end of August, when Jarkko Oikarinen invented IRC, the Internet Relay Chat. For a brief history, http://www.irc.org/history_docs/jarkko.html. The IRC protocol brought a milestone innovation: real time messaging backed by a worldwide distributed network. This powerful combination allowed users to interactively chat in the form of text using a client->server->client scheme (hence the servers relay the chat). The chat was done in channels (they started with a hashtag #), anyone could start their own channel(s), set them to be private, keyed or hidden. User permissions was flexible and order could be maintained by a hierarchy of channel mods, operators and/or server administrators.
IRC didn't have a file transfer mechanism, however clients had the DCC protocol (Direct Client-to-Client) allowing direct messaging (not relayed by the servers) and file transfers. In no time, IRC replaced the BBS (Bulletin Board Service) which could be expensive when communicating and sharing files with people across the globe (the phone bills climbed fast), whereas IRC was powered by the Internet, significantly cheaper with no boundaries.
IRC evolved through the years, adding encryption, IPv6, extra modes and additional commands. IRC was also scriptable, which gave tremendous flexibility for client scripts/skins, and automation with robots (aka bots, for kids who don't know what a bot stands for).
IRC was the precursor to P2P file sharing. In fact, file sharing via IRC was buzzing with all kinds of files imaginable, ranging from porn to mp3 to warez. There were hurdles in this process though, the speeds were largely limited by the slowest user and DCC server availability, e.g. running a DCC server 24/7, and waiting for your turn in the queue to download a file after the guys with the slow 14.4k modems! Later on, files started to be mainly hosted on (secret) FTP sites; those had their share of government crackdowns and busts, which later led to the peer-to-peer networks for better security and anonymity to a certain extent, Napster and the TOR network being the pinnacles of that evolution.
Without a doubt, I consider IRC to be the grand-daddy of all modern social media and file sharing. We owe it the chat, the hashtag, P2P file transfers, bots. Without these wonderful things inherited from IRC we wouldn't have Skype, Shitter, Assbook, AIM, Discord, Slack, etc. There are less IRC servers than before, but the community is still alive and well. Old school users, like myself, call it home. I've had my mIRC client running for nearly 25 years. I prefer IRC for its simplicity, high flexibility, open source and speed. I was actually considering running an IRC server for Steemians, but I abandoned the idea because everyone is seduced by the fancy GUI's of Discord, Rocket.Chat, Slack, etc.
I like IRC because it stood the test of time. Anything older than 30 years by Internet standards may be considered archaic or defunct; any of you remember Gopher, WAIS, Archie, or BBS? IRC survived and gave birth to the modern wonderful technologies easy to use and hard to resist. They all sprang from the universal human desire to communicate in real time, and IRC allowed that on a massive global scale.