Convore, Rebooting IRC, Brings Group Chat Into the Social Media Era

6/1/11Follow @wroush

Eighth in a series of profiles of Y Combinator Winter 2011 startups.

In an article last year called “10 Old Tech Ideas That Are New Again,” my colleague Greg Huang listed concepts such as group-buying sites and e-book readers that had their first tentative flowering back in the dot-com era or earlier and are now making a comeback, often with a new technological twist. Well, it may be time to add IRC to that list, thanks to Convore.

IRC or Internet Relay Chat is a real-time group discussion protocol that dates all the way back to 1988. It remains popular today in certain corners of computer culture—it’s estimated that about half a million around the world still visit IRC discussions or “channels.” But while IRC is simple in its presentation—just text in a window—it takes some technical skill to set up an IRC server, download an IRC client, or find an IRC channel that suits you, meaning that for the most part, only dedicated hackers go to the trouble.

And that’s what has created room for Convore. The San Francisco startup, one of 43 companies that participated in the Winter 2011 term at the Y Combinator venture incubator, offers a real-time, Web- and mobile-based group messaging tool that’s meant to combine the latest social media technologies with the best features of IRC. Anyone can sign up for Convore in a couple of steps, then either join or create a discussion group. Public discussions are organized around topics, but companies and organizations are also using Convore to set up private groups that function as free, always-on spaces for sharing updates or getting questions answered quickly.

One of the largest private groups is the Y Combinator group, where founders of YC-backed companies exchange advice about the thousands of decisions that go into starting a company, from picking investors to designing a logo. Several “YC W11″ founders have told me they started out using Convore as a courtesy—it’s customary for companies in the incubator to “dogfood” each others’ technologies—but kept using it out of need. Indeed, Convore got an unexpected boost in March when YC founder Paul Graham tweeted, “We’re trying to figure out why this YC batch did so well. One theory: they all used Convore.”

Convore co-founders (L to R) Eric Maguire, Leah Culver, and Eric Florenzano

If Convore’s ancestor, IRC, is so primitive and difficult to use, why has it survived so long? It may simply be the lack of an up-to-date alternative, says Leah Culver, Convore’s co-founder. “I think chat products have lagged behind,” she says. “They haven’t been updated for many, many years, especially around communities, topics, and groups. Pretty much everybody knows about one-to-one chat and how to use it, but the tools aren’t tailored for discussing things in groups.”

IRC has certain attractions, though, that Culver wanted to keep for Convore. For one thing, it provides a single, persistent place for users to gather, making it feel like a sort of high-tech clubhouse—in contrast to Twitter or Facebook, where conversations get scattered across many different software clients and online locations. “There aren’t that many places online where you can hang out and everyone has the same experience,” says Culver. “My experience on Facebook or Twitter is totally different from your experience. But if we are in an IRC room together, we can share that experience. I wanted to recreate that, and make it a little more free-form—you can say anything and ask anybody anything and you don’t need to have a directed purpose.”

If Culver’s name is familiar to you it may be because she previously co-founded Pownce, a 2007-era microblogging service that was frequently portrayed in the media as a Twitter rival. In reality, the two weren’t very similar—Pownce was built for … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Miko Linger

    Loved the article, i also liked the “10 Old Tech Ideas That Are New Again”

    Indeed chats in general are coming back.
    Not only as IRC oriented chats, but in many services that let one embed chats at their websites. Like rumbletalk.com , chatroll.com, parachat.com, “meebo me” and more.

    in addition there are tons of chats in the mobile industry…..that really make chats a way of leaving.

    One more thing, i loved the convore chat and i saw an interview with Leha, very impressive young lady !!!