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Computer Networks and ISDN Systems 30 ( 1998) 489-498

In-place editing of Web pages:Sparrow community-shareddocuments


The current state of the Web is strongly biased towards reading previously authored documents. In most cases,changes
and additions to the page are solely the purview of the original author. Sparrow in-place editing facilitates a different genre
of Web page: the community-shared page. Like any Web page, a community-shared page is originally crafted by a single
author, who defines the initial content and scope of the document. But unlike other Web pages, a community-shared page
can be modified or added to by any interested contributor, and the barriers for doing so are lessenedby allowing changes
to be made in a lightweight manner. The lightweight editing that Sparrow provides allows contributors to edit within the
browser: edit in-place in the document: edit narrowly, just one item at a time; edit in a structured fashion: edit at a high
level of abstraction; and edit collaboratively. Lightweight, in-place editing makes it easy for users to contribute to Web
pages, thereby making community-shared documents more useful as they grow and change with new information. G I998
Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

Ke~~~&,r: Authoring environments; Humancomputer interaction; Computer supported cooperative work

1. introduction in the filesystem, who has permission to write to that

filesystem, and so on. In addition, contributors must
The universality of the World Wide Web makes it also become familiar with HTML, or with a tool to
a practical platform for collaboration: Web pages are help them write HTML, and with the details of fetch-
accessible by any browser, and browsers are com- ing the page and returning the edited version back
mon on every computing platform. However, it is to its location - many skills beyond that needed to
awkward to use the Web as a collaborative working simply read the page.
environment in which Web pages are meant to grow Sparrow is a lightweight editing technology for
and change under the influence of multiple people. the Web that is designed to overcome these barriers.
Web pages are usually treated as published docu- A Sparrow Web page is created by a single author,
ments that are owned and changed by the original who defines its initial content and scope. After the
author. When Web pages are jointly edited by more page is put onto the Web, others may contribute to
than one person, much meta-information about the the page in ways the original author has defined.
page must be distributed in addition to its URL: who Contributors do not need to know HTML, nor any
is currently editing the page, where the page is stored HTML tool, nor anything about the filesystem in
which the page is stored; in fact, contributors do
E-mail: not even leave their Web browsers to make changes

016%7.5S2/98/$19.00 @ 1998 Published by Eisevier Science B.V. All rights reserved

Pll sol69-7ss~(98)ool IX-4
490 B.-b! Chang / Computer Nehvok and ISDN Swtems 3U (1998) 489-498

to a Sparrow page. Sparrow achieves this through

a combination of preserving the document context,
prescribing the types of editing allowed, and pre-
senting forms for user interaction. In addition, the
interface attempts to leverage existing conventions
in order to allow first-time users to feel comfortable
initiating an edit without prior instruction.
Sparrow is designed to facilitate community-
skared Web pages. A community-shared Web page
is a document that not only provides information of
interest to a community, but also whose ownership,
and therefore future direction, is shared by the com-
munity. Sparrows lightweight editing is an implicit
invitation to join in the evolution of the Web page. It
attempts to foster a sense of shared ownership of the
page, which will make it more likely that community
members will feel comfortable making changes and
adding to the document. In contrast, regular Web
pages are owned by their authors, and even if it is Fig. I. A Sparrow lo-do list Web page.

possible to make changes to the page, it is often

unclear whether there is permission to do so.
The rest of this paper proceeds as follows. Sec-
tion 2 describes Sparrows editing model and how
one interacts with a Sparrow page. Section 3 gives
some examples of Sparrow pages. Section 4 de-
scribes the implementation of a Sparrow page. Sec-
tion S discusses related work, and Section 6 con-
cludes with future work.

2. Sparrow lightweight editing

2. I. Overview ~~~~ ISpell check ail help pages

Who l%t
Sparrow allows contributors to add information to
a Web page in a structured fashion. Figure 1 shows
a simple Sparrow page which implements a to-do
list for a group project named Project Zeta.
The Project Zeta To-Do List looks like a regu-
lar Web page. In fact, it is a regular Web page, but
with added functionality: clicking on a black trian-
gle b causes the item to open into a dialog-box-like
region to allow editing of the item (Fig. 2). The dis-
closure triangle is familiar to many users as a con-
vention that suggests opening to show more detail.
Sparrow is implemented as a CGI script that
is invoked when the disclosure triangle is clicked.
Fig. 2. An editing region opene& up by clicking on the wiangle,
Therefore the opening of the item into an editable
B.-W Chang/Compuier Nehvorks and ISDN Systems 30 (1998) 489-498 491

item occurs by a new page being sent to the browser.

