Monday, 25 September 2006

Jabber + Forums = ?

Recently a group of friends took a step backwards to IRC for group chat, since Jabber wasn't acceptable for some reason (not entirely sure why, I was away at the time. Hmm, it was sort of like a coup actually :p ). Anyway, as I was just chatting to Brett about newsgroups, it got me thinking.

Newsgroups and IRC are relics of a bygone age of the Internet. They persist by sheer weight of inertia (also largely, and interestingly, to support filesharing).

Take IRC for example. Once the technology for synchronous chat, it has been all but eclipsed by proprietary instant messaging (IM) networks such as AIM and MSN. IRC, for all its archaic shortcomings, has some advantages over IM: it's open (in the sense that no single company controls the relay servers), and it supports persistent chat rooms (that a person can actively join, rather than having to passivley be invited).
Enter Jabber. Jabber is an open protocol for instant messaging, and has all the advantages of IM (registered usernames, public profiles, contact lists, slick user-friendly interfaces) along with all the advantages of IRC (open distributed network, persistent chat rooms). By merit, it should dominate both IM and IRC. Whether it can compete with giants like AOL and Microsoft remains to be seen, though at least it has Google's weight behind it.

Now, it occurred to me that IRC and IM are roughly analogous to newsgroups and forums. Newsgroups are an open, distributed network with the same archaic shortcomings as IRC: kludgy interfaces and lack of user presence. Forums are proprietary communities with the same modern conveniences as IM: registered usernames, public profiles, slick interfaces loaded with features.
Given the similarities between IRC:IM and newsgroups:forums, why not try a Jabber-style solution to the shortcomings of newsgroups and forums?

A Jabber-style forum network would have the following properties:
  1. The protocol would be standard and the network would be open for any server to join.
  2. A user would have an account on any server, and would be identified by their username and server domain, for example . Usernames are unique within a domain, but can be reused on different domains (like email and Jabber). The server would also host the user's public profile (XML of course) including global avatar and global sig.
  3. Individual forums would be hosted on specific servers. For example, . In general, users from any server could participate in any forum. Every forum would have its own configuration though, including moderators, banned users, posting and reading restrictions, etc. The forum server could optionally host a local profile, avatar, and sig that would replace the user's global settings, for that forum.
  4. Users would log in to their server. They could then access remote forums through a gateway web interface or a local client, or their server could authenticate them with the remote forum's server to allow the use of custom forum interfaces.
  5. I'm unsure if usenet-style flooding (propagation of messages from one server to another) could be used to increase robustness of the forum network, or if this would be incompatible with the strict post ordering expected from forums.
  6. It should also be possible to migrate existing web forums to this network; it's just that initially users would have lots of different accounts (one from each forum) to access the network through.
Imagine an open network of interoperable forums. Use one account to post to all forums. Find your friends easily on other forums. Carry over your status from one forum to another (co-operating forums only, of course). Everything would be XML, allowing the user their choice of interfaces. The network would ideally interoperate with Jabber for instant-messaging.

I reckon it's a good idea. I doubt it'll ever happen though; too much inertia in current forums. And there are probably problems with the idea I haven't thought of :)

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