Digressions & Diatribes

by Kort E Patterson, Editor

Intertel In CyberSpace

It's been a long hard slog, but Intertel has finally made a significant step into cyberspace with the launch of the members-only area on our server. The interactive functions are the real attractions, but you can ease your way into our new site by first enjoying some of the static/flat content. The welcome page offers several thousand photos taken at the last six AGAs - from Albuquerque in 2002 to Atlanta in 2007. There is also a slide show of the components and process of building our ilian1 Internet server.  (Warning: some people might consider photos of naked computer components to be porn for geeks...)

There are two major applications offered on the welcome page - our new on-line Membership Database, and our new virtual Clubhouse. At this point you have to log into the members-only area, and then again into the major applications, but at least they all use the same usernames and passwords.

The membership database is largely what the name implies. Members can update some of their personal data directly, and look up some information about their fellow members. Each member can also control access to his personal information by adjusting the privilege levels in the various fields in his membership records. The default privilege levels are fairly restrictive, and block access to some information that has been available in the past. It make take a while for members to adjust their privilege levels and make enough of their personal information available for the database to become a useful tool for connecting members.

Our new virtual clubhouse is intended to provide the digital equivalents of a hospitality suite, meeting hall, lecture hall, community bulletin board, graffiti wall, backyard grapevine, town square, library, and historical archive. There are even separate areas for junior and teen members. In the absence of any alternative suggestions, I titled our Drupal CMS "Clubhouse 1", reflecting the casual on-line community it's intended to support.  The clubhouse is in essence a collection of means and methods of communication that provide a range of ways to interact with your fellow Ilians, all tied together through a dynamically evolving taxonomy of categories and topics labels. The following teaser is from the Clubhouse welcome page:

"Welcome To Intertel Clubhouse 1. This virtual clubhouse offers a variety of types of content to facilitate communication between fellow members: Blogs, Forums, Email Discussion Lists, Chatrooms, Webpages, Stories (articles), Books, Graphic Albums (photos), Polls, Quotes, and Videos. Not only can you contribute your own content, you can append comments and participate in discussions of the content contributed by your fellow Ilians. Participate and enjoy!"

As I write these words, our Clubhouse is mostly empty - lots of shiny new virtual furniture and fixtures, but not much sign of human involvement. There are some pet pictures, and a few members have started blogs, but not much changes from day to day. It will likely take a while for the Clubhouse to reach critical mass - generating enough activity to make it worthwhile for members to stop by regularly.

Expanding into cyberspace is a major change for Intertel. It will likely take time for the bulk of the members to get around to trying out the new cyber opportunities - and likely a bit longer for them to figure out how they want to use our new cyberspace extensions. Then again, they could suddenly take off, kick-started by serving some tangential need, or caught up in a short term fad.

The current Clubhouse color scheme is a soft pastel shades of blue. It wouldn't be hard to change it to a jarring combination of electric pink, iridescent green, and maybe a little pulsing neon orange to round out the decorating faux pas. Or maybe a volunteer with good color sense could change the decor to a more pleasant combination.

Redecorating the clubhouse is just one of the potential ways that members can get involved in using and operating our new cyberspace extensions. One of the most challenging roles will be monitors. We need parents of young members to volunteer as monitors to supervise our junior and teen areas. Whether our junior and teen areas become a valuable resource for our younger members, or a threat to the survival of civilization itself, largely depends on the monitors.

Mostly our clubhouse is waiting for members to get involved by participating in forums, starting blogs, posting pictures, and writing stories/articles.

Our clubhouse stores most kinds of content in its database as nodes. Nodes are then connected and organized by a taxonomy of categories and terms (topic labels). Members define their areas of interest either by selecting options from a menu, or through the tags they assign to their content. The system can then rummage around in its accumulating archive of different kinds of content, to find other nodes that the member might find interesting. Content can also be found through the "Node Browser" and "Recent Posts" menu options.

A special "vocabulary" is used to provide content level age-sensitive access control. All content nodes must be assigned to either junior, teen, regular, or public when they are created.

The starting point for posting something new is the "New Content" menu option. In the next screen, select the type of content you want to create. The following screen will depend on the type of content, but one common aspect will be a menu where you must select the group(s) allowed to view it. Your choices in the group menu will be your group and the "public" group that everyone can see.

There will also be a field for entering descriptive labels for the new content. As you type, similar terms will appear in a drop-down menu. If a suitable term has been used previously, select it from the menu. New terms should only be added to the taxonomy if they contribute useful differences in functional meaning to the evolving index.

You can type directly into the "Body" field, or copy and paste content from another application. Only basic html tags are allowed for formatting in the body of the node.

At the bottom of the content screen will be buttons for "Preview" and "Submit". It's usually a good idea to preview your new content to catch obvious typos and mistakes. You must click on the "Submit" button to save your content in the database. You will see edit controls whenever you view content you've posted, in case you want to change it.

Graphics are a bit different. Graphic Albums are a useful way to group related images into manageable collections. Graphics can be added individually to existing graphic albums, or an album can be created and graphics uploaded into it. Albums can be nested to create a hierarchy of categories and subcategories. Existing images can be assigned to different albums as the hierarchy evolves.

Most types of content allow viewers to append comments. Just click on the "Add new comment" link at the bottom of the page. Comments can range from simple expressions of approval or disapproval, up to an extended discussion among multiple participants. The accumulated comments can sometimes be more interesting than the original post that inspired them.

Our new virtual clubhouse has many nooks and crannies, and probably a number of idiosyncrasies that have not yet been revealed. A collectively assembled user's manual would be a perfect use for the book content type - a group authored digital document organized into chapters and pages. The comments appended to individual pages could contribute updates, clarifications, and different perspectives. There are also a wide variety of configuration options and adjustments available. An ongoing discussion of the relative merits of various settings would probably be a good use for a forum. The point being that in addition to providing a variety of useful communications functions to the members, our new virtual clubhouse also provides some useful tools for managing the infrastructure of our virtual community.

The hope is that our new clubhouse will provide an attractive venue for an active on-line community. This initial experiment will likely have some flaws, but it should be a reasonably pleasant and intellectually stimulating experience.

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