Although this only approximates the intended inter-
active effect, Sparrow helps maintain continuity by
placing the form in the context of the rest of the Web
page, where it supplants the original item. (To ensure
that the browser is scrolled to the right place in the !!! Top 3 Urgent Tasks !!!
page, Sparrow inserts a named anchor (#sparrow) CoIltact pmer /+
at the start of the editing region, and directs the Run regrmion tests&
Get Bert to do the spell check &
browser to scroll to the named anchor.)
The contributor makes changes to the item by
Fig. 3. Two kinds of Sparrow items on the same Web page,
using the normal form controls. When this is done
making changes to the item and clicks the Ok
button, Sparrow makes the change to the Web page above, a prominent button invites the reader to add
and redirects the users browser back to the origi- a to-do item to the page. The button could have
nal URL, which now shows the newly altered page, been replaced with a discreet graphic that would not
scrolled to the appropriate location. A Sparrow edit- announce itself as ioudly.
ing experience is intended to seem like interacting Sparrow pages may have any number of differ-
with a traditional desktop application (albeit more ent kinds of Sparrow items, interspersed with other
slowly), in which the user directly manipulates parts HTML content. For example, the Project Zeta To-Do
of documents which maintain their context from mo- List Web page has a section that lists the three most
ment to moment. In contrast, most Web applications urgent tasks that remain uncompleted (Fig. 3). These
are page-oriented, so that each interaction yields a items are quite different from the to-do items, as open-
new page with new information or new controls. ing up an item for editing clearly shows (Fig. 4).
Clicking on the button at the bottom of the list This example illustrates two other things about
allows one to add a new to-do item. This opens up an Sparrow. First, although one can edit any of the
editing region in which to fill in the details of the new three items, there is no way to add a new one. This
item. The interaction is the same as editing an existing was a choice made by the pages author, simply by
item. except that the editing regions begin empty. omitting a button or graphic that creates a new item.
As this example demonstrates, Sparrow provides In this case, it is appropriate because there should
editing of specific parts of Web pages, not entire always be exactly three items.
Web pages. The Web page author creates the entire Second, the disclosure triangles b are nowhere in
page, and adds Sparrow capability to the parts he or sight. Although most Sparrow pages use the conven-
she wishes to have people contribute to. The items in tion of the disclosure triangle at the front of the item
the Sparrow-enabled parts can be edited and added to indicate editability, Sparrow authors are free to
to, forming growing lists of items.
In addition, Sparrow items are automatically for- .--
matted. In the example, the author of the page pro-
!!! Top 3 Uraant Tasks !!!
vides formatting instructions for to-do items that
makes the to-do task be shown bold, adds a colon Contact printer &
between the task and the task owners name, and .~-~-

italicizes the description if there is one. If the task rask Run regression tests
has been completed, a check mark image is included
at the front of the item.
Sparrow pages are regular Web pages that have
the additional capability of being modifiable by visi-
Get l3ert to do the spell check/&
tors to the page. However, they also look like regular
Web pages - casual visitors do not have to be
aware of Sparrow editing capability. In the to-do list Fig. 4. The urgent task item has a single field.
492 B.-W Chung/Compuler Networks ad ISDN System.s 30 f 1998) 4X9-498

