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Project Sextant
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Civilution LLC

Tools for evolving civilizations
Almost there!
           -Blue Leader, Star Wars

Project Sextant in The Three Bullet Points:
Sextant is a free online service that:

  • Creates, hosts, and archives online discussion forums with a superior user interface that is configured with user-defined templates.
  • Provide clickthrough statistics to readers in both graphical and text form.
  • Let anyone access these functions by simply including certain links and tags in their web pages.

FLASH (June 26, 02000):
Maybe you'd prefer to skip all the verbiage and start using the real thing.

What follows is a brief "white paper" on the motivation, goals and potential for Sextant. Help us improve it by forwarding your questions and comments to webmaster@civilution.com.

Summary: Idiot-proof online discussion forums for building valuable and effective online communities
Sextant allows anyone to create and attach a discussion forum to any web page and provide access to that forum via a simple HTML tag. The discussion forum is remotely hosted at Civilution at no cost to the referrer. While available to everyone, the Sextant service is primarily aimed at weblogs (defined below). Sextant also provides comment and clickthrough statistics to the referrer, to be used internally or shared with the readers.

Background: Weblogs
To understand Sextant one must first understand weblogs. In its most basic form, a weblog is a page of links to other outside pages, each with a comment from the weblog maintainer, or "weblogger." What makes a weblog different from a conventional "links" page is that it is constantly being updated, with new links being added and old ones removed at least daily. This way, a weblog has more in common with an online magazine than a conventional website. It is an online magazine that provides no original content of its own but, instead, a selection of links to content elsewhere.

Some good examples of simple weblogs are the politics and culture sites www.robotwisdom.com and www.flutterby.com, and the web technology and design sites www.camworld.com and www.tomalak.org. Each is maintained by one, two or three people and has accumulated a sizable and loyal reader base.

The weblogger is acting as, and excercising the influence of, a conventional magazine or newspaper editor. However, since his time and money investment is so tiny, he can choose content solely on the basis of his ideals and interests, instead of marketing necessities. His base of like-minded readers forms naturally by word of mouth. Most weblogs turn no revenue at all because they don't need to.

With this small but crucial bit of editorial "value added" to the ocean of online content, a weblog can serve the "information needs" of a small and specific reader base far better than conventional news sources, and that is exactly what is happening. Many people now turn to a favorite weblog for the latest news in their areas of interest instead of searching through the larger and more general-purpose online magazines like www.cnn.com, www.news.com and www.msn.com.

Stated grandly: Weblogs, with their unprecidented economy and specificity, are usurping and democratising the editorial functions of traditional mass media.

Background: Online discussion forums
Discussion forums have been the key to turning a weblog's reader base into an online community. By far, the most successful weblog at "gluing" its readers together via discussion forums has been www.slashdot.org. Slashdot started out as a simple weblog with an editorial focus on Open Source software, and its reader base is now so large that it has mushroomed into a for-profit enterprise with its own staff.

The key to Slashdot's success has been its discussion forums. Every article referred to on Slashdot gets its own discussion forum, where the readers discuss and argue the truthfulness, implications and significance of the original article. The reader base of Slashdot has evolved into an online community with its own identity and considerable clout. It has banded together to act with great and critical effect on many technical and legal issues.

The Problem: Discussion forums take a lot of work to implement and support
These discussion forums require a considerable amount of programming and debugging to make them work in the first place and a non-trivial threshold of back-end database machinery to run on. Thus, the smaller and more specific weblogs have been effectively locked out of providing this very powerful service to their readers. Ironically, it's those very reader bases that have the greatest potential for identity, cohesiveness and collective action.

Enter Sextant: Host the forums remotely
The primary goal of Sextant, then, is obvious: to let a weblogger easily create a "Slashdot-style" discussion forum for any of the pages featured in the weblog. The forums are hosted at Civilution by a common database back end. Sextant requires no programming from the weblogger: they need only include a special tag to create the forum and integrate it into their weblog.

This is a relatively simple goal, given the systems and toolkits that are available now (see our Technical Details page). Our second and greater challenge, then, has been to implement a user interface that is clear and simple enough to be used by anyone, yet compact enough to download quickly. This is a first.

Webmasters who use the service are able to specify the formatting of their discussion forums with custom HTML templates. Templates have so far been popularized by the weblog-creation tool Blogger. They allow users to dictate the looks of their pages at the HTML level, with special service-specific functions accessed throgh a set of custom non-HTML tags that are dynamically "filled in" by the service provider.

Sextant also records clickthroughs to discussed pages and provides those statistics to both the weblog maintainers and to the readers. These statistics can be interesting because they let readers discover what other weblogs link to which articles of interest.

Sextant is currently busting out of the wet paper bag we call alpha release. For the latest news, check the News/Updates page. To get started with the actual service, cut the crap and go to the alpha documentation page.

Chip In!
Any and all pointers and suggestions are welcome. Send them to Craig Meyer at craig@civilution.com or just call us.

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