[The original version of this paper was composed and circulated in the mid 1980s when the ideas it proposed were not yet feasible. I have revised it somewhat to bring it up to date as regards the Internet, the Windows operating system, etc.]
ACTIVE READING HYPERTEXT FOR COMPUTER CONFERENCING
by Andrew Feenberg
"I have always imagined the information space as something to which everyone has immediate and intuitive access, and not just to browse, but to create."
1. The Internet is often praised for creating a virtual space of dialogic interaction for small groups of the sort that do most of the learning, working, and leisure activities in our society. It is true that educational programs and government and corporate projects can all be located on the Internet, and online communities proliferate dedicated to hobbies, self-help, and political discussion and activism. Asynchronous written discussion is a feature of all these online activities. In fact, in the absence of physical locale and presence, the life of online groups consists essentially in such discussion.
The minimum requirement of dialogic interaction is a willingness to listen and an ability to understand the ideas of another. This is less common than one would like to believe. In face-to-face settings, the fast pace of discussion and problems of time sharing constitute major obstacles. We cherish those rare individuals who can sum up the discussion periodically, recalling what has been said and pointing out the similarities and differences between the various ideas that have been brought up. Such interventions put participants in touch with each others ideas and shape a consensus.
This summarizing activity, called "weaving" in online fora, is considerably easier on the Internet where texts are available for retrieval and study and competition for air time is obviated by the asynchronous character of the discussions. One would think that given its importance weaving would be well supported by Internet applications, but in fact this is not the case. Consider, for example, a very simple dialogic tool available to users of common email clients. In most such programs one can interpolate comments in the body of a received message and send it back to its original author. Where context and comment follow closely there is a better chance of real mutual understanding. But no such tool exists for online groups. The weaver faces a mass of documents sent by many different authors in which are embedded many remarks worthy of comment, but there is no easy way to get them all into a writing pad to prepare a synthesis and reply.
Obviously, for sophisticated users weaving poses no technical challenge, and even ordinary users can learn to click back and forth between archive, clipboard, and a writing application of some sort. But this clumsy procedure will never be widely used. As so often in the world of consumer computing, convenience determines practice. (To paraphrase Hegel, "The convenient is the real, and the real is the convenient.") Our task in designing an interface is to make what is technically possible convenient and obvious to support the type of practice we wish to encourage. This may limit the flexibility of the application, but if it performs its essential functions well, that is a small price of pay for the gain in user friendliness.
2. This proposal describes a plan for accomplishing these goals by employing hypertext to enhance computer conferencing. There has been much discussion of the desirability of combining these two applications, but so far no product has achieved the seamless merging of their functionalities. This proposal suggests a new way of thinking about the problem based on the idea of "active reading." Active reading is an archiving technique that uses hypertext to make computer conferencing files accessible for later review according to user selected keywords. The purpose of this technique is to facilitate access to the conferencing archive, a currently very much underused feature because of the clumsiness of existing search and retrieval systems. Once access is made easier, users will be encouraged to study the archive and to use it for various purposes, including the construction of weaving comments that enhance interaction and the exchange of ideas.
3. The basic technical idea has three main
parts, a composition interface, an active reading interface, and a filing
interface. Although I will describe the features of an offline reader, they
should also be implemented on the host (for example in Java), with results
stored in each users profile. In this way, users can work from anywhere
and, when connected from their own computer, enjoy the greater speed and
reliability of local control of data. In most countries, minute charges for
telephone connections over the Internet make it especially important to be
able to compose offline.
A. The Composition Interface: The program can be designed to resemble familiar browser software or can operate in a browser. It includes an off-line reader that has panels for reading and writing. The scrolling display in the reading panel includes the whole archive and can be resorted according to criteria such as author, date, theme. Items selected in the reader window can be dragged and dropped to the composition panel. Messages can be sent directly from the writing panel to the conference.
B. The Active Reading Interface: The user downloads waiting items, which are added to a locally stored mirror image of the on-line archive. When the user opens the downloaded file (by default at the first unseen item), a narrow window opens along the side of the reader containing a list of keywords. These may be selected by both the conference moderator and the user. They may include topics, priority status, due dates, and so on. The user can easily add more headings to the list while reading. As the user reads the conference, he or she can at any time select a word at the beginning of a section of text of special interest. Then, clicking on a keyword, the user adds the text to a stack. Later retrieval of stacks brings up the marked word toward the top of the screen, surrounded by the contextualizing text in which it was originally found. Indexes can be mapped visually on screen and exchanged on-line among users with the same software.
C. The Filing Interface: A docking window contains a tree display similar to Explorer to which notes and selected passages in the Reading and Writing windows can be dragged and dropped. Items can be dragged and dropped from the File box to the composition window for easy re-use.