use any graphic, or even a form button, and place for contributors to fill out or edit. The form can
it anywhere in the item - front, end, even middle. be very general (a large text editing area) or very
(In fact, by omitting the graphic, a Sparrow author specific (many different form elements to handle
can make the item tineditable, forming a list that can many kinds of entries), as the author desires.
be added to but whose items are not editable after- No need to know (or see) any HTML.
wards.) In the urgent task example, the author chose Contributors simply fill out forms rather than see
a squiggle graphic & to use instead of the disclosure the actual HTML that is generated to format their
triangle, and placed it at the end of each item. inputs. The author pre-specifies the formatting for
the Sparrow item.
2.2. Lightweight editing features No need to explicitly lock tbe file.
Sparrow handles line-grained concurrency behind
Sparrows editing model attempts to be the scenes; the user is only asked to intervene on
lightweight, so as to encourage visitors to contribute rare occasions when an item has been simuhane-
to the page. Some features of Sparrow that contribute ously edited. (See the implementation section for
to being lightweight are: more details.)
Editing directly in the Weh browser.
Adding to a Sparrow page is lightweight because
the contributor does not need to change to a 3. Sparrow page examples
different application and find the place in the
filesystem where the page is stored; but simply Any given Sparrow page could be implemented as
clicks on the page being viewed. a custom CGI script. However, part of Sparrows use-
Sparrow pages can be edited on just about any fulness is its declarative nature: without any program-
Web browser on any platform, because it only ming, a Web page author can create a Sparrow page,
uses forms and CGI; it does not use Java, specify the kinds of items on each part of the page,
JavaScript, ActiveX, Dynamic HTML, or other and specify the formatting for the items and for other
special extensions that may prevent it from work- elements on the page. This makes it easy to quickly
ing in some browsers. We chose to forgo client- create a wide variety of pages that use Sparrow edit-
side technologies in order to make Sparrow edit- ing. To illustrate that variety, this section describes a
ing work seamlessly on most browsers, trading few examples of Sparrow pages currently in use.
off interactivity for accessibility.
Editing one item at a time. 3. I. Lists
Contributors add or edit just one item at a time.
This makes it easier for users to make small The To-Do List Web page discussed in Section 2
changes; Sparrow is optimized for occasional, in- is typical of many Sparrow pages: a list of items,
cremental changes rather than wholesale changes to be added to by one or more people. The most
or many additions at one time. basic of such pages is the hotlist - a list of items
Editing in-place. each consisting of one link. Since Sparrow items can
During editing, the context of the rest of the page coexist with other HTML on a page, lists can be part
remains in place. The metaphor used is that of the of pages that are heavily formatted. Figure 5 shows
outliner: the triangle graphic turns downwards to a hotlist page that uses a table to categorize the links
open up a region holding more detail, in this case, into three groups. There are three separate Sparrow
an editing region. Meanwhile, the page content lists on this page, but each list uses the same kind of
above and below the editing region remains un- Sparrow item. a simple link.
changed and visible. The user is free to browse the Sparrow list pages have been used for activities
rest of the page even when editing. such as:
Structured editing. l gathering signatures for petitions,

The Sparrow page author specities the fields in l recording software purchases and licenses.

the Sparrow items. and Sparrow presents a form l tracking new Web technologies.
b The Chirp Interpreter

~~--.-- -. -. ------- ---. .-. .- ~~-

Fig. 15. A hotlist page.

l reporting bugs and feature requests,

l announcing upcoming events,
l listing recently published papers.

These activities share several common character- +

istics that are well supported by Sparrow: several or
many people participate, one to many people are in- Fig. 7. A Weh page built using the Skei template.

terested in the information, the activity extends over

a period of time, and each item of information is of
template usable for all sorts of Web pages, there is
a regular structure. Sparrow allows these activities
no further specialization of fields. The body tield is
to be gathered into Web pages, and facilitates the
simply a large text editing area in which text and
movement from just visiting and reading the page to
HTML formatting can be inserted. The user simply
adding or amending items on the page.
continues adding sections until he is done. Figure 7
shows a Skel page that has had four sections added:
3.2. Skel Web puge maker Introduction. Uses. Status, and More Information
(which is being edited).
Skel is a Web page maker based on Sparrow
The final affordance, the black rectangle B, trig-
editing. It alIows simp!e Web pages to be constructed
gers the *linking. Sparrow behavior. (This graphic
quickly within the Web browser. A blank Skel page
was chosen by Skels creator; as with the edit and
has a title item prefixed by the disclosure triangle,
add images, the linking image can be anything. or
and two other graphic affordances (Fig. 6).
even a normal form button.) Linking causes a new
Clicking on the disclosure triangle allows the user
page to be created based on the current page or
to change the title. Clicking on the plus sign +
some other Sparrow page. The new page is emptied
creates a section item, which includes a heading
of all Sparrow content except for those items that
and a body. Since Skel is meant to be a generic
appear unique (in this case. yielding a page similar
to the blank Skel page). Then a link to the new page
b [Title] replaces the rectangle on the current page, and the
browser is sent to the new page. This allows a linked
+ 53 Web site to be created easily.
Unlike most Sparrow pages. Web pages created
Fig. IS. A blank Skel page. with Skel are not usually intended for collaboration.
494 E.-W Chang/Computer Networks and ISDN Systems 30 (1998) 489-498

Sparrow pages is being implemented (see Section 6).

