The WEB and newsgroups from Xmosaic. (LONG DISCUSSION)

Rob Harper Rob.Harper at
Tue Jun 29 07:00:10 EST 1993

>Xref: funic comp.infosystems.www:524 news.future:1854 comp.infosystems.wais:1441 comp.mail.mime:1217 comp.multimedia:7277
>Newsgroups: comp.infosystems.www,news.future,comp.infosystems.wais,comp.mail.mime,comp.multimedia
>Path: funic!!!uunet!mcsun!dxcern!!roeber
>From: roeber at (Frederick Roeber)
>Subject: Usenet News meets The Web: Ideas for the Future
>Message-ID: <1993Jun29.110041.1 at>
>Followup-To: news.future,comp.infosystems.www
>Summary: I present suggestions on how to supplement news with multimedia, finer selection criteria, and uniform resource access.
>Keywords: www usenet news wais mime multimedia
>Sender: news at (USENET News System)
>Reply-To: roeber at
>Organization: CERN -- European Organization for Nuclear Research
>Date: Tue, 29 Jun 1993 10:00:41 GMT
>Lines: 419

   (Note: this is a stripped version of the original html (hypertext
   markup language) version.  The original is available on-line at .  Webusers can select
   <a href=""> *here* </a>.)


Several months ago my frustration with existing newsreading software
got to the point that I began writing my own.  At about that time, I
discovered Mosaic and started using the World Wide Web.  I quickly
realized that the Web was the way to go, and started over, this time
working on an nntp-to-html gateway.

As I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that it would be
worthwhile to re-evaluate systems like news and mailing lists in light
of newer systems, like wais and the web.  I eagerly awaited the
creation of comp.infosystems.www, as a location to bring up this

Unfortunately, just as ciw was created, an onslaught of real work
interfered,  and I had to put my thoughts on the back burner.  But
then Mosaic's group annotation system was activated with the
announcement of a experimental public-access "group" annotation
server.  The flurry of activity prompted several people to start
musing about the web and news, and I thought I should organize my
thoughts and present them.

Before I begin, I want to assure the folks coming from the usenet side
of  things that I am *not* out to destroy or mutate the news system, 
particularly "out from under" the existing users.  In the proposals at
the end of this, I have tried to suggest a system which will augment
the existing system with a minimum of interference for those who do
not wish to be involved. But it will allow growth in new directions,
and I would hope that eventually most users would chose to adopt some
or all of the additional functionality.

Current Systems
First I would like to briefly discuss some of the existing systems and
projects; what they try to do, and some of their advantages and

Mailing Lists
These were about the first "conferencing" systems.  With today's
server software (e.g., LISTSERV), they are easy to set up, and can be
created quickly. They are most ideal for small, scattered groups, and
low traffic.  The mail is  only sent to those who ask for it, it is
usually fairly direct and fast, and  for people who use e.g., biff,
there is a built-in alert mechanism.  Also, since mail is usually the
first thing people get working on a newly-networked computer, it is
the most availalble.  Disadvanges include nonscalability: as  the list
grows large, the mailing hosts and "exploders" get heavily loaded.  As
traffic goes up, the users' disk quotas vanish.  Users can't just
"stop  reading," they have to signoff, this is sometimes not
straightforward  (especially where exploders are used).  Some mailing
lists have other  channels associated, for instance for the
distribution of software.  Many are automatically archived by the
server daemon.  With the advent of MIME, they  are perhaps the first
wide-scale multimedia-capable conferencing method.

Usenet News
As mailing lists grew unmanagable, usenet news was created to address
the problems of load and traffic.  The flood-fill method of
distribution provides for a fairly fast transmission, but with a
distributed load and (in multiply- connected areas) a resistance to
network outages.  The built-in expiry mechanism is essential.  There
are actually few overt problems with the current usenet scheme, though
there are some areas of concern.  There is some multimedia (e.g.,, but it's not generally standard or
automatic.  The "real" usenet heirarchies have a strict procedure for
the creating of a group, which provides a means of control, but the
alt heirarchy provides a place for rapid reaction, as well as more
casual gatherings.  (Though it suffers a bit from a lack of removing
old groups: alt.desert-storm lingers on at my site, empty.)  There is
the problem of authenticity; forged posts (especially to moderated
groups) and bogus cancel messages are becoming more common.  Perhaps
the item of most concern is the increase in traffic: popular
unmoderated groups get so much traffic they are difficult to read;
this leads to an increased demand for moderated groups, but the
increase in traffic makes moderation  almost a full-time job (see
comp.dcom.telecom or  rec.humor.funny).  There are some experiments
with more intelligent news-selecting software, but nothing on a large
scale.  On the flip side of moderation, they can't please everybody
(see the perennial complaints  about rec.humor.funny, or the ARMM
controversy). Another problem stems from one of the critical
advantages: the expiration of articles.  This "lack of memory" leads
to the same issues being discussed over and over again, which in turn
leads to FAQs and other periodically posted items.  I can't believe
that repeatedly posting the same thing over and over is an efficient
means of distributing information.  Usenet is fairly timely, and for
those who wish there are news programs which will feep the user upon
arrival of messages.