4. Computer conferencing is a communication medium of a new type, for the first time making possible the inexpensive, continuous electronic mediation of small group activity. Computer conferencing is most often used in its classic form in loosely structured groupware environments such as Lotus Notes and in online educational software designed to manage group discussion. Newsgroups and listserves on the Internet have features that resemble computer conferencing to one degree or another. Recently, conferencing tools have been offered for online communities on Internet portals.
The reason for the persistent interest in this new way of communicating has much to do with the pace with which messages can be exchanged, almost as fast as spoken discourse yet with enough time delay for reflection and serious consideration of the ideas of others. This makes it possible to use computer communications to manage a project, teach a class, exchange social support and information, and many other activities that formerly could only be effective in a face-to-face setting.
But because computer conferencing produces a permanent archive containing the full content of on-line discussions, it also alters the relation of small groups to their own history. One of the distinguishing features of social groups is the way in which they define and use their own past. Some groups review their past work together periodically, to write reports or to verify a learning process. Others need to refer to their past decisions quickly in a crisis, or to document their activities for outsiders. To each of these types of groups could be ascribed a different functional memory, a different type of retrieval system. Clearly, anything that improved access to the group past would be a desirable enhancement of computer conferencing.
Educational conferences often make a particularly creative use of the archive through weaving comments which summarize the state of the discussion, compare and contrast the various ideas expressed over a definite time period, and launch the discussion into a new phase on the basis of what has been achieved. Weaving comments can be used by teachers to enhance dialogue among students and to advance the agenda of the course. Students can be assigned to write weaving comments, an excellent challenge to their ability to engage with the ideas of others. The dialogic potential of online education reaches its highest degree through the frequent use of weaving comments. Currently, weaving comments are most often prepared by marking up printouts, a laborious procedure, but necessary in the absence of any easy way of working with the archive online. An interface which favored weaving would encourage dialogic interaction in educational conferencing.
5. Computer conferencing programs can be configured to provide for a wide variety of retrieval needs. The main functionalities employed for this purpose are topical subdivision of conferences, thematic trees based on keywords and search programs. There is a fundamental difference between the first of these methods and the other two since topical subdivision is a conference architecture that intervenes at the stage of the production of the conference, while thematic trees and search programs intervene ex post facto, in the retrieval phase, and are compatible with any conference architecture. The active reading interface proposed here is of the second type. There are several reasons to prefer this ex post facto approach.
Conference architecture implies a group sociology of some sort. Originally, conferencing systems were either group-centered or topic-centered. Group-centered systems promoted the cohesion of a stable group around a common multi-threaded discussion, the topic of which evolved over time. Topic-centered systems, on the other hand, organized shifting groups of participants around the topics under discussion, occasionally forcing members to branch off to new conferences to discuss new issues. These different software structures reflected contrasting views about how best to file or classify on-line texts: in terms of a group process from which the text emanates and to which it contributes, or by subject which, presumably, will determine interest in the text whatever its source.
Users of early conferencing systems experience the disadvantages of both these approaches. Group-centered structures sometimes bore users with masses of material on subjects in which they are uninterested. Recovering relevant past discussions from the archive is difficult due to the lack of topical subdivision of the conference. But topic-centered structures can be so fragmenting for the group that it is unable to work together. Users become frustrated by the difficulty of placing their comments in the right conference, and by artificial distinctions that prevent them from commenting on several related topics at the same time.
Newer Conferencing programs or their equivalent on the World Wide Web often permit users to rearrange the material in the archive by date issued or thread. The dilemma is apparently overcome. But anyone who has tried to find items of interest in a newsgroup by relying on threads knows how difficult it is. Keywording by authors is unreliable. For the most part these new version of conferencing are operated as group-centered systems.
6. These problems suggest that the two temporal dimensions of the conferencing environment, its present and its past, are not easily reconciled.
--The present is the moment of production in which interest must be sustained through an advancing argument or encounter. Topical pertinence is more or less relevant to this process depending on the type of group involved, e.g. more in the case of project-management, less in a class. But in no case should topicality be allowed to become excessively confining or else production breaks down as synergies and contacts are blocked.
--The past is a stored archive of text which is more or less usable depending on how rationally it is structured. A very high degree of rationality is desirable here, far higher than anything that would be tolerated by users in the production mode. Thus a discussion taking place in a single conference on-line might be accessible in archival form only when the items are classed according to 20 or 30 different index heads. In many cases, to convert each of those heads into a separate conference would overwhelm users and prevent them from producing the conference in the first place. For this reason, topic-centered systems rarely supply an archive that is immediately usable for rapid retrieval of relevant information.
