[Note: This Project went on to win both a Departmental Prize for ECS Projects at
Southampton University and an external contest (£2500) (www.losf.org)]

Thomas Rynne

Facilitating Online Quote-Commenting

Supervisor: Stevan Harnad

Project Brief



The Internet allows people from all over the world to communicate. There is both one to one discussion and group discussion. Academics across the globe can share ideas, individuals with a minority interest can find people who share their interest and beginners in a field can find a groups of people, often including experts, to help them with their queries.(Harnad, 1991 & 1995)

Communication across the Internet generally consists of text being sent between people. It is like a conversation but there are long pauses between each person's input. People can be involved in many different conversations at the same time. To make the context of what is being said clear people quote parts of the message they are replying to. The quotes are signalled by a '>' before each quoted line. This works to some extent but once the flow of the conversation has passed between people a few times it is hard to know who said what and the context of each quote. If someone replies to a message you sent, quoting your message, and you reply, your reply could quote your own message as well as theirs. If they reply again they could quote your reply, their first reply and your original message. Currently the only way to see what is going on is by looking at the number of '>' before a line. This is inadequate and hinders communication.

One to one discussions generally involve people emailing each other directly. However, there are many different types of group discussion. There are mailing lists where people send their message to a list and everyone on the list receives the message. There is USENET where people put their message in a central store, like a notice board, and anyone else can look at this notice board and add their comments. There are pages on the web, using different styles, where people leave messages and comments can be added. The web has advantages because it's generally easy to access but you need to be online to use it. On USENET you make your own copy of discussions but you have to set your computer up for this. Different people have access to, or prefer different formats. Soon there will be more available. Some examples are formats for interactive TV and mobile phones. At present a single discussion only exists in one format. There are some applications that can convert between two, but there is no general solution.


  1. Create a format for messages which has information, such as author, date and topic, on each quote held in the message.
  2. Create a message viewer, composer and sender which supports the new format and includes the following features:
  3. Unify discussions so that people can contribute to a discussion through many different formats.


This project has two parts: the general communication system and two programs. The first program is used to view, compose and send messages. The messages should be displayed meeting goal two. It should be compatible with existing message viewers so that you can communicate with people who do not have the new programs created in this project. When they read a message created by this program it is not expected that they will see any benifit but they should be able to view the message clearly.

The second program manages messages in a group discussion. It should show quoting more clearly to people who ask for messages using the first program. This second program is not expected to improve the display of quotes for people who use other programs to look at the messages. The most common alternatives must be supported as well as a simple mechanism for supporting new alternatives as they appear.

Harnad, S. (1991) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the Means of Production of Knowledge.
Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2 (1): 39 - 53

Harnad, S. (1995) Interactive Cognition: Exploring the Potential of Electronic Quote/Commenting.
In: B.Gorayska & J.L. Mey (Eds.) Cognitive Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface. Elsevier. Pp. 397-414.