Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 39 (2014) 577–595
©2014 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation
Guillaume Latzko-Toth is Assistant Professor in the Department of Information and
Communication at Université Laval, Pavillon L.-J.-Casault, 1055, avenue du Séminaire, Québec, QC
G1V 0A6. Email: email@example.com .
Users as Co-Designers of Software-Based Media:
The Co-Construction of Internet Relay Chat
ABSTRACT While it has become commonplace to present users as co-creators or “produsers”
of digital media, their participation is generally considered in terms of content production.
The case of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) shows that users can be fully involved in the design
process, a co-construction in the sense of Science and Technology Studies (STS): a collective,
simultaneous, and mutual construction of actors and artifacts. A case study of the early de-
velopment of two IRC networks sheds light on that process and shows that “ordinary users”
managed to invite themselves as co-designers of the socio-technical device. The article con-
cludes by suggesting that IRC openness to user agency is not an intrinsic property of software-
based media and has more to do with its architecture and governance structure.
KEYWORDS Digital media; Communication technology; Co-construction; Design process;
RÉSUMÉ Il est devenu banal de présenter l’usager comme cocréateur ou «produtilisateur»
des médias numériques, mais sa participation est généralement envisagée comme une
production de contenus. Le cas d’IRC (Internet Relay Chat) montre que les usagers des
médias à support logiciel peuvent s’engager pleinement dans le processus de conception, une
co-construction au sens des Science and Technology Studies: une construction collective,
simultanée et mutuelle des acteurs et des artefacts. Une étude de cas portant sur le
développement de deux réseaux IRC éclaire ce processus et montre que les «usagers
ordinaires» sont parvenus à s’inviter comme co-concepteurs du dispositif. L’article se conclut
sur l’idée que l’ouverture d’IRC à l’intervention de l’usager serait surtout liée à son
architecture et à sa structure de gouvernance.
MOTS CLÉS Médias numériques; Technologies de communication; Co-construction;
Processus de conception; Usager ordinaire
User inﬂuence on the contents of digital media has been widely acknowledged
(Bruns, 2008; Jenkins, 2006; Millerand, Proulx, & Rueff, 2010; Schäfer, 2011).
These contributions, in their various guises—from blog and wiki entries to tags, tweets,
pictures, sounds, and videos—constitute a key activity associated with the use of social
media platforms (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Many media theorists equate the prolif-
578 Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 39 (4)
eration of user-generated content with user empowerment (Pierson, Mante-Meijer, &
Loos, 2011), and they interpret this phenomenon as challenging long-held assumptions
regarding the asymmetry between users and designers of information and communi-
cation technologies (ICTs). Focusing on content, however, risks taking the technolog-
ical infrastructure for granted. How interactive media is structured and conﬁgured
greatly affects its social affordances, enabling and promoting certain usage patterns
while hindering others.
Since the inception of Facebook, the relationship between this social network site
and its users has been marked by ongoing contestations about design choices. Users
often turn to the platform itself to organize and make their voices heard. For instance,
in 2008 I joined a Facebook group called “Pour un Facebook en français.” This cause
was one of many similar initiatives launched by non-English speakers demanding a
multilingual Facebook interface. Our voices, and those of others, were heard. In March
2008, a French-language version of Facebook’s interface was released along with
German and Spanish versions. Not only did the people behind Facebook listen to its
users, they put them to work. The multilingual interface was the product of contribu-
tions from an army of volunteer translators. Since then, other controversies involving
default privacy settings, proﬁle categories (e.g., gender, conjugal status), the joining
of groups, the exporting of personal data, automatic facial recognition, and requests
for a “Dislike” button have manifest themselves in the Facebook environment.
Recurring disputes between social media platforms and discontented users can be
understood as negotiations about the shape and uses of new media platforms. Users
engage in these protests knowing that their complaints may be taken into consideration,
potentially fostering incremental changes in the technical design. Although such mo-
bilizations may be seen as constituting a form of user participation in the technology
design process, if one focuses on technical agency the inﬂuence of such contributions
appears to be more limited in scope, with the underlying information architecture and
supported modalities of social interaction continuing to be determined by those who
own and manage the platform. Seen through this lens, users’ ability to shape social
media is channeled toward the content and conﬁguration layers of networking plat-
forms(see Kilker, 2003), displacing rather than redressing user/designer asymmetry.
The early history of Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a precursor to contemporary social
media platforms, demonstrates how users can actively contribute to the design of com-
munication platforms. IRC is an online chat protocol created in Finland in the late
1980s that allowed millions of Internet users to have real-time, polyphonic, written
conversations through a decentralized, always-up platform long before the arrival of
ICQ, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, and Twitter (Latzko-Toth, 2010). IRC started as a
modest program with limited features, evolving into a large, complex technical infra-
structure consisting of myriad independent networks of servers. A handful of these
networks (e.g., EFnet, IRCnet, Undernet, DALnet, freenode) attract the majority of
users. Today, IRC is routinely used by software development communities to support
real-time online collaboration.1
Drawing on a case study of the early development of the ﬁrst two major IRC net-
works—EFnet and Undernet—this article examines the co-construction of actors and
artifacts constituting the socio-technical device known as IRC. It documents how ordi-
nary users succeeded in establishing themselves as co-designers of IRC despite the de-
nial of power and legitimacy they faced from the co-opted group of IRC operators. The
analysis suggests that openness to user agency is not an intrinsic property of software-
based media, resulting instead from architecture choices and governance structures.
