Freenode is dead. Long live IRC?

This is the text version; I have a video version of this post on YouTube: Freenode is dead. Long live IRC? [video].

I've been on IRC since I started participating in the Drupal community in the mid 2000s. For over three decades, countless programming and open source communities have centralized their real-time discussions on IRC servers. While overall IRC usage has declined in the past twenty years, Freenode became the most influential hub for IRC users, with the majority of users and channels, especially for open source discussion.

But all things must come to an end, and it seems like Freenode's new leadership—who took over the network over the past few years—are doing everything they can to drive it into the ground, fast.

When I first heard about a bunch of Freenode staff and volunteers forming a bit of a suicide pact, I knew something was up, and immediately many open source communities started discussing what they'd do if their main discussion platform went belly-up.

Some were already making plans to move to a proprietary chat platform like Discord or Slack, while others were looking at Matrix or maybe another Freenode network.

But those plans went into high gear a week or so ago, after Libera.Chat was created by the staff and volunteers who left Freenode.

Once people started moving to this new network, Freenode staff, and reportedly Andrew Lee himself, who bought Freenode in 2017 and owns the VPN company Private Internet Access, started to take over some channels for dubious reasons.

That practice turned into a firestorm today as numerous ops—the people who control and moderate channels—were booted from their own channels, likely having to do with mentions of Libera.Chat.

Already, the community discussion for wikipedia, ubuntu, gentoo, centos, kde, postgresql, vim, emacs, haskell, arch linux, rsync, ffmpeg, and countless others has migrated away from Freenode. This kind of mass exodus is rare, but interesting to see happen in real time.

Freenode seems to be doubling down further still, with a blog post yesterday about how 'Freenode exists for FOSS', citing the fact that Freenode is still clinging to the most active users of any IRC network, and stating "the plan to destroy freenode has failed!"

I wouldn't be so quick to judge, as I know myself, and countless other active open source developers, have already logged off Freenode entirely and moved on to other servers.

And the sad fact is, maybe this is one of the last nails in IRC's coffin. So many communities have decided the convenience of a proprietary platform like Discord or Slack are worth the tradeoffs in freedom.

And maybe they are! How many developers are turned off the first time they try out IRC and end up confused by the ancient text command protocol, things like SASL, and the song-and-dance of registering a nick to try to get access to most channels?

And how many developers are turned off by the fact that people suggest they host their own IRC utilities if they want things like backscroll, or pay for extra services like IRCCloud?

I do those things, and I love IRC and some of the communities I've been involved with there, but I also see the other side to the coin, and I fear the biggest loser in this whole debacle is going to be IRC itself.

Sure, many of the individual communities will be resilient and will make the move to the new home unscathed. But for the majority of my open source life, Freenode was the home to much of the Free and Open Source software community.

But no longer. The trends are already pointing towards a substantial decline in Freenode usage. Libera.Chat is growing fast, but even if it never overtakes Freenode in logged-in users, this whole event will likely do nothing to slow the gradual decline of IRC usage overall.

For many people watching this, it makes no real difference; IRC is just that thing Eliot used that one time in Mr. Robot. But for me, it's a bit of a sad footnote in open source software history, and I feel like it'll be judged similar to what happened to Sourceforge. A quick implosion followed by a long period of obscurity. Will it be quietly resurrected again someday? Maybe.

But will the rest of the world care by then? I hope so. But a decade is a long time in the tech world. And IRC's hosted plenty of drama over it's three-decade run so far!

Comments

One thing I do find interesting about this whole thing is that IMO it feels like a pretty great endorsement *for* IRC, in general. Not to downplay the chaos of the whole situation, the effort/time required to migrate communities from one place to another, having to deal with nick/chan registrations and all that, but in the end the impact to most folks affected by this is just that they've gotta change a hostname in their settings. Every Freenode community I'm still a part of has already moved over to Libera, and it's just business as usual over there.

Contrast with any of the "walled garden" style services (which presumably account for a huge chunk of the overall decline in IRC usage)... If any of them starts acting hostile, or gets sold to a company looking to make unwelcome changes, moving off of it becomes a *huge* hassle. Your management/moderation tools are going to look different, it'll have different capabilities and organizational structures, wherever you move to is going to look/feel different, the apps folks use to interact with it on devices may be of varying quality, etc. On *top* of the issue of how you're going to get your userbase over to the new place at all.

So yeah, I remain quite happy with my open protocols which enable relatively seamless transitions like Freenode->Libera/OFTC/etc. This kind of frighteningly fast exodus just wouldn't be possible without an open system like IRC.