An interview with IRCNow's Aaron Lin

The Users' Network

© Lead Image © Giordano Aita,

© Lead Image © Giordano Aita,

Article from Issue 249/2021

IRCNow empowers users and lets them break free from social media giants. Project leader Aaron Lin shares his vision.

IRCNow, a communication platform built on free and open source software and open standards, transforms Internet Relay Chat (IRC) into a user-controlled social network. IRCNow strives to give users as much control of the software stack as possible, with the goal of being vendor independent. With 13 active servers at the time of writing, IRCNow functions as a federation of self-governing servers.

Aaron Lin (Figure 1), who has directed IRCNow [1] since its creation in 2019, recruits and trains volunteers and teaches them how to run the network. In this interview, he provides the back story on IRCNow and reveals what the future holds for the network.

Figure 1: Aaron Lin has managed the IRCNow project since 2019.

Linux Magazine: What is IRCNow, and why is it important?

Aaron Lin: IRCNow aims to be a social network that the users control. What IRCNow does differently from most social networks is we educate our users and get them involved in self-governance. We have courses to teach our users system administration [Figure 2], and we encourage them to run their own servers. We also plan to write courses to teach them how to code. We believe that the only way to build a free community is to make sure users are educated and have control over their code.

Figure 2: IRCNow actively recruits novices and turns them into system administrators.

We chose the IRC protocol because it is the most accessible to average users. We intend to make IRC suitable for users of any age, skill level, and creed.

In addition, we are aiming to be fully independent from corporate vendors. More people are beginning to realize that big technological corporations cannot be trusted to respect their users, and we want to be a home for those people.

LM: So IRCNow is all about letting users control the software they communicate with. Don't projects such as Mastodon or Matrix pursue the same goal? Why start yet another project?

AL: Our sense is that Mastodon and Matrix are not as focused on educating their users to be sys admins or coders. The majority of instances appear to be one-click installs. This is convenient, but users don't get to see how to do basic system administration, as well as how to write their own code. This leaves them at the mercy of upstream developers. Mastodon and Matrix give the user more control over the platform than Twitter, but you are still left with little power to influence development.

There have even been discussions at Mastodon's GitHub site about hard coding bans on instances that they disagree with [2]. There have also been Mastodon clients that hard code such bans [3]. If users lack the ability to code for themselves, they have to accept whatever limitations the developers place on it [the site], which means they have lost control of the platform.

The technical barriers of Matrix and Mastodon make it difficult for a user community of amateurs to have this level of control over the code. IRCNow focuses on simple, more mature protocols like IRC, because the protocol is really easy to learn to code for, and these are very accessible protocols with mature, cross-platform clients.

LM: When you say Matrix and Mastodon present technical barriers that make it difficult for users to control the code, which sort of barriers are you talking about?

AL: Both Matrix and Mastodon are designed for the web. They assume the use of HTTP, and much of their ecosystem is based around web apps. Naturally, the majority of their users are accessing these platforms using web apps such as Element. Web apps often require more sophisticated coding skills. Another problem is that, with a web app, the browser becomes an important part of the solution, and web apps frequently break and malfunction when used with free software browsers that are controlled by the community.

If you take a look at the mainstream browsers – Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Safari – all of them have serious censorship and privacy issues. Many of them have non-free components. Average users have very little real control over the development of the software. What is worse, the controlling organizations often have agendas that run contrary to the interests of their user community.

LM: You place a lot of emphasis on training users so they are able to develop and run their own software in order to make them less reliant on software providers. How are you achieving this?

AL: We're working on a few ways to improve tech literacy. First, we're offering free shell accounts and tutorials to help users learn about Unix. The tutorials will try to teach the basics of how to use a text editor, how Unix pipes work, how to read manual pages, and so forth [see the "IRCNow Training Camp" box].

IRCNow Training Camp

IRCNow makes an effort to bring new users to the network, including people with absolutely no experience with Unix-like systems or system administration. The IRCNow developers are creating a training course that is still a work in progress, although early indications are that it will be a very good introduction to the IRC environment.