From construction to co-construction
The idea of a clear division of roles between powerful emitters/designers and passive
receivers/users of media has long been taken for granted in media studies, and is epit-
omized by Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovationstheory (1995). In the decade spanning
from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, research from the sociology of ICT uses and con-
sumption demonstrated the shortcomings of this perspective. Much of this work
sought to identify forms of user agency and power. Research emanating from both the
French-language tradition of sociology of uses (see Jauréguiberry & Proulx, 2011) and
British domestication studies (Haddon, 2011; Silverstone & Hirsch, 1992) focused
largely on individual levels, while that emerging from the constructivist sociology of
innovation tended to be more group-focused.
A recent wave of research in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and related
ﬁelds (e.g., sociology of action, distributed cognition, activity theory) has been re-ex-
amining categories of actors and taken-for-granted dichotomies in a wide range of do-
mains. A common denominator linking these approaches is the construction
metaphor (Sismondo, 2008) derived from Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) notion of
the social construction of reality. Listing various forms of social construction in early
STS scholarship, Sismondo (1993) notes that the adjective “social” relates foremost to
the inﬂuence of institutions, social norms, et cetera on scientists and engineers, con-
stituting a somewhat minimalist use of the metaphor. He maintains that “the con-
struction metaphor is adequate if we think of it in terms of large, multi-authored
projects …, where the result comes about because of competition … as well as co-op-
eration” (p. 530), as in “large social projects, whereby such things as cities, economies,
legislation and knowledge are constructed by many people interacting, possibly with
differing or conﬂicting goals” (p. 547).
Expounding on this view, Peter Taylor (1995) argues that the value of the con-
struction metaphor does not lie in the quasi-tautological observation that artifacts—
whether material or symbolic—are constructed, but rather in its emphasis on the
process of “agents building by combining a diversity of components” (p. 356; Italics in
original). He labels co-construction an implicitly collective process of joint construction
involving heterogeneous elements and emphasizes the iterative aspect of this process.
In his view, there is no straightforward relation between the initial state and the built
artifact. It follows, therefore, that one must closely monitor the construction process in
order to understand the success or failure of an outcome. Taylor avers that this view
of construction as an iterative process “shifts perspective not just from separate things
to jointly constructed sets of things, but from thinking mostly about the constructed
state of the outcomes to examining the processes of their co-construction” (p. 352).
Sismondo’s and Taylor’s claims correspond to the canonical model of the social
construction of technology (SCOT) in which the social construction of artifacts is un-
Latzko-Toth The Co-Construction of Internet Relay Chat 579
derstood as a process of cooperation and negotiation involving diverse actors. This
conception of socio-technical innovation has been widely critiqued for reducing the
genesis of artifacts to the outcome of a merely social activity and thus substituting
technological determinism with social determinism. It also is accused of offering a
naïve vision of society as a static frame within which artifacts emerge. Proponents of
the SCOT approach have acknowledged these criticisms and adjusted the model ac-
cordingly, proposing a reﬁned SCOT approach, based on the notion of co-construction
(Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2003).
SCOT “2.0” research suggests that the work of innovators involves simultaneously
building artifacts and their environments, including users. This work has beneﬁted
from the interactionist perspective advanced by feminist technology studies, which
contends that the homogeneous categorization of actors must give way to more ﬁne-
grained and ﬂexible taxonomies capable of accounting for the multiple ways in which
one can play the role of a user or a designer. Saetnan (2000), for instance, distinguishes
between different categories of users, notably intermediate users and lay end users.
The latter are the least empowered, the least able or authorized to have a say in the
development of the technology in question, and the most conﬁgured by the socio-
technical script embedded in the artifact. She highlights the existence of a gradient of
human agency akin to that for non-humans. This establishes user and designer cate-
gories as dynamic roles, or identities, that can be performed in several ways. As she
puts it, “[U]sers can have multiple identities. In addition to being users, they can per-
form activities and identities traditionally ascribed to designers” (p. 17). This view is
echoed by Oudshoorn and Pinch’s (2003) assertion that “users and technology are
seen as two sides of the same problem—as co-constructed” (p. 3).
Differences exist within the constructivist perspective regarding how the agentof
the co-construction process is deﬁned. For some observers, co-construction entails a
discursive and aesthetic operation in which innovators establish representations of
anticipated or targeted users of their products or services. An alternative articulation
of co-construction assigns both users and designers the role of constructing the artifact,
its uses and users, and their representations. These various constructions may co-exist
or appear at different moments of the history of an artifact (Lindsay, 2003). The key
idea is that actors are constructed—and construct themselves—in tandem with arti-
facts. This notion parallels the claim from theories of co-evolution, that through con-
stant interaction users and technological artifacts—particularly computer-related
artifacts—adapt to each other (Bardini, 2000; Boczkowski, 1999; Orlikowski, 1992). It
also aligns the concept of co-construction with the idea of a reciprocal construction of
the artifact and its human environment within which the roles of user and designer
may be played by either distinct or identical actors.
