(As you read, you may follow along with the Adobe Flash supplement)


The Internet is an opportunity for people to interact however they desire. Some desire to share pictures and videos. Some desire to invent lolmemes. I desire to engage in intelligent conversation. In an ideal world, I could join the “Brain Chain” discussion board and come to Copernican revelations with other thinkers of the highest caliber from around the world. Unfortunately the world is not ideal.

As we had discussed earlier in the session, bringing bright minds together with the hopes that they will come to profound realizations doesn’t really work. You would think that a campus of champions would come together to breed a generation of wisdom. Instead they collectively gripe about the greasiness of their food. Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer articulate this problem pretty clearly. “In the most carefully constructed experiment under the most carefully controlled conditions, the organism will do whatever it damn well pleases.” You can bring people together and even tell them what to talk about, but the will of the individual takes over in the end.

This is a problem for any online discussion board that wants to debate intelligently about the world. If an online discussion board is unregulated and open to the public it is likely to suffer from massive idiocy. Yet regulating the discussion board would be laborious, and privatizing it would limit its amount of perspective. The in.genio.us project is a quest for the best of both worlds: creating an effective and self-regulating online forum for intelligent conversation. In this presentation, I will lay out the overarching aspects of this new forum model which I have divided into three main categories: identity, constraints and reciprocity.


It is characteristic of the Internet to make opaque your identity. With the exception of the IP address[i], users generally start their Internet experiences with a blank slate. They have no faces, no histories, no identities. They are anonymous, until they themselves fill in their identity by registering usernames, uploading pictures and videos and writing up biographies. Even then, when they have disclosed themselves on one website, they can still be just as anonymous as a user on another website. Web 2.0[ii] may help with this problem by aggregating multiple websites, but as long as there is no centralized identity per person there will be no panacea for anonymity.

Anonymity is a problem because it allows users to cause chaos if they desire. The lack of identity can relieve inhibitions and encourage users to say whatever is on their minds; in a sense, users become intoxicated. If nobody knows who you are, what does it matter if you cuss somebody out or spew out racial slurs? Anonymity allows animosity. Creating identities on the Internet is a way to humanize its users and to ensure their integrity. We don’t want to centralize our identities throughout the whole Internet, so we’ll have to set up an identity creating system within the framework of our new forum model.

One of the simplest ways of forming identities is by creating a unique and appropriate aesthetic for the website. A website that is sleek and professional will make contributors feel they are part of something sleek and professional. A website that is quirky and odd will make users feel a bit more casual. Giving the website an identity will give users something to conform to, like a dress code. At your job, you wear professional clothes to remind each other to get stuff done. With your friends, you wear causal clothes to remind each other to chill out. Give the website a dress code to tell users what do to, which for in.genio.us would be tones of sophistication and humility.

Newsvine Code of HonorCreating a code of honor is a way to form identity as well as a social contract. The Honor Code here at UMW exists not just as a reminder to do our own work; it exists within our culture. From convocation to commencement, the code becomes a part of every student. Its cultural impact is evident in the title a popular UMW Facebook group, “Yeah Your School Has a Football Team, But We Have the Honor Code”. Newsvine also adheres to a code of honor, symbolized by a green shield, that all users must pledge to upon registration. The effect of an honor code is close to immeasurable, but given its symbolic intensity, it deserves critical consideration for being implemented into our new forum model.

But the most important aspect of identity to consider is reputation. Reputation gives users a goal. A user can develop a reputation for uploading the most interesting videos on YouTube, or for creating the most expressive art on deviantART, or for writing the most informative articles on Newsvine. Attention needs to be given to how exactly a website’s reputation system works because it will determine how users will use or abuse the website to achieve their egotistic goals.

Measuring reputationReputation is most accurately measured when measuring the collective appreciation of a user, not the activity of a user. Consider the post counter feature of many forums. With every post the user submits, the post counter increases by one. And as posts are rarely deleted, the post counter almost never decreases. The appreciation of a user, however, is constantly subject to change. A user might enter a forum and bestow valuable wisdom, then several months later might unexpectedly start flaming race or religion. But prejudice wouldn’t matter to a user with a million posts when post counter is measuring reputation, because recognition and veteranship would be attained only through the act of posting.

