When IRC Goes Wrong: A Dick Wash Case Study

IRC is used somewhat widely in the standard college student community. Some classes even have IRC-hosted channels which yield benefits and risks for the professor(s) and students participating. At one end, a chatroom can provide a place for students to focus their ideas in a casual discussion, making the pressure of responding or asking for comments a lot less. At the other, extraneous concepts can quickly derail the entire thread and even bring the distraction into "RL," or Real Life for those of you who haven't used the Internet since Webcrawler.

Our Social Computing class hosts our own channel on SlashNET which is used in our labs to supplement discussion. The first class is the lecture, where we bandy about ideas and thoughts regarding aspects of social media. We discuss Groupware, MUDs, tagging, OpenSource, and many more. Our focus is breaking down papers dwelling on these subjects, papers that can sometimes get incredibly dreary or mind-numbing. Occasionally we'll have a speaker come in and discuss either what he does or what he's researched.

Thirty minutes afterward, the first section (which I belong to) has its lab. In the lab we create blogs, present our cool sites of the week, are assigned a write-up to E2 and so on. We all log on to our IRC channel and either talk about topics related to class or (more commonly) discuss the latest tech news or internet meme. Since the teaching assistant is also logged in as an admin, we have to be careful of what we post. For instance, I was once banned from the channel because I posted too many Omegle chats where I spam-trolled the unfortunate victim on the other end.

Today provided an odd insight into how IRC can sometimes distract users to the point where they burst out laughing in the real world and consequently disrupt the entire lab session. I'm talking about me (if you already hadn't guessed) and my unfortunate discovery of an alternate name for one of the speakers we had in our class the same day.

In class today we learned about tagging (tagging on Flickr, del.icio.us, etc). We learned what people most commonly tag and where tags most commonly occur. Our speaker for the day was a Richard Wash, a PhD candidate researching at the School of Information for the University of Michigan. He talked about social tagging and how it affects social media. Since I had a bit of an abdominal problem, I couldn't really contribute to the last half of the discussion; nevertheless, I got to meet Mr. Wash and discuss a little of social media before my intestines growled menacingly at me.

As we sat down (I sat down gingerly (and yes, I know you wanted to know that)) to lab, my thoughts drifted as they often do. I began thinking about our presenter, Rick Wash, at the same time one of the students took her turn to present her Cool Site of the Week.

"Rick Wash," I thought. "Rick Wash." And then it hit me, the fated turn of thought that would end up disrupting the classroom.

Dick Wash.


His name was Dick Wash. The hilarity of this was momentarily dulled as I absently posted to my IRC channel how unfortunate a name this man had. I was starting to type about his poor childhood when "Dick Wash" was processed by every student there. A few people giggled and I couldn't hold myself back any longer. I burst out laughing and then managed to contain myself. Well, for a few seconds anyway.

After my third guffaw, the affronted student asked if I was laughing at her (to which I hastily responded that I wasn't laughing at HER so much as my screen). This was rude any way someone put it, but then my gut had to spew out another laugh. I had now successfully completely derailed the class.

If IRC wasn't in evidence, would that stray thought have passed back through the recesses of my mind without eliciting laughter? Maybe. It'd have much more of an impact for me to continually read the words "Dick Wash" over and over to the point that my laughter could no longer be contained.

IRC is a risk. You have to be careful how you use it in class or how carefully it's moderated, or terrible accidents such as this might occur.