Within the context of computer-mediated communication, the notion of a mutual
construction of people and artifacts (Boczkowski, 1999; Eglash, 2000) transcends
claims of the “mutual shaping of social groups and technologies” (Bijker, 1995, quoted
in Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2003, p. 3), which simply acknowledges the reciprocal inﬂu-
ence of technology and society. As Boczkowski (1999) notes, with computer-mediated
communication devices, there is “an interplay among technological features and users’
580 Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 39 (4)
actions in which all the entities at stake have the potential to inﬂuence each other at
some point during the unfolding of their relationships” (p. 89).
This brings us to a third conception of co-construction, a construction that in
Latour’s (1999) terms is not “a mere recombination of a ﬁxed list of already present
ingredients” (p. 139) but where humans and non-humans “mutually exchange and
enhance their properties” (p. 124). Seen through this lens, co-construction refers to
the active participation of human and non-human entities endowed with agency (i.e.,
actants) in the development of a socio-technical device, and a process through which
the identities of actants transform and cross-deﬁne themselves.
In summary, the co-construction of a device can be deﬁned in three different ways:
1) a collective or social construction in the sense of cooperation/negotiation between
a variety of actors; 2) a simultaneous construction of complementary entities (i.e., ar-
tifacts, organizations, users, et cetera); and 3) a mutual construction of actants (i.e., ac-
tors and artifacts shaping each other). These differing deﬁnitions are not mutually
exclusive. Indeed, they are three aspects of the same process.
Internet Relay Chat and its actants
Before turning our attention to the case at hand, it is necessary to introduce the termi-
nology of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and some of its basic concepts. IRC is a multi-
server text conferencing program whose original code was written during the summer
of 1988 by Jarkko Oikarinen, who at the time was a student at the University of Oulu,
Finland. The ways IRC entities interact, including human users, have since been for-
malized in a set of publicly technical documents.2
To begin using IRC one must install a software client, choose a screen name (nick-
name), and establish a connection between the client and an IRC server. The client al-
lows one to send messages through, and instructions to, a server that in most cases is
part of an IRC network.3In order to talk with each other, IRC users need not connect
their clients to the same server, but the servers through which they connect must be
part of the same network. Although users can have private conversations, they most
usually engage in public conversations by joining forums called channels. These chan-
nels are global in the sense that they exist network-wide. Servers keep a constantly
updated copy of the global list of connected users and open channels, and promptly
advertise any local-level change to the networked servers. This keeps their databases
Entering a channel allows one to see a list of participants (identiﬁed by their nick-
name), among which some have the visibly distinct status of channel operator, or
chanop. Individuals with this status are granted special privileges by the IRC technical
protocol, and they can remove or ban users from the channel they oversee. They can
also conﬁgure the mode of the channel and promote other users to channel operator
or voice status.4Their status is not permanent and reverts to that of basic user when
they leave the channel.
At the top of IRC governance structure are the server administrators (admins).
They manage servers and nominate IRC operators (also known as opers or ircops).
The status of these individuals is inscribed in the server conﬁguration ﬁle. IRC opera-
tors help maintain the network in working order, including policing the communica-
Latzko-Toth The Co-Construction of Internet Relay Chat 581
tion space and acting against “disruptive users” (hence the pun on “cop” in “ircop”).
They have much power at their disposal, notably, the ability to access and use the “kill”
command that enables them to disconnect users from the network.5
Within the IRC environment, every human is ﬁrst and foremost a user who may
encapsulate different roles. One may be an IRC operator and yet a simple user on a
speciﬁc channel, while simultaneously being a “voice” on another channel. That said,
not every user is human. The ecology of IRC entities is complicated by the presence of
bots and scripts (i.e., non-human actants). A bot is an autonomous program capable
of signing on to IRC by itself and interacting with other servers and clients. In addition
to bots, there are less elaborated code objects known as scripts. These tend to be client
add-ons (macros) written in the integrated programming language provided with
some popular clients to allow users to automate repetitive tasks. Many IRC users, even
beginners, customize their client with a number of ready-made scripts available on
the Web. Like bots, script-augmented clients can react to online events without any
direct intervention from the user.
For this case study, a three-prong inquiry strategy was adopted based on virtual ethnog-
raphy protocols (Hine, 2000, 2005). The ﬁrst prong comprised several years of online
observation and participation with IRC providing me with practical knowledge and
an insider’s perspective of this communication platform.6The second involved under-
taking a discourse analysis of ofﬁcial websites, plus documentation archived on the
Web and in public and private mailing lists used by IRC ofﬁcials. This helped to produce
detailed accounts of debates between actors based on their discourses at the time of
the events being analyzed. Third, I conducted online interviews with key actors in
order to validate and reﬁne the discourse analysis.
Table 1: IRC forums analyzed
The early IRC development forums were diverse (see Figure 1). Three types of in-
teraction spaces were used to discuss and share views about the evolution of IRC as a
whole, speciﬁc networks (e.g., Undernet), or a particular component of the platform
(e.g., a speciﬁc client like ircII). They comprised email forums (mailing lists), Usenet
forums (newsgroups), and IRC channels. Given their relative persistence, the ﬁrst two
remain accessible to contemporary researchers. However, very few channel-based IRC
582 Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 39 (4)
Mailing lists Usenet groups
Irclist: First list gathering early IRC actors of all
alt.irc: General forum gathering users of all IRC
networks (1990– )
Operlist: First ofﬁcial list of IRC operators.