To shift the motivations of our users, we must measure reputation through appreciation. This is trickier because appreciation is subjective, but one possibility would be to have a follower counter instead of a post counter. Generate an RSS[iii] feed that keeps track of the contributions of a user and keep track of how many other users subscribe to the feed. This is an objective way to measure a subjective concept. If a user is contributing to a forum in such a way that the community appreciates, then theoretically more users would subscribe to that feed to receive updates. Detestable users should theoretically have no followers. Thus the quality of contributions, a vital aspect to our project, would be protected.

With reputation focused on the value, rather than the number, of contributions, an online community would experience less spam, trolling and flaming and more innovation, care and productivity even if the motives behind the contributions are egoistic. In the case of in.genio.us, egoism and status become a catalyst not for trifles but for knowledge.

Newsvine Vineacity

Newsvine has a noticeably effective way of measuring reputation. Their goal-based system measures the activity and appreciation of users in six unique steps. The “Random Act of Vineness” is interesting in that it is a reward bestowed by the editors at Newsvine; however this would not be in the best interest of in.genio.us which seeks to self-regulate without editors. Still, a blossoming “Vineacity” is not easy to attain. Boasting one would surely indicate a strong and admired commitment to the community.


Beyond the psychological tricks of this new forum are physical constraints that must be enacted. By constraints I simply mean what a user physically can or cannot do, not what they should or shouldn’t do or what they want or don’t want to do. Some examples of constraints would be Twitter’s 140 character limit, or Facebook’s lack of WYSIWYG[iv] editors, or a completely customizable and open-ended form for posting on discussion boards.

Notice how each constraint is a medium with its own message. Twitter’s 140 character limit implies spontaneity in posting, not to mention its incorporation of cell phone text messaging. Facebook’s text-based and HTML[v]-free commenting system emphasizes its refined, uncluttered heritage. Unrestricted discussion boards allow for almost the full range of human expression. The in.genio.us project would want to set constraints in such a way to emphasize, even enforce, intelligent conversation.

Trolls[vi] and spammers can be weeded out with a dynamic permissions system that restricts certain features from certain users. Newsvine’s initiation period is a fine model of dynamic permissions. Each newly registered Newsviner must go through a short period of initiation, during which they are restricted to what they can say and where their articles will appear. After several of their articles have received some positive feedback from other users, they will gain full admittance to Newsvine. Such a system keeps abusers in check by requiring appreciative activity. It also helps to build a cohesive community which should communicate better than a disjointed one.

Reference listing is a useful concept that is sometimes overlooked on the Internet. Certainly it would add a scholarly dimension to the in.genio.us forum. Referencing can be brought to attention by including input fields below the main body form designated specifically for listing and linking to sources. Custom markup tags[vii] could also be integrated to indicate a footnote, as with Wikipedia’s <ref> tag. They could even link to the footnote or display it in an AJAX[viii] popup for convenience. Of course not all user contributions would include other sources, so it would be unnecessary to require references in every contribution. As long as a reference medium is established and visible, its message will ring.

Another thought would be to set a minimum word length for each contribution, which would be determined by the thread initiator. The minimum word length would function on the discussion board just as it would for a school paper. To meet the minimum requirement, contributors would have to force themselves to think in new ways. Users may have to move beyond the thought they meant to articulate in response to another user and express themselves in multiple, different ways. This would make every single discussion intellectually rigorous, which may seem daunting even to the most astute of minds. Any aversion to this, however, can be remedied with the last and most significant aspect of the in.genio.us forum.


Reciprocity is an unusual concept for the Internet, but it is a fundamental facet of our new forum framework. It is through reciprocation that self-regulation is possible and that we may attain our desired results, which in our case is intelligent conversation. In a reciprocative environment, the communicative system must be dependent upon the desire of the users. To received a desired service, users must give the desired service to others.


Urbis is perhaps the first website to root its discussions in a reciprocative system. This is a social network for writers to share and critique each others’ poetry and prose, but what makes the network unique is its complex crediting system. Unlike traditional discussion boards which only limit what a user may or may not say through a list of rules, Urbis uses a credit system to regulate the content of posts much like a market economy.

