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news and thoughts on and around the development of the iCite net
by Jay Fienberg

iCites as a way of being social online

posted: May 31, 2003 7:05:25 PM

When I interact with websites that I am not building myself, at most, I can fill out an online form and post some information to that site. I mean, I can't really add features to the website, I can only add basically data.

Wiki sites probably have the most advanced features for allowing site visitors to modify the features of the website. Because of this, they are regarded as an example of social software because many people can collaborate to create a Wiki. With Wikis, a site visitor can create new pages on the site, and modify existing pages.

Wikis, however social they are in the sense that people do collaborate, have not been adopted as vehicles for personal expression and perspective. Rather, Wikis tend to best express collective perspectives and/or approaches towards the features of the site.

With most websites not being Wikis, and even with Wikis, people who wish to add features or functionality to what they find on websites often end-up building their own websites to express those features. Blogs are probably the ultimate expression of this in that they tend towards a totally individual personal expression.

Between websites, Wikis, and blogs, one's interactions online are somewhat limited to the following modes (oversimplified):

  • visit a website and register some low-level info in the web server log
  • add to a website data in the structure requested by the site creator (e.g., registration info)
  • add to a website unstructured data or narrative information (e.g., a comment)
  • add a new page to the website with unstructured data (e.g., on a Wiki)
  • add to your own blog data in the structure you want (or unstructured information), and link to a website (that perhaps has trackback)
  • build structured information into your own website
  • exchange unstructured information via email
  • exchange unstructured information via chat / IM

All of these modes have their uses and people find lots of good things in these interactions. I personally enjoy a lot of social connection online through these types of interactions (e.g., through blogs, forums, Wikis, and websites with features personalized for my interests).

What the iCite net looks to do is extend these basic forms of interaction online. iCites will allow people to create packages of information and lists of those packages, both of which carry a great deal of semantic richness and functionality potential.

These packages and lists can be exchanged in a number of different ways, and, in particular, they can be shared. A creator of an iCite can add their iCite to someone else's iCite, or vice versa, or both.

Right now, whatever information I add to a website usually stays locked in that website—even locked away from my access or modification sometimes. Alternatively, I can post on my blog, where I have control over my access, and add a link to it on another website. With iCites, I can add to another iCite and use what I add on an iCite of my own, or I can add to my iCite and let others use it on their own iCites. What I create on an iCite—what can be shared, can be structured and can contain a lot of (semantic) meaning and functionality.

As an example, yesterday I mentioned Don Park's ideas in his Blog Comments, Images, and Audio. From the perspective of what I am talking about here, I see adding audio and images as blog comments as representing extending both the data types and the functionality of what is commonly supported by blog comment mechanisms.

True, images and audio can be represented by text links, and comments are just text, so this is probably not a big stretch. But, conceptually, the (semantic) meaning of a text comment is very different than the meaning of a URI linking to a picture. And, similarly, the functionality of showing a list of text comments and showing a gallery of images is, at least informationally, very different.

With an iCite expressed blog entry, what one does is say effectively: "add whatever functions and features you want to my blog entry". The blog iCite owner can choose to include any or all these functions and features in the blog entry, and the creator of any functionality or feature can choose to construct those on their own iCite. The functions and features can be shared.

As an example, if I were to post about what a nice day it is today in San Francisco, someone else or many other people could add to my post audio, video, images, essays, highly structured meteorological data—whatever. In fact, they could think about it like they were adding my post to their images, etc.

Unlike most common forms of interaction online, these iCite interactions themselves are in the form of "packages" that others can use. The relationship between my post and a particular audio that someone links to it can become part of something else altogether— it is not locked into the iCite in which it, or any part of it, is created.

Blogs, via RSS feeds, are the closest example of this kind of "packaging". With iCites, every piece is packaged and the feeds (whether in RSS or some other format) are not limited to a a concept like "most recent posts".

An interaction like browsing an iCite can potentially include, to use Don's idea, adding an image of yourself to that iCite indicating that you visited there at a certain time, from a certain place—maybe also giving a "thumbs up". Because iCites can express blogs, discussion forums, reference websites, and other more personal forms of information like email, contact address books, and personal documents, iCites should enable each format to extend the others.

The social aspect of all of this is that you will be able to offer your participation with others in richer ways. You can build online resources for yourself and share them with others, or build online resource with others and use them yourself. (In other words, you can build a part that gets used in a larger whole, or you can build a larger whole and extract a part.)

Because this kind of sharing is built-in to the iCite net, rather than this being a matter of copy-and-paste, these collaborations become building blocks that others may use as well. And, altogether, these shared uses should represent the creation and enriching of shared contexts for social interaction.

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