Eventually become devoted to EFnet (1990– ).
alt.irc.undernet: Forum devoted to Undernet
matters (1993– )
Wastelanders: Former ofﬁcial list of Undernet
server administrators. Open to all (1993–1996)
Undernet-Admins: Ofﬁcial list of Undernet
server administrators. Strictly regulated mem-
bership (1996– )
discussions have been preserved. The information gathered to produce and support
the analyses presented below was obtained largely from a corpus of archived messages
posted to mailing lists and Usenet groups.7The main forums examined for this study
are set out in Table 1. With the exception of the Wastelanders and Undernet-Admins
archives, which are privately held and to which I was granted access by a former list
maintainer, archives of the forums listed in the table are publicly accessible online.
Figure 1: Main IRC development forums (with an emphasis on
EFnet and Undernet networks): mailing lists (in italic),
IRC channels (with the # preﬁx), and Usenet groups (others)
The simultaneous birth of EFnet and the ordinary user
The ﬁrst major controversy in IRC development erupted in August 1990, two years
after its inception. The open servers crisis, as I call it, resulted in a ﬁrst partition of the
network and in the birth of the Eris-Free Network (EFnet), when the link with the last
open server (Eris) was permanently cut.
The person who controls a server also controls who may connect to it as an IRC
operator. All that is needed is a username and a password provided by the server ad-
ministrator. Although the IRC operator status is, in principle, a technical role that
should only be used when network maintenance is required, it became a marker of
social status setting apart those who have “a connection to the twilight zone,” as the
phrase goes in IRC lingo, from ordinary users—also sarcastically referred to as lusers.8
IRC operator access is granted locally on a speciﬁc server. However, operator status
applies globally, such that an operator-only command can be entered by any IRC op-
erator regardless of the server through which she is connected to the network. In the
early days of IRC, server administrators could appoint any user—including them-
selves—as an IRC operator simply by adding a line to the conﬁguration ﬁle. To become
an IRC operator it sufﬁced to link one’s server to an open server. The latter are servers
Latzko-Toth The Co-Construction of Internet Relay Chat 583
conﬁgured in a way that allows any server to connect to them. By contrast, closed
servers are conﬁgured to only accept connection requests from speciﬁc servers. With
this simple hack, a self-appointed IRC operator was able to control any server attached
to the network. Put simply, open servers let untrusted operators enter the network
(see Figure 2).
Concerns about unwanted IRC operators were frequently expressed during the
debate about open servers that took place on the Irclist and Operlist mail forums. The
two comments below are exemplary of concerns expressed about the potential for
abuse created by open servers:
It will no longer be true that Joe User can become an operator and generate
spurious kills. (G. L., Operlist, 08/23/1990)
The point is that the *risk* of having unwanted operators should be re-
moved. (S. K., Operlist, 11/21/1990)
Open servers were also seen as a threat because they enabled servers that did not con-
form to the agreed-upon IRC protocol to join the network (Oikarinen & Reed, 1993).
To this end, concerns were frequently voiced about the risk associated with the so-
called exotic features of some open servers, including mechanisms allowing for their
operators to breach the privacy of channel conversations or, even worse, private con-
versations. In a message posted to Irclist in the spring of 1990, Jarkko Oikarinen clearly
articulated this concern with regard to a server release he did not approve:
[D]oes the new server include things which affect irc privacy? Like opera-
tors being able to see secret/private channels? I think I’m going to quit
using irc soon if that’s true. (J. O., Irclist, 04/06/1990)
584 Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 39 (4)
Figure 2: An IRC network “compromised” by an open server
letting untrusted operators enter the network
While some server administrators and IRC creators viewed open servers as a threat to
the network, others saw them as a means of guaranteeing democratic governance.
Evidence of this can be seen in the following comments posted to the Operlist:
[C]ontrol freaks happen. This is part of why open servers are a good thing.
To ensure that there is always another game in town, and that a few people
*never* have an opportunity to dictate policy to the network. (R. T., quoted
by J. G., Operlist, 09/12/1990)
I think that open servers embody a useful “higher power” that helps pre-
vent people who want to “take power over other people” from doing so.
(J. S., Operlist, 09/18/1990)
The open server crisis took a decisive turn on August 7, 1990, when Jarkko
Oikarinen posted an email message to Operlist calling for a vote on a proposal to prevent
two remaining open servers from connecting to the IRC network, and requiring that
henceforth only approved closed servers be permitted to connect to the network. This
came to be known as the closed server policy. The result of the vote—a strong majority
in favour of the policy—was posted a week later, and implemented one month later as
a patch to the server code that effectively quarantined server Eris (eris.berkeley.edu).
Up to this time, running one’s own server on the IRC network was considered a
legitimate aspiration open to all users. The closed server policy rendered this option a
privilege reserved for a few trusted operators who were sponsored by their peers. As
such, it raised non-trivial questions about what it meant to use IRC. For some, use was
understood as including installing and running a server, while for others—a major-
ity—the deﬁnition was more limited in scope:
I think it needs to become more of a common perception that a server is
not a prerequisite to running IRC … (M. P., Operlist, 08/07/1990).
People don’t have to be able to run a server in order to use IRC, a fact that’s
not made tremendously clear in the documentation. (M. P., Operlist,
Another argument favouring the closed server policy was that the users/server ratio—
hence the user/operator ratio—was too low:
Lets cut back on the number of servers we have and INCREASE the num-
ber of clients. We should make some sort of policy that to have a server at
a site you must have a set number of users at that site that will be using it.