On Urbis, each new writer is granted a number of credits. As one writer uploads a piece of literature, other writers can critique it. Each critique remains hidden to its intended writer who can reveal it only by spending an amount of credits relative to the word length of the critique. Credits may be received by critiquing other pieces of literature. The amount of credits earned is relative to the word lengths both of the critique given and of the piece under review; so to write a longer critique would yield a greater credit income and thus more critiques may be read. Some checks and balances have been put into the system prevent abuse. If a critique is truly helpful, the writer can mark it as “helpful.” If a critique is bogus, skimpy, or unhelpful in any way, the writer can report it as inappropriate and refund his or her credits.

This crediting system is designed to promote constructive criticism. Writers join Urbis to perfect their abilities and to know what others think of their literature; more specifically, they desire to read critiques of their literature. Urbis focuses on that desire and offers it to those who offer it to others. Writers give critiques to read critiques or else go bankrupt. In theory, this whole process of constructive criticism should cultivate better writers.

If you compare the reciprocative system of Urbis to an unrestricted commenting system like that of deviantART, you will notice stark differences in commenting diligence. Most Urbis comments are lengthy and substantial, whereas a typical deviantART comment consists of a mere pat on the back, a trivial emoticon, nothing intellectually beneficial to the artist. The most a user can do to receive useful criticism on deviantART is by attaching an image that says “Advanced Critique Encouraged.” Such a mere request is often ignored because it does nothing to enforce its message. You can see what a difference the reciprocative system makes in the table below, which lists the comments I’ve received on one poem through Urbis and deviantART.



1. “this is confusing. It seems your narator shifts roles from beginning to end. How did the sandwich pass hands? And why on earth would he give the narator, who already had a one, his sandwich in exchange for pen and paper? it is okay just hard to follow.”

2. “I like this work. There is a unique flow about it that reaches out to me. Also, the subject is a great one, one of understanding and non-judgment. I commend you on your accomplishment.”

3. “Thank you, sir” he said
as he unwrapped his sandwich
and gave it to me.”
Am not a poetry expert.
is this called pathos?
whatever the poetic term… it is simply brilliant.”

4. “I like this, it flows, it has personality, life, and ends well. I got from it the sense that this man uses his words to get what he wants, which is in essence what you, as a writer, also do. It needs maybe a few more drafts, but you have good stuff, keep it up.”

5. “I love the conversational style of the poem. It almost reminds me of, like, beatnick poetry but with this even MORE contemporary twist. It’s got that religious undercurrent to it (emphasized by the title) that you see in a lot of contemporary poetry. I cannot say that it is one of the best that i’ve read, so don’t take it too harsh when i say that i was a little distressed at moments toward the middle of the third stanza. Your words and structure here sort of lose focus…i guess in the midst of all the other text surrouding it. I think if you broke stanza three up at the line beginning “Now, without…” it would flow better. Despite any of that… I am impressed and stricken by the poem. You guys on Urbis know how to say what you want to say.”

1. “lovely piece….loads of effort obviously put into it constantly brilliant, well done!”

2. “YES”

Hopefully you can see the potential of reciprocity. How to integrate the credit system into our in.genio.us forum is the next problem. But the concept is actually very simple. First we must identify the common desire of the users. In our case, the desire is to have intelligent conversation. With that variable defined, it would follow that in order to read intelligent posts, users would have to write intelligent responses. Assuming all the aforementioned features are in motion, from the minimum word length constraint to the credit earnings system, intellectual discourse would begin to glow on computer servers around the world.

Let’s simulate the process. Juan and María both join in.genio.us and each are given 3000 credits by default. Juan starts a thread in 100 words arguing that computers are conscious beings. Being a thread starter, he neither gains nor loses credits. María responds with a 500 word rebuttal, earning 500 credits for writing a 500 word response plus 50 credits for responding to a 100 word post. María now has 3550 credits. Juan sees that somebody has responded, but the response is hidden from him. He spends 250 credits to reveal a 500 word response and now has 2750 credits. Disagreeing with María, Juan writes a 1000 word argument and earns 1000 credits plus 250 for responding to a 500 word post. Juan now has 4000 credits. María decides not to spend 500 credits to reveal his response, so she responds to some other posts. Discourse augments throughout the community, and the process goes on.