Smarter newsreaders
The advantage of the "user-agent" approach is that anyone can write
their own newsreader.  This has resulted in newsreaders which do more
advanced article selection and grouping.  The "Usenet Interface 
Project" is working towards schemes for filtering, rating, and 
annotating news.

Anonymous FTP and Archie
Not really a "conferencing" system, aftp is more suited towards the
long-term storage of references and resources.  Archie provides a
global searching facility.  The main problems are the high loads on
the few archie servers and on the popular ftp sites.

The big feature of WAIS is the smart searching capability.

The World Wide Web
The youngest of the popular protocols.  It started with basically two
ideas: A common addressing scheme for everything -- anonymous ftp,
wais, gopher,  news, etc.  (the addresses are URLs, for Uniform
Resource Locators). Hypertext, using this addressing scheme. With the
creation of the Mosaic web browser (a browser is to the web what a
newsreader is to usenet), the web rapidly moved from hypertext to
"hypermedia." It now supports images, movies, sound, arbitrary
binaries, etc.  Because by definition everything already available (by
ftp, etc.) is "on the web," the project was jump-started past critical

Web Annotations
Since the very early versions, the Mosaic web browser has had the
ability to create "personal annotations" -- per-user "jottings in the
margins."  These are stored in the user's home directory, indexed by
URL.  At some point, there was added a latent "group annotation"
facility, a way for a workgroup or organization to share notes. 
(There is also the suggestion of a "public annotation," but this has
not been implemented yet.)  A little while ago, as an experiment the
authors of Mosaic announced a "public" group annotation server.  It
was wildly successful.  Anything on the web can be annotated, so
comments can be placed directly at the point of interest.  Since
annotations can themselves be annotated, this natural followup
mechanism lead to a natural threading of the ensuing discussions.  Let
me quickly note that the use of the annotation server is strictly
voluntary -- if a user does not specifically set the point his browser
at the server, he will never be bothered by what he may consider
net.graffitti.  Since the annotations are hypertext, they can contain
pointers to related resources or discussions.  Clearly, this server
mechanism does not scale to full public use, but that is one of the
things I wish to address.


Public annotations
For public annotations, we need a system with a distributed load, an
expiry mechanism, and a fairly robust distribution system.  In short,
we need NNTP. So what I would suggest is the trial creation of a
newsgroup, say alt.web.annotations.  A public annotation would be made
by posting an article.  An additional header, say "X-annotated-URLs:"
would list the document(s) annotated.  The expiry system can be used
"out of the box" --  presumably, if any comments were good enough to
keep, the author of the  original document would put in a static
pointer.  It is important to also have in each posting/annotation a
pointer to this top document, so sub-annotations (followups) don't get
orphaned when the parents expire.  Further details can be hashed out
as we discuss implementation (e.g., we need a clear way of "signing" a
document with an e-mail address (we need this anyway) so a browser can
easily e-mail the author).

Newsgroup URLs
Many newsgroups have a set of periodically posted articles.  It would
be nice if each newsgroup had associated with it a URL pointing to
whatever resources were associated with the group -- the FAQ, or the
archives, or a "home page" with links to these other associated and
related resources.  Notice that each newsgroup can have a title
associated with it: the 'LIST NEWSGROUPS' nntp command provides the
names.  I think an elegant, though probably unpopular, way of doing
the association would be to allow this title to be either a URL or an
html-style anchored title. This home page would then describe the
group, with pointers to the charter, the FAQ, the archives, etc.

I suspect that this might be unpopular, since it is a change visible
to the  uninterested.  As an alternative, I'd propose a mechanism
built-in to the  nntp-html gateway code.

NNTP to HTML gateway
I think we'll need to write a companion gateway, that can sit next to
the nntp server and spit out html.  (I suppose we could unite the two,
and just make a replacement server).  This nntp-html gateway can
present newsgroups as "home pages" that can be publi

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