(S. M., Operlist, 08/20/1990)
At the same time, some IRC coders recommended that the client program (irc) and
the server program (ircd) be released separately, instead of being packaged together
as they were at the time:
Suggestion #1: Prepare a client-only distribution package, and encourage
its use. (M. B., Irclist, 08/01/1990)
What seems to be at stake in these exchanges is the distinction, within the undifferen-
tiated agglomeration of roles and statuses characterizing early IRC enthusiasts, of a
speciﬁc category of users, namely, the ordinary user. This category was constructed
Latzko-Toth The Co-Construction of Internet Relay Chat 585
negatively by excluding actors from the group of administrators, despite the criticisms
of some protagonists:
IRC is a peer-admined network of servers. Nobody has a *right* to be a
member of this group simply because they can compile a server. (M. V. L.,
Operlist, forwarded to Wastelanders, 08/11/1993)
I am worried about this trend of making IRC some kind of “closed group.”
*Anyone* should be able to run a server… (M. S., Operlist, 08/20/1990)
Some IRC operators labelled ordinary users “non-operators,” demonstrating how
the categories of operator and user cross-deﬁne each other. Although the term operator
initially referred to a technical role, with time it transformed into an identity marker
of social status designating a category of actors who recognize themselves as belonging
to the same community of practice by right (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The fact that the
mailing list used as the main IRC development forum was named Operlist speaks di-
rectly to this semantic evolution.
The open servers controversy illustrates both collective aspects of a co-construction
process as evidenced by the group discussions, polls, and the distribution of tasks, and
simultaneous construction features that can be observed as boundaries between actors
were produced along with new code, new distribution packages, and new regulations.
Ordinary users participating in the creation of IRCservices
The co-construction of IRC often took the form of a conﬂictual collaboration regarding
the addition of features, or services as they came to be known, to the initial design.
Within the IRC context the term service is polysemic. It can mean a feature, a bot, a
daemon, or a subset of an organization. Early IRC programmers employed the term
service to denote an extension to the set of IRC features that was socially acknowledged
as being useful and relevant, and providing added value to the otherwise basic chat
features of the platform. Asynchronous messaging, ﬁle swapping, and games all fell
under the rubric of service. Although these software agents were frowned upon when
troublesome, within an IRC community composed largely of computer science stu-
dents, programming these extensions was seen as a playful and creative activity.
NickServ, the prototype of services
In the years following the foundation of EFnet, more and more users sought means to
protect what we refer to today as digital identiﬁers. Claims over nicknames and channel
names became important issues, sparking controversies about the addition of related
services. The ﬁrst signiﬁcant debate of this kind centred on a nickname registration
service called NickServ.
Developed by three students from University of Technology, Munich, NickServ
was a bot that compared the nicknames of IRC users with those in its database and
sent out notices to those who had not registered with this service that someone else
was already using their nickname. In order to perform this surveillance, the bot had
to be connected to a speciﬁc, tailored server that was linked to the whole network (see
Figure 3). NickServ had a fellow bot called NoteServ that allowed users to leave a mes-
sage to a registered NickServ user, thereby extending IRC features to include asynchro-
586 Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 39 (4)
Figure 3: The network architecture of NickServ and NoteServ services
When a user connected to EFnet with a nickname that was already registered with
NickServ, the bot would send the user a private message resembling this modiﬁed ex-
ample posted to Operlist in January 1992:
-NickServ- ! Attention - Nickname “XYZ” is already allocated by
-NickServ- ! *****@****.info.uqam.ca (The Roaming Soul).
-NickServ- ! This may cause some confusion. Please choose another nickname.
-NickServ- ! If you are the real XYZ, but you are logged into a different
-NickServ- ! computer, you should use the ACCESS command to tell NickServ
-NickServ- ! about this. Type /msg NickServ@service.de help ACCESS.
The service was very popular among ordinary users. Indeed, it was their explicit support
that helped its creators to justify and defend its existence.9Nonetheless, it was contro-
versial among IRC operators, who were divided over the issue of granting NickServ any
power, beyond pestering people by sending them multiple messages. As noted by one
fervent user, NickServ did more than just monitor nickname usurpation:
[I]t indicated when a nickname was registered (thus how long ago), the
email address of the person in question, the last time the person was on
IRC, and gave the closest we had to a statistical breakdown on where peo-
ple were ircing from, and thus, an idea of at least the proportional use of
irc in various schools and countries. (E. A., email forwarded to Operlist,
Some operators wanted to use the bot as a basis for identifying and disconnecting
nickname usurpers. Others opposed delegating this level of agency to a bot. Paul
Verhoeven’s RoboCop movie (1987) was not far from the imagination of IRC adminis-
trators commenting on this matter:
Giving Nickserv an enforcement, RoboCop type of role is a bad idea and a
step in the wrong direction, in my opinion. (M. P., Irclist, 04/13/1991)
My point of view is extremely simple: no way an automate should kill, or
incite people to do so by sending messages [to] another logged user. … In
case such a feature (/kill) would be implemented, either I’ll modify the
server in order to ignore NickServ, either I’ll simply remove my server from
IRC and incitate [sic] others to do so. (C. W., Irclist, 04/13/1991)
Latzko-Toth The Co-Construction of Internet Relay Chat 587
Eventually, a “nicknames are not owned” policy was established on EFnet. It was
premised on the rationale that the scarcity of popular nicknames resulting from the
9-character limit set by the original protocol, combined with the path dependencies
this constraint was subject to, precluded enforcing a one-user one-nickname structure.
