Masthead CMC Magazine / May 1, 1996

Creating Web Communities

by Damon A. Chaplin

[]Strom identifies the need to build a community.

[]December calls for more sophisticated tools to support publication communities.

Isn't it about time there was some decent support for communities on the Web? Wouldn't it be nice if a community could gather together and collectively create an evolving pool of knowledge, on anything ranging from handy hints for using the office word-processor to supporting the people of Tibet in their struggle for freedom?

Of course, there are a number of technologies which already provide some support for this idea. Group communication systems such as Usenet and mailing lists do enable communities to discuss current issues and problems, even producing quite useful Frequently Asked Questions lists and the like. But much of the useful information thrown up in discussions is lost, or only available by searching through message archives. And the Web, FTP archives, Gopher and WAIS contain areas devoted to particular subjects, yet remain relatively static, and lack much of the sense of community which the discussion systems provide.

I am currently developing a prototype system, Axis, which aims to integrate these two technologies, and thus hopefully be a step towards creating Web communities.

Overview of Axis

Axis is divided into a number of topics, each covering a particular subject area, just like Usenet's newsgroups. Each topic is situated at a particular Web site, but any number of topics may be distributed across the Web. Lists of topics are available to help people find those that interest them.

Each topic consists primarily of a --bulletin board and a knowledge base. The bulletin board is used for group discussion, and the knowledge base is used to store the evolving pool of knowledge of the group.

For example, one topic may be on Shell Oil's activities in Nigeria. Environmentalists and other do-gooders from all over the world could discuss allegations against Shell using the bulletin board, proposing actions to be carried out by grassroots organizations world-wide, and keep any useful information in the knowledge base to be browsed by anyone on the Internet and used for campaigning.

Though Axis could be used for many other activities besides environmental campaigning. It is currently being used here at Lancaster University as an aid in three Computer Science courses. The knowledge bases contain information such as lecture slides, coursework, example solutions, reading material (including links to other information on the Internet), and programming hints, while the bulletin boards are used to discuss any of the above or any other problems which the students have.

Axis allows for many types of communities. For example, in a help desk or system administration situation the ^access control may be fairly strict, allowing anyone to browse the topic and post messages to the bulletin board, yet the organization and maintenance of the knowledge base is carried out by the help desk staff or system administrators. In a more cooperative setting, for example within a group of researchers, all members of the group may have access to all functions in the topic.

You might like to see Axis itself at its home page: Axis Home Page

You can also get the Source Code for Axis, if you want to install it at your own site. But you need to have NCSA's Web server and the Perl language to run it (both freely available). [TOC]


  • Yankemovic, B. & Conklin, J. (1990). Report on a Development Project Use of an Issue-Based Information System. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW '90). Los Angeles: ACM Press, 566-579.

Damon Chaplin ( studying for a PhD in Community Memory at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. He had graduated in Computer Science at Warwick University, UK in 1990 and spent two years at Liverpool University working on a collaborative hypertext authoring system before going to Lancaster.

Copyright © 1996 by Damon A. Chaplin. All Rights Reserved.

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