IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is a public chat space. It consists of channels of conversation or rooms that one can enter. They are ongoing and one can tune into or out of them as they please. As one enters, they can see who else is in that room. In the figure below, the column on the right lists the current visitors to that room. Everyone sees the same thing. They see what each person types as well as what they type. The notion of a shared space here is evident in the shared screen as well as the listing of everyone who is around. One can even see the names of lurkers or people that listen but do not speak.
IRC is a distributed chat space. Many servers are around for people to connect to the various spaces. When one first enters the system, they choose a server to connect to and are presented with a list of rooms or channels to enter. The name of the room often suggests the subject matter of that space. One can choose to exist or chat in several rooms at the same time.
IRC began as a purely textual interface. Once someone launches the interface, the interfaces are extremely easy to use. What is often harder to assess is proper behavior in the different rooms. Much of IRC ettiquette is discussed in information manuals or IRC Primers.
Newer clients have incoporated colors to denote private conversations, behaviors, emoticons, etc. but the primary motivations and structure are unchanged.
IRC is a synchronous interface similar to ICQ and Zephyr.
Figure 1. IRC interface
People in the space are represented by an avatar or a symbol. This may be a picture of the person, their head, their favorite cartoon character, or any image they create. Some systems like the Palace allow the user to write simple scripts to manipulate and change the images. This is meant to enhance the expressiveness of the avatar to different situations.
In most of these spaces the user uses the mouse or other input device to move their representation within the space. (In Comic Chat the system determines where to place the characters based on who is speaking.) The graphical aspect of these interfaces influenced how people used them. One interesting behavior that emerged was that people speaking to each other moved their avatars closer together. This helped focus the field of attention for those participating in that conversation. Had this been a text-based interface, one would tend to read more than just the messages they were most interested in.
The graphical properties of these systems make it salient that there are members occupying a space. When people are conversing, one sees several avatars in the same space and creating an implicitly shared space.
The conversation in these graphical systems is synchronous.
The interfaces of these systems create different usage patterns. For example, with Comic Chat, only those that are actively speaking apear in the chat space. This sometimes leads people to send a message just to see themselves in the space.
With the Palace, a background is placed that often connotes how the space is used. If the background is an image of a living room, it might imply that it is for social casual conversations. If it is an image of a jacuzzi, it might imply a party-like atmosphere with more subversive subject matters. It is interesting also how people occupy the space. In the living room scenario, avatars would cluster around the couch. Some users would even create different avatars that looked perspectively correct sitting in certain locations. This makes for an interesting image, is interesting to consider what a sitting space is for a two-dimensional avatar.
An altogether different approach
was taken by the Chat
Circles system. With Chat Circles, each user is represented
as a circle of a chosen color. As they type their message, the
size of the circle is mapped to the length of the message. From
this, you begin to see the dynamics of a conversation, i.e. how
often people speak, who speaks, how much they say, etc. Since
people move their own circles, they can form clusters for different
topics or threads of conversation.
Figure 2. Snapshots of the Palace (upper left), Chat Circles (upper right), and Comic Chat (lower image).