As some commentators stated:
[E]nforcing nicknames is a bad idea. The whole motive behind nickserv is
the problem. With millions of potential users, enforcing one-person-per-
nickname isn’t practical. (R. T., Irclist, 04/19/1991)
[I]t’s very technically possible to own nicks. It’s not a technical issue—it’s a
policy type issue [italics added]. … Also, once again, Nickserv is just a bot.
Who owns a nick would be more of a judgement call than a bot database
type of issue … (D. M., alt.irc, 10/11/1993)
A much-discussed point in the naming controversy was the fact that NickServ
gave ordinary users a semblance of control over their nickname, which otherwise was
the exclusive privilege of IRC operators. The latter could “kill” a user to take back a
nickname or simply use their technical skills and computer resources to keep their
The best way to gain “ownership” of a nick is to sit on it 24 hours a day, 7
days a week …, leave yourself logged in, write a bot, whatever. Sure, it uses
computer resources, but it’s what many of the net-big.dogs do. (D. M.,
The “nicknames/channel names are not owned” policies that, until April 1994, were
the rule on EFnet widened the gap between operators and ordinary users who, for the
most part, accessed IRC through dial-up Internet connections and who could not set
the permanent connection required to keep control over a nickname and/or a channel
Bots and scripts as users’ code contribution to the device
When IRC users were unhappy with the limitations imposed either by its technical de-
sign or its governance, they had two options. They could leave the network and estab-
lish a new network with different rules—in de Certeau’s (1984) terms, a strategic
approach—or they could stay and leverage the affordances of automation by delegat-
ing speciﬁc tasks to bots and scripts (i.e., a tactical approach). Whereas the ﬁrst wave
of IRC users managed to secure rights and privileges by virtue of their early adoption
of the platform, those who joined the network later had to contend with an existing
socio-technical conﬁguration that offered channel creators no means of securing a grip
over their channels.
Consequently, in the early days of IRC it was common for patrons of an IRC chan-
nel to take shifts as channel operators so as to keep the channel alive and safe from
disruptive users. Individuals who were more computer literate and better equipped
technologically used bots as proxies for human operations. Bots were used, for instance,
to sit on speciﬁc channels, to enforce channel rules and policies by monitoring public
conversations, and to take actions against those violating channel rules, as well as to
give certain individuals operator status on request. In the 1990s, running a bot required
588 Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 39 (4)
having an account on a Unix machine with a stable Internet connection and a sponsor
among server administrators or IRC operators, because bots were generally regarded
as non grata on EFnet (Quittner, 1995). Hence, their use reﬂected and accentuated in-
equalities between users.
As Ishii (2005) puts it, bot and scripts were the way users managed to interfere
with the code of IRC by adding their own layer of code to client-server and server-
server protocols. Drawing on the case of Wikipedia, Geiger (2014) suggests that the
ﬁne-tuning of software-based communication infrastructure by adding ancillary code
(e.g., bots) has become a widespread tendency in digital media development. He calls
bespoke code the software code that “extends or transforms the operation of software
platforms, but runs on top of or alongside existing systems instead of being more di-
rectly integrated into and run on software-side codebases” (p. 343). On IRC, bots come
in a variety of forms (e.g., chatbots, warbots, gamebots). They appear as workarounds
that innovative IRC users have created in response to what they viewed as missing
features or services. Nowadays, most bots are used to look after channels and to pro-
tect them against unwanted intrusions, but in the ﬁrst years of IRC existence, they
were often used for entertainment purposes. They also, very importantly, offered or-
dinary users alternative ways to participate in IRC governance, particularly at the
The case of the Eggdrop bot is exemplary of the role users played in completing
IRC design using bespoke code. This particular bot was developed by Robey Pointer,
in December 1993, to protect the EFnet channel #gayteen against constant ﬁghts for
its control and homophobic raids against the channel. With Eggdrop, Pointer estab-
lished a standard of guard bots. Its name has since become a generic word for this
class of bots (Leonard, 1997; Pointer, 1997). It stood apart from the plethora of similar
bots for two reasons. First, Pointer published its source code under the GPL licence, al-
lowing IRC users who were not skilled at programming to use it. Second, the possibility
of extending its features, thanks to built-in scripting interfaces, made it highly pliable
and, thus, easily tailored to the speciﬁc needs of individual channels. It was essentially
the ﬁrst generic bot and, consequently, somehow democratic.
Undernet and the enrolment of users
The Undernet IRC network was founded in 1992 by a small group of individuals who
wanted to run their own servers, at a time when the main IRC network—EFnet—was
already saturated with servers. Driven by the enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit
of its administrators, Undernet sought to become a viable alternative to EFnet, which
would focus on the needs of its users. The originality of Undernet lay in its efforts to
establish a more user-centric IRC network by enrolling users directly into its gover-
nance structure under the auspices of a User Committee:
Some of the users … have shown interest in taking part in the committees
so I agree, we should include our users in our committees. Give them some
say, and I think you will ﬁnd that they will become much more supportive,
and involved. … Personally, I would like to see more users involved in var-
ious things on the undernet, i.e., wouldn’t it be nice to narrow the gap be-
tween OPERS and USERS … (D. M., Wastelanders, 10/05/1994)
Latzko-Toth The Co-Construction of Internet Relay Chat 589
The question of whether user bots should be welcome on Undernet was one of
the ﬁrst issues to arise on the Undernet operators’ mailing list, Wastelanders.10This dis-
cussion pertained to the issue of channel governance: speciﬁcally, whether channel
founders should be entitled to maintain control over their channel, either by using a
guard bot or by asking an Undernet operator to intervene after a channel takeover.
