Well, IRC is a whole community - it consists of a number of connected servers, you connect and then can join Chat rooms. Each room has a hierarchy, with operators (like moderators), voiced (friends of the channel) and users. There are also IRC operators, which have global operator privelages (like global moderator) and can ban people, remove people etc from the network. There is also the option for private chat between 2 people and sending files etc...
The main thing is freedom, its a text based protocol and anyone can join a room and start chatting and making friends. Networks have grown with an entire infrastructure and staff, patrolling the network, helping users, proving services for room owners. A common windows client is mIRC, with popular networks being Dalnet, IRCnet .
It was invented 1990s and was massive 10 years ago, really up until a few years ago it was very big, but then hackers attacked many of the networks, and with messangers like MSN people stopped using it (and the novelty wore off for lots of people.) I used to be very involved with Chatnet until I went to University
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