What about the users who do not desire to have intelligent conversation? How effective will the credit system be for them? For one thing, users who do not share that common desire probably won’t join the forum anyway. The system naturally attracts people with a common desire. But in the event that, say, students are using such a forum who need to keep up with posting, the credit system would inevitably require all the students to respond to each other either intelligently or not at all, regardless of whether or not they share the desire for intelligent conversation.


This sort of discussion board is specifically designed to spur intellectual thoughts, although many of its concepts could certain be applied for other uses. But it wouldn’t suffice for every website. It would be unnecessary—even counterproductive—to integrate this system in a community where intelligent conversation is not desired. Websites like I Can Has Cheezburger, Facebook or Flickr are all preoccupied with colloquial chat. For these, the maximum freedom of expression is desired and therefore required to thrive.

It’s also important to remember that in.genio.us is a hypothetical model. Even though it’s comprised of mostly preexisting concepts that appear to have worked in the past (and indeed everything would be functional within the existing framework of current web technologies), the combined effect is still untested. So to prove its effectiveness, this model would have to be built and tested among the public. Putting in.genio.us into action would be the final step of the experiment, a step that would demand hours of clever programmers and dedicated users.

Figure IV.F - RegenerationI trust this design would be nothing short of revolutionary. It’s a new method of invention which is really a new method of thinking. It forces users to rethink their thinking, which in turn alters the products of their thought. A form of bootstrapping which Engelbart has been so keen on (see Figure 8.4 from IV.F of Augmenting Human Intellect), the forum pushes people “to develop means that will make them more effective” at conversing intelligently. Such a forum might find its uses in education, academia or think tanks along with the general public. Students, educators and thinkers of all sorts would benefit from its mentally demanding structure and come to fascinating realizations about life, for pleasure or for action.


deviantART Inc. 2007. 25 July 2007. <http://www.deviantart.com/>.

Engelbart, Douglass. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Excerpted for Summary Report AFOSR-3223 under Contract AF 49(638)-1024, SRI Project 3578 for AFOSR, Menlo Park, California: Stanford Research Institute, October 1962.

McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium Is the Message.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

Morningstar, Chip and Farmer, F. Randall. “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat.” Cyberspace: First Steps, 273-301. Edited by Michael Benedikt. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Newsvine, Inc. 2005-2007. 25 July 2007. <http://www.newsvine.com/>.

Urbis, LLC. 2007. 25 July 2007. <http://www.urbis.com/>.


[i] From Wikipedia, “a unique address that certain electronic devices use in order to identify and communicate with each other on a computer network utilizing the Internet Protocol standard (IP)—in simpler terms, a computer address.”

[ii] From Wikipedia, “a perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services — such as social-networking sites, wikis and folksonomies — which facilitate collaboration and sharing between users.”

[iii] From Wikipedia, “a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated content such as blog entries, news headlines or podcasts. An RSS document, which is called a “feed”, “web feed”, or “channel”, contains either a summary of content from an associated web site or the full text.”

[iv] From Wikipedia, “an acronym for What You See Is What You Get, used in computing to describe a system in which content during editing appears very similar to the final product.[1] It is commonly used for word processors, but has other applications, such as Web (HTML) authoring.”

[v] Hyper Text Markup Language. From Wikipedia, “the predominant markup language for the creation of web pages.”

[vi] From Wikipedia, “a person who is deliberately inflammatory on the Internet in order to provoke a vehement response from other users.”

[vii] From Wikipedia, “the semantic structures delimiting the start and end of an element” such as <b> for bold text.

[viii] From Wikipedia, “a web development technique used for creating interactive web applications. The intent is to make web pages feel more responsive by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind the scenes, so that the entire web page does not have to be reloaded each time the user requests a change. This is intended to increase the web page’s interactivity, speed, functionality, and usability.”