Put simply, could someone claim ownership over a channel? It was agreed that users
should be allowed to connect a bot to the network as long as it was not troublesome.
Undernet operators also agreed on the necessity of being able to regain control over
channels and return them to their rightful managers, but the IRC protocol provided
no means of determining who the rightful managers were. Drawing on the NickServ
experience, server-side features would be accessed through the Uworld bot that al-
lowed any IRC operator to regain control over a channel. However, when certain IRC
operators began to use this process for their own beneﬁt—most IRC operators are
channel managers as well—it was clear that a more impartial device was needed.
A user who was also the ﬁrst User Committee chair suggested the solution to this
problem. He proposed establishing of a Channel Service Committee (CSC) bringing
together users, IRC operators, and coders to manage a channel register and to oversee
an optional process of channel registration. An aspiring channel manager who ob-
tained sufﬁcient votes from other users of the channel would be granted access to an
ofﬁcial bot called X. If needed, X would send a request to the Uworld service, sparing
Undernet operators the responsibility of directly intervening in cases of a channel
takeover. Contrary to Uworld, which acted on channels like a deus ex machina,X be-
haved like a regular channel bot, an approach deemed more friendly to users given
their presumed familiarity with bot agency. This was a deliberate decision from
CService developers, and it was part of a strategy aimed at users:
It was also decided that the service should *look like* a bot in order to
keep users comfortable with it. Instead of a server op, they see a user op,
which makes all the difference. (Robin Thellend, original CService devel-
oper, Wastelanders, 07/13/1995)
The channel service concept was implemented in a very different way on other
networks, such as DALnet, where it worked on a ﬁrst-come, ﬁrst-served basis. The orig-
inality of the solution implemented by Undernet was its concern with democratic rep-
resentation for channel managers. Political representation was performed through
human mediation provided by the organizational wing of the service, whereas channel
access regulation was delegated to its informational/algorithmic wing. In other words,
CService was a hybrid solution combining the material and organizational with human
and non-human agency. It also was hybrid insofar as it was the product of the contri-
butions of lay users (through their actions and the voicing of their ideas within the
committee) and expert users (through ofﬁcial and bespoke code). In this sense, it
shows how IRC services were co-constructed by users and operators.
The early development of Internet Relay Chat offers a clear illustration of the co-con-
struction process. On one level IRC may be understood as a collective construction in
590 Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 39 (4)
the sense of being a collective, highly distributed project where different actors, un-
equally empowered, participated in the design of the device. On another, complemen-
tary level, it may also be seen as exemplifying a process of simultaneous construction.
Actors were shaped in tandem with the development of IRC. Its developers invented
user categories such as operators, ordinary users, disruptive users, et cetera. IRC prac-
tices, including communication practices, were also constructed along with the artifacts
mediating these exchanges (e.g., practices relating to nicknames and their limitations).
More fundamentally, the very notion of use is itself a simultaneous construction. As
shown above, social interactions between actors involved in the early development of
IRC led to certain activities being excluded from what was considered as constituting
using IRC. A second step in the construction of the practices associated with legitimate
use was the gradual exclusion of programming practices through the curbing of user
bots and some types of scripts. As a result, coding became an elite activity on IRC. This
suggests that notions of both use and user are socially negotiated constructs that were
constructed jointly with this communication platform.
In IRC development we also observe processes of mutual construction wherein
actors and artifacts cross-deﬁne and shape one another. The notion of ordinary user
emerged along with the closure of the group of IRC operators. Scripts and bots also
acted as a deﬁning agent, producing new categories of actors. For instance, IRC coders
and advanced users labelled one type of user (typically younger) who runs malicious
programs to disrupt other users’ IRC chat experiences, script kiddies. These individuals
exploit ﬂaws in the device to disrupt its functioning for fun, to disturb or intimidate
other users, or simply to challenge the power of operators. In 2001, script kiddies forced
Undernet administrators and coders to transform the core code of channel services
and to modify the server-client protocol in order to hide certain information that was
used to target servers hosting the services.
On a different note, bots—be they user bots or ofﬁcial services—contributed to
the emergence of a more textured form of IRC governance than that ﬁrst envisioned
in the original technical protocol. At the channel level, the person who controls the
bot controls the channel, and since most bots feature access levels, they allow for a
much more subtle scale of power than the binary structure inscribed in the IRC pro-
tocol (operators versus non-operators). New terms were created to designate different
levels of channel operator status: auto-op, super-op, channel manager or founder, and
so on, depending on the network, language, or speciﬁc channel culture.
We also observe in this case artifacts mutually shaping themselves. Given that
bots can act, and react, much faster than humans, they shifted the temporality of ac-
tions from seconds to milliseconds, exposing shortcomings in the original protocol
and forcing IRC developers to make, in some instances, drastic changes to the code.
