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

Example: iCites and online discussions

posted: May 8, 2003 9:42:41 PM

On the simplest level, iCites are lists where each item on the list links to some information, plus has some attributes assoicated with the link. These links can link to other iCites, or to any addressable information (e.g., URLs on the Internet).

Online discussions (i.e., in text) commonly take either the format of what are called conversations or of threaded discussions. In a conversation, each post or comment in the discussion follows linearly, usually in chronoligical order. An iCite can represent a conversation as a simple list where each item on the list links to each post or comment in the discussion. A summary list version of a simple discussion might look like:

  • Jay says: What did you think about the new X2 movie?
  • Shannon says: It was great, I saw it twice
  • Jonah says: Which X-men's powers are your favorites?
  • etc.

One big difference between an iCite and a discussion forum is that an iCite isn't tied to one server or one website or one environment where a forum is. I can create an iCite and join any combination of other sites into a discussion, simply by linking to them. So, for example, I can set up an iCite that defines as one conversation these two posts (both by me in this case) from two different sites:

I mentioned above that iCites have attributes associated with each link, and so obvious attributes from my examples include the name of the author of the post and a title and/or subject of the post. iCites have an extensible means of defining attributes that I will descibe in another example. But, one set of attributes that is standard to all iCites is access permissions, including moderation.

With access permissions and moderation, the creator of an iCite can define who is allowed to add or edit links to the iCite and who can moderate them. In this way, multiple people can contribute to an iCite, and, for example, a group of people could use an iCite as a kind of discussion forum that points to their own and other sites of interests.

Another standard attribute in iCites is a simple rating system for links. Because attributes are extensible, other rating systems can be used, but a simple one is included in the standard. This allows links to be rated from -1 to 5, with -1 meaning "I don't recommend this", 0 meaning "I didn't rate this", and 1 through 5 being positive recommendations from least to highest.

iCites are not meant to replace existing online forums. But, an iCite can be built into an online forum allowing for the new features, like:

  • linking identity across multiple forums and sites
  • joining discussions from more than one site into a single discussion
  • linking discussion topics across forums, blogs, and reference sites
  • mirroring portions of discussions on multiple sites

What gets interesting is when iCites link to another iCites. And, using the above example, if forums have built-in iCites and blogs have built-in iCites, and websites have built-in iCites, and people have identity iCites, a lot of interesting things can happen. Because each iCite provides a standard interface for the publication, subscription, querying, and aggregation of information, an iCite can appear not only as a summary list of links, but also display the full content of what is linked to.

As a hypothetical example, imagine a discussion that spans across multiple forums, and where additional commentary lives on mutliple blogs, and where multiple websites are referenced. An iCite that links to this discussion can aggregate all of the information across all of these sites into a single document. At the same time, the attributes of each link can be used to shape the aggregation--for example, the final document could be text-only or XML or only include the commentary or could include only the pieces rated 3 or higher by individuals whose ratings you rate 3 or higher, etc.!

I framed all of my examples using the conversation style discussion, but these can also be applied to threaded discussions. An iCite can represent threads in two ways: one having to do with attributes that I won't describe here, and the other (more obvious way) as a list of lists. In other words, each thread is its own iCite, and the whole discussion is an iCite that lists each thread. This method has no limit on the branching, and can be pictured like:

  • Jay says: What did you think about the new X2 movie?
    • Shannon says: It was great, I saw it twice
    • Jonah says: I liked it even better than the first
    • Jay says: me too.
  • Jonah says: Which X-men's powers are your favorites?
    • Sean says: I think Magneto is best
      • Jonah says: yeah, but he is evil. what about the good guys?
        • Shannon says: I can't believe you are talking about this!
    • Jay says: you guys should check out the X2 site

Finally, every iCite registers with a DNS-like service called iCNS that stores minimum-optimum information about the iCites existence and location. One result of this that is beneficial to online discussions is that, when an iCite that defines discussions moves to a new URL, its new location is registered in the iCNS. Any site linking to this iCite can check the iCNS index to find its new location. Additionally, all iCites that directly link to the moved iCite are automatically notified of the address change, and, if desirable, they can authenticate the address change against the iCNS registry.

Note: future versions of this example will include live iCite examples, tips and tricks, how to's.

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