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November 1996

Towards a Web Framework for Synthesis in Dialogue

Insight capture from the flow of conference interventions

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In some electronic conference situations there is a need to ensure that the sequence of input messages builds into a pattern of coherence. It is such a pattern which then represents the meaningful synthesis of exchanges between participants. At present many conferences suffer from inability to make much sense of the continuing flow which may contain many valuable insights that are easily lost. New participants may be obliged to read a large backlog of communications in order to develop a contextual understanding enabling them to contribute appropriately.

This raises the question of how to structure such a synthesis in practice without losing the value of a free-flowing exchange through 'heavy' facilitation. Many groupware packages are now being developed to facilitate collaborative exchange. The purpose of this note is to look at ways of using existing web facilities -- and others to be envisaged -- to respond to this challenge.

Web pages could be used in a non-conventional manner, as follows, by distinguishing different 'levels' (Levels 1 to N) of synthesis or coherence -- but without impeding the free-flow of contributions at the 'lowest' level (Level Z). Note that this approach could even be applied independently of any involvement (or knowledge) by contributors at Level Z. In the field of documentation, such such synthesizing functions are performed to some degree by indexers and writers of 'abstracts'. In many physical conferences they are performed by 'report' writers and compilers of 'communiqués'.

Web facilities allow for new approaches to these often arduous tasks of insight capture and communication of meaning to wider audiences, including the media, with other backgrounds. Perhaps of most importance, this Web-based approachoffers a means of avoiding the swamping of insight with messages of limited relevance -- many conferences effectively 'spam' themselves. The focus here is on gleaning and refining meaning from an essential ephemeral stream of messages.

As described below, the approach could be implemented without any further software development. It is possible that it could be integrated into use of existing packages. Its main requirement is in the discipline of working to elaborate 'higher' or more general levels of synthesis, or a broader pattern of coherence. The approach gives specific importance to this function, which is often neglected in conferences -- whether physical or electronic.

The resulting information structure respects many constraints of those with limited attention time, notably policy-makers, journalists, and those obliged to learn -- all of which yearn for 'one page' summaries suitably linked to levels of detail, if and when they are desired. The number of levels would depend on the complexity of the dialogue. Pages at higher levels might even be positioned as browser frames to provide immediate access to context. The possibility of emergent structure at ever higher levels (Level -1, etc) calls for further reflection.


Level 1: Home page for a specific dialogue

This page (norammly one only) would only contain current:

The single Level 1 page would be subject to continuing revision during the conference or dialogue. It reflects the current understanding of the ongoing dialogue as a whole, its purpose and results to date -- namely what new level of meaning it has brought about. Changes to the Level 1 page would only be made through a single moderator reflecting the sense of the conference as a whole. At the end of the dialogue, it is this page which would serve functions of both 'abstract' and consensus 'communique' -- to which links could immediately be made from elsewhere.

Note that one or more 'alternative' Level 1 pages could be produced if it was necessary to reflect the interpretations of unreconciled factions unwilling to have their views grouped together one a single compromise page.

Level 2: Theme2 home pages

Each of these pages (one for each Theme2) would only contain current:

Each such Level 2 page would be subject to continuing revision during the conference or dialogue. It reflects the current understanding of the ongoing dialogue relating to that Theme2 as a whole, its purpose and results to date -- namely what new level of meaning it has brought about. Changes to each such Level 2 page might only be made through a single moderator for that Theme2, reflecting the sense of the thematic dialogue as a whole. At the end of the dialogue on that Theme2, it is this page which would serve functions of both 'abstract' and consensus 'communique'. It is in effect the 'report back to the plenary' represented by the Level 1 page.
....

Level N: ThemeN home pages

Each of these pages (one for each ThemeN) would only contain current:

Each such Level N page would be subject to continuing revision during the conference or dialogue. It reflects the current understanding of the ongoing dialogue relating to that ThemeN as a whole, its purpose and results to date -- namely what new level of meaning it has brought about. Changes to each such Level N page might only be made through a single moderator for that ThemeN or be open to group modification. At the end of the dialogue on that ThemeN, it is this page which would serve functions of both 'abstract' and and consensus 'communique'. It is in effect the 'report back' to the next higher level represented by the corresponding Level N-1 page.

Level Z: Commentary message stream

Whereas the web pages described above would aim to carry any synthesis or coherence emerging from the message stream, at Level Z these messages would be carried in a conventional manner. Each new message would be added to the existing stack and would be accessed in the usual way -- possibly though a hyperlink on a Level Z-1 page carrying sender/subject/date information only.

A choice could be made between:

At this Level moderation and filtering would be limited, if used at all. Participants would be encouraged to insert hyperlinks to:

The general concern would be to abbreviate as much as possible the items in the message stream. Some Level Z messages might consist only of hyperlinks to position papers or documents elaborated in other contexts.

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