Some of these modiﬁcations were the subject of intense controversies, resulting in
code forks and the differentiation/fragmentation of IRC networks.11 In addition to shap-
ing the code of IRC, non-human agency contributed to redeﬁning the experience of
online chat, forcing IRC network managers to make their conception and philosophy
of the media explicit.
Latzko-Toth The Co-Construction of Internet Relay Chat 591
User contributions to the design of digital media continue to be an area of active re-
search. In this article, I adopted a Science and Technology Studies (STS) perspective
to illustrate the technical agency of users in the co-construction of Internet Relay Chat.
Examining critical moments in the development history of this software-based media
platform reveals that the asymmetry in the distribution of technical agency between
actors is constructed post hoc. Being a user is a role ascribed by a dominant group of
self-proclaimed developers to another group of people who are kept away from certain
technical activities and decisions. IRC users acted as co-designers in many ways, de-
pending on their technical knowledge and skills. Some contributed by adding unofﬁ-
cial features or services to the device as a response to what they perceived as ﬂaws in
the technical protocols. When allowed to do so, others made their voice heard either
by campaigning, expressing their views on the operators’ lists, or engaging as volun-
teers in the governance bodies of the networks. While this does not mean that all dif-
ferences between actors were erased, it does show that users can, and often do, play
an active role in co-designing and conﬁguring the media through which they interact,
provided they get (or create) the needed space of freedom and autonomy.
The case of IRC development also demonstrates that the plasticity of digital media
does not guarantee user agency. As was noted by Gillespie (2006), digital devices can
be designed so as to be even more resistant to users’ inquiry and tinkering than their
physical counterparts. It follows, therefore, that the co-construction of digital media
can be hindered or promoted depending on governance structures and how these
structures are embodied in architecture. This observation is of critical importance as
we enter an era of hegemonic proprietary social media platforms in which users are
increasingly being locked-in by the device architecture (Boullier, 2012). Examining the
role users play in the genesis and evolution of software-based media is crucial to artic-
ulating a critique of the design and governance of emerging media platforms.
I would like to thank Logan D.A. Williams, Kevin Fodness, Toluwalogo B. Odumosu,
and Denver Xiaofeng Tang for organizing the “Knowledge from the Margins” sessions
at the 4S 2011 conference and for giving me precious feedback on a former version of
this article. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers whose detailed and insight-
ful comments at different stages of the writing process helped me improve the ﬁnal
The freenode IRC network is mostly dedicated to this infrastructural function. Various Linux distri-1.
butions have been using it from the onset as a real-time complement to their asynchronous forums
(e.g., mailing lists). It hosts hundreds of channels used by Wikipedia as a collaborative tool. Cyber-ac-
tivist organizations, such as Anonymous, have set up their own IRC networks to support their opera-
tions (see Dagdelen, 2012).
The most authoritative documents are Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Request for2.
Comments (RFCs) 1459, 2810, 2811, 2812, and 2813 (respectively Oikarinen & Reed, 1993; Kalt, 2000a,
2000b, 2000c, 2000d). All are available at http://www.ietf.org/rfc.html .
592 Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 39 (4)
It is possible to use IRC on a single server, for instance to fulﬁll the conferencing needs of an organ-3.
ization. However, the server code was originally designed to handle no more than a few hundred clients
at a time. Hence the need for interconnecting servers to ensure some form of scalability.
This intermediate status comes with the privilege of speaking when the channel is in “moderated”4.
mode. Most of the time, it is honoriﬁc.
Originally, this command was meant to manually terminate ghost connections. Servers routinely5.
send “kill messages” to other servers when multiple occurrences of the same nickname are found.
The kill command forces the emission of a kill message.
I have been using IRC since 1995, ﬁrst on EFnet, then on Undernet (starting in 1996), where I helped6.
establish and register a new channel.
Each excerpt is followed by its author’s initials, the date the message was sent, and the name of the7.
list or forum where it was collected as well as the online space where it was originally issued if it was
different. This way of “blurring” attribution of speech to actors was inspired from Mathieu O’Neil’s ac-
counts of open source software controversies (O’Neil, 2009). It is meant to complicate the re-contex-
tualization of online discourses and the identiﬁcation of their authors, since the initial conditions of
their circulation have been altered in time through archiving, re-publishing on the Web, et cetera.
This ironical play on the words user and loser spread in computer science jargon from MIT in the8.
mid-1970s (Raymond, 2004). It is signiﬁcant of the contempt expressed by a self-proclaimed computer
elite toward users. The term has been consecrated in the form of the IRC command lusers, which re-
turns the number of connected users. Raymond notes that luser is a synonym for lamerin hackers’ jar-
gon. One can also note the parallel between the lexical couple hacker/lamer in the hacking scene, and
the couple oper/luser in the context of IRC, a “luser” being often considered shorthand for “lame user.”
On different occasions when NickServ’s withdrawal was announced, dozens of users protested by9.
sending emails to its developers or by posting messages to Usenet forums like alt.irc.
Just like the #wasteland channel, the list was open to any Undernet user, not just admins and op-10.
erators. Thus even before they were formally integrated into the governance structure, users were de
facto taking part in discussions.
In July 1996, the TimeStamp vs. Delay controversy led to the “Great Split” between European and11.
U.S. EFnet servers, resulting in the foundation of IRCnet.
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