IRC has existed for over two decades now. (August 1988. This is around the time the Iran-Iraq war was about to end after the death of over a million mortals.)
I will not go through IRC's history because there are enough links out there which have pieced together every fragment of time that has contributed to the invention of the IRC. I will instead talk about IRC and internet culture.
The internet has always been a place where no one could possibly ever feel left out. No loser is a loner out here and there are no misfits. The freaks can always find other freaks to make themselves feel less freakier, and talk or discourse about anything they wished to. And no matter what your interests were, you always have somewhere to be. For decades, vast millions of lonely souls have found solace on the internet, getting the interaction and exchange of ideas that they could never find in the real world. IRC has been amongst the largest social communities on the net for years. A live society, which unlike all the social networking sites, is not about projection of the real world.
Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a virtual world. Millions of computers connected to one another, from almost every country in the world. Thousands of channels in hundreds of networks. And over half a milion users at any instant. This is a large population. In real word terms, this would be like all the people of Bhutan deciding to collect at one time, in one large building.
But this world is different. Very different. Looks never mattered, words did. The witty were cool. Cruel biting sarcasm and a lot of explicit language. And you could be anything you wished to be. Live your wildest avatars out here, identified by only your handles. And yet there were rules, subtle but absolute. Social norms that have evolved over time. They were unwritten in most cases, but if you crossed the invisible lines, you would/could be ostracized by all.
IRC has never been owned by anyone. It is a free network. Free society. Free knowledge. Free sharing. It is a bastardized version of the internet.
And therefore has once become a battleground for the repressed to play with all that is taboo in the real world. Any fetish now has a channel. Add to that the illegal downloads and apparent lack of real-world social protocols, it is almost a haven for anarchism.
IRC. It is for those who wish to escape.
Daniel's Page - History of IRC
IRC History by Jarkko Oikarinen
Jarkko Oikarinen Interview
Livinginternet - Internet Relay Chat (IRC) History
IRC Junkie - Is IRC on the Decline?
COMMUNICATION AND COMMUNITY ON INTERNET RELAY CHAT