With six phases currently implemented, the first three give a basic understanding of common command-line tools, what a shell is, and how to navigate the filesystem tree. The fourth explains how to use pipes and also introduces man pages.

Especially outstanding, the fifth phase offers a funny (yet instructive) vi tutorial. Given IRCNow's commitment to keep things simple, it uses vi instead of Vim, because OpenBSD's base includes vi.

With an eminently practical bent, the sixth phase teaches about terminal multiplexing with tmux, using Lynx, and practicing with Irssi.

Trainees who make it this far are usually then granted a free virtual private server (VPS) and mentored into deploying common services, such as websites and email systems.

Once users pass that basic training, we offer them free VPSs if they can help us run our network. We train them in the applications bundled in the OpenBSD base. We walk them through setting up their own web server, requesting a TLS cert, configuring a mail server, and [configuring a] name server. We also help them install and configure an IRC server and bouncer. Because it is OpenBSD, trainees are forced to read the documentation. Our teammates are there to help with tech support. If they do well, we try to upgrade them to help manage dedicated servers.

The next stage we plan to work on is to teach our users how to code. We have not yet begun this, but I plan to cover C, Perl, and Korn shell scripts using real practical code that can be run. I chose these three languages because they are what OpenBSD itself is written in. If the need should ever arise, our users would have the ability to fork the operating system.

LM: The goal then is to have the users control as much of their social media's software stack as possible. It is a very ambitious project! Where are the resources coming from?

AL: About 15 percent of the costs have come from individual donors and 85 percent from my personal funds. Currently, we are spending roughly $5,000 per year in hosting fees. We're grateful for all the donors who have helped us with donations in hardware, bandwidth, and time. If your readers would like to support the project, we'd greatly appreciate [their support].

Our goal is to eventually migrate over to a combination of user subscriptions and third-party transaction fees.

LM: A quick glance at your wiki suggests IRCNow is being built using OpenBSD [4] and its userspace tools. Why use OpenBSD instead of another popular free and open source operating system?

AL: I chose OpenBSD because of its focus on simple configuration, correct code, good documentation, and its commitment to software freedom. Contrary to popular belief, it's actually a great operating system for novices to learn about system administration and coding.

There's this misconception that Linux is "easier." This depends what you mean by easier. It's true that a distro like Ubuntu would allow you to quickly install black-box software without the need to read documentation. But later, when you need to troubleshoot, customize, or fork that software, you discover it is breathtakingly complex.

Our users need real open source: They need to open the source and start coding! OpenBSD gives us a system where our users could someday have full control over [the system], with the ability to customize or fork where needed.

LM: What is the biggest challenge IRCNow has faced?

AL: The greatest challenge is educating users. Having an educated user base is not something you can purchase or automate and deploy. Our teammates have spent thousands of hours of labor trying to teach users how to use shell accounts, how to read manual pages, and how to troubleshoot their servers. We plan to spend thousands more teaching them how to code. Courseware and labs are essential and have their place, but there is no substitute for the human touch.

It's a common mistake to believe the value of a network is in the technology, in the software or the hardware. All infrastructure is easily replaceable. The greatest asset of any network is its users and their culture. Most of our efforts are spent educating users about the need for digital freedom, about the importance of hosting our own infrastructure. Our network welcomes everyone, but we do not want users to remain tech-illiterate. If we don't educate our users, we will end up recreating the same degrading culture that exists on most mainstream social networks. We need to empower our users so they can be involved in running our network.

Whether IRCNow succeeds or fails will depend on how well we can preserve this culture of education and commitment to user freedom.


  1. IRCNow:
  2. Discussion about banning Gab from Mastodon:
  3. Tusky hard-codes ban against Gab:
  4. OpenBSD:

The Author

Rubén Llorente is a mechanical engineer who ensures that the IT security measures for a small clinic are both legally compliant and safe. In addition, he is an OpenBSD enthusiast and a weapons collector.

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