Tuesday, December 28, 1999

It's good to talk - IRC and instant messengers make it possible online

Tuesday, December 28, 1999

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 through 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 new files to downloads, 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.

Where communication software is concerned, having too much choice can be a handicap. Your friends and family will each no doubt have a predilection for one instant messenger or another, and because the various competing 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 register, yet it does make it necessary to run a conglomeration of different clients simultaneously, 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!

I Seek You

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 the client from www.icq.com.

If you do plan to use it to for file swapping, what you'd do is simply drag any files you wish to send to a friend from your hard drive onto their username entry in your contacts list. No more input from you is required - a dialog box will appear on your friend's computer giving them the option to accept or decline your gift. The transfer process begins automatically when they make their selection.

Adding friends to your contact list is straightforward to. People often list their ICQ number in email or forum signatures to make it easy for you to message them. If you don't know their email address or which forums they hang out on, you can use the 'people search' tool on the ICQ home page to track them down - also particularly useful for finding strangers who share similar interests. Make the effort to create a comprehensive profile for yourself and other people will be able to seek you out too. Soon enough you'll be making new friends from all over the globe.

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 that 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 the active list of your local football team, every now and again messages would appear on your screen containing details of upcoming fixtures, club news, ways to get involved in the community and so on. To get started, venture over to the ICQ home page and have a browse through the active list database.

What are waiting for? Go fetch - you'll be amazed!

Internet Relay Chat

Of all these protocols, Internet Relay Chat has been around the longest and is your best bet for sharing files with friends and family. Briefly, IRC is a virtual meeting place where like-minded people can gather together to discuss common interests. Not only is it a superb vehicle for transmitting data, it is considered 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.

To take part you will 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 are a 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 child's play to use and so is an excellent starting point for the IRC newbie. Some of the most highly esteemed Mac IRC clients include Colloquy, Snak, Ircle and X-Chat Aqua.

While browsing through community web sites you have probably come across messages similar to "join us on #whatever @ somewhere". 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 be fairly certain 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.

As Mirc is the client I'm most familiar with I'll be using it to exemplify the process of setting up and using an IRC client for the first time in the following very quick 'how to' guide. Mirc constitutes one of the few Windows applications that are completely standalone - 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 fibbing to protect your anonymity) and your email address (again, tell a few porkies, this time to avoid being spammed) and your chosen 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 recognize 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 has already been claimed.

Next you need to enter a server name. If the one you wish to use is not already in the list, click on the 'add' button, type it in yourself manually and hit 'OK'. 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 quickly enter a channel you would type /join #channel-name, 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 and 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. That's all there is to basic chatting. There are many other commands for you to pick up along the way as you become more experienced, but at least for now, dive right in, start chatting and enjoy yourself!

Once you become competent at using Mirc to chat, you may want to learn how it can be brought into play to exchange files. 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 personal 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 data 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'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 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 within a particular 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) = 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 info 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', known as TDCC or XDCC transfers. These 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 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 to spare see if you can put your new found skills to the test. With a bit of luck the next time you enter an IRC channel you won't be so confused when Fserve adverts start to appear left, right and centre.

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