The tension between production and retrieval appears to be resolved by separating the tasks completely. Then one can form conferences in whatever mode best facilitates the work of the group without worrying about the impact on the shape of the archive. This is the rationale for relying primarily on thematic trees and search programs. But as noted above, keywording by authors is often incomplete or confusing, and search programs can be slow and cumbersome, discouraging users from seeking information except under extraordinary pressure. In fact, one gets the impression from talking to users that the archiving functionality of conferencing is a much overrated and underused feature of the systems, rarely accessed by the average user.
The difficulty is a part of the heritage of computer conferencing, which was created on the traditional timesharing model of networking in which users access an intelligent host with a dumb terminal. These designs persist even today, when users have long since abandoned dumb terminals for powerful microcomputers. In todays distributed systems, many problems of network design can be resolved, including the contradiction between production and retrieval.
The rather primitive techniques of thematic association and search that used to be available on host computers can be supplemented by sophisticated hypertextual filing methods. These methods operate at high speeds and use windowing techniques that are familiar and easy to master. With these techniques, it is now possible to integrate rational archiving with normal reading to yield a powerful new type of active reading process instead of separating archiving off as a burdensome secondary activity.
7. There are several additional advantages of the hypertextual approach. The moderator of the conference can download to each user a preliminary index containing his or her own idea of the main topics likely to be discussed. The moderator can keyword his or her own comments and send the keyword structure with the comments. As users supplement this list with their own keywords, they objectify their personal conceptual map of the conference. These maps can be exchanged, graphically displayed in various forms, and compared for a variety of purposes. Educational applications are obvious since the students' acuity of understanding and observation is refined and tested through the development of the conceptual tools for classifying the matter of the virtual classroom discussion and writing weaving comments based on the archive.
Moderators or other regular participants can easily archive materials for later re-use, greatly simplifying repetitive online activities. This is particularly important for teachers in educational applications who may repeat the same course many times. The most important texts can be re-used, more or less modified, in each iteration of the class because it can be stored easily and accessibly. The most commonly heard complaint of online instructors is thus addressed: the excessive time requirements of teaching online as compared to face-to-face.
In addition, time dependent operations such as promises and delivery dates can be archived under special headings and linked to a calendar function on the microcomputer. Important commitments which tend to be lost in the mass of text in the archive can be highlighted as the microcomputer delivers timely reminders. This feature is particularly useful for action oriented conferences such as project management.
8. The world of computer mediated communications is increasingly split into two very different wings characterized by very different degrees of structure. Computer conferencing continues to offer fairly unstructured discussion environments, while newer collaborative technologies offer highly structured work environments. But the separation of discussion from work is increasingly artificial in modern industrial societies. All significant work involves some measure of deliberation insofar as objectives need to be fixed and unexpected breakdowns dealt with. And discussion itself becomes a kind of work in a "learning society" and as such ought to be approached differently from throwaway verbal chatter.
In the design of their early CSCW software, Winograd and Flores distinguished between "conversations for possibilities," oriented toward articulating background assumptions and goals, and "conversations for action," oriented toward achieving specific work objectives. Their program, called "The Coordinator," supported both types of "conversations" in an unstructured discussion space and a highly structured workspace. The full integration of these two functional environments might be achieved with an active reading interface.
The hypertext archive of conversations for possibilities would be accessible to the users when they passed on to the conversations for action decided on in their discussions. At moments of breakdown, disorientation or disagreement, they would be able to refer back to the discussions in which the rationale for their actions was laid down. Promises and commitments first offered in the course of free discussion could be automatically converted by the hypertextual interface into the forms of the action system. Thus the earliest involvements growing out of the discussion would not be lost in the prehistory of the ensuing group activity.
9. Computer conferencing is still under construction. Its greatest unharnessed potential is its archiving capability. This proposal has suggested a plan for harnessing that potential through the integration of hypertext and conferencing. Here are the main functionalities of the "Textweaver" active reading interface:
A system for mirroring the online conference locally and pulling up unread items by default for reading with each download
An offline reader with two panels, one for reading downloaded conferences and one for writing responses
An easy way to construct a personal keyword list
The keywords appear in a vertical window docked next to the reader or browser
Keywords can (but need not) be arranged in hierarchies
Double clicking on a word in the reader and clicking on a keyword creates a link
Multiple keywords can be assigned a single item
Double clicking on a keyword initiates a review which allows the reader to skip through the conference by keyworded sentences or blocks
Each keyworded word is tagged with a post-it note that contains the keyword and that can be edited
A print function allows the reader to print out keyworded screens selected by keyword
A vertical window docked on the opposite side of the reader from the keyword list contains file headings arranged like the Windows Explorer
An easy way to add folders to the file cabinet
Items can be filed by drag and drop either from the reading or the writing panel
Items can be dragged and dropped from the
file cabinet to the writing window for revision and sending
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