Sparrow pages contain both their formatting in-
formation and their content. This feature makes them
completely portable - one can move or copy a
Sparrow page to a different location, and as long
as any relative links have been taken care of, the
page will display correctly and edit correctly. This
section discusses the details of the Sparrow page

4.1. An example template

Sparrow provides flexible authoring for creating

many different kinds of content. Sparrow items are
specified declaratively, by creating a template that
includes the fields that will be used and the HTML
formatting around the field entries.
Each Sparrow area on a page consists of a number
Here Sparrow editing is used for the convenience of of similar items. Each of these item types is de-
the pages author, rather than as a means for others scribed by its own template. The Project Zeta To-Do
to contribute to the page. In fact, the author may not List shown in Figs. 1 through 4 has two kinds of
wish to allow others to make changes to the page. items: the task item (consisting of the four fields:
Restrictions can be placed on editing Sparrow pages Done, Task, Who, and Description) and the urgent
by using normal HTTP authentication techniques on item (consisting of one field, Task). An item template
a copy of the Sparrow CGI script. specifies both the kinds of fields that make up the
item, as well as the formatting that will be applied
3.3. Interview schedule to those fields. Templates are designed by the page
author and placed directly in the HTML of the page.
The final example is a schedule for interviewing a Because they are embedded in HTML comments,
job applicant (Fig. 8). In this situation, the editable they do not show up when the page is displayed in
items are interview time slots. Since the number of a browser. Templates can be placed anywhere in the
time slots is fixed, no new items are to be created. In Web page, but conventionally are placed at the top of
fact, there is no way to create a new item; the only the file or at the location where the item is first used.
action that can be taken is to edit an existing time Fig. 9 shows a simple example template.
slot item. This template would generate items like these:
The interview schedule is an example of a class
b Joe S. says:
of Sparrow pages in which the structure of the page
I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.
already exists and does not grow.
b Mary Q. says:
Rather than discuss our differences, lets concen-
trate on our similarities. For example, we both
4. Authoring Sparrow pages
love ice cream.
Authoring a Sparrow page consists of inserting An opened editing region for an item based on
extra information into the regular HTML of a Web this template would look like Fig. 10.
page. Currently, Sparrow pages are constructed by Each template is embedded within an HTML
directly editing HTML. A Web tool for generating comment, delimited by < ! - - and - - >. The keyword
Sparrow templates is available, and to make the job SparrowTemplate: identifies this comment as a
even easier, a new WYSIWYG tool for building template. Following that is the name of the template
B.-W Chang/Compuier Networks and ISDN System,s .W (1998) 489-498 49s

<!-- SparrowTemplate: Comment

<SPARROWBUTTONS="move delete">
<INPUT TYPE="IHAGE" SRC="/project/sparrow/img/edit.gif"
NAME="SparrowEdit-0' BORDER=O">
<B><FIELD TYPE="TEXT' PROMPT="Your narne"></B> says:

Fig. 9. An item template

changes to a page without having to constantly visit

the page.
Comment Other directives control the formatting of the edit-
ing region, the image to use above an opened editing
let's concentrate 0n 0ur similarities. region (the default is the downward-pointing disclo-
we both love ice creatn.
sure triangle v), and whether to provide ways to
archive the item (for example, to move done to-do
items to a different location on the page, or to a
different page altogether).
The action directive is an advanced feature that
specifies code to run when an item is added or
Fig. IO. Editing region for the template in Fig. 9
changed. This allows programmers to use Sparrow as
a front-end for custom Web applications. Leveraging
(Comment), which identifies this template for pages Sparrows editing model and interaction style is often
with multiple item types. easier than building new CGI scripts from scratch;
in this way, Sparrow is like the WebWriter Page
4.2. Directives Generator [2] and other embedded scripting systems,
combining declarative Web pages with scripted be-
The <SPARROW>tag in the template contains havior.
Sparrow directives. Directives are instructions for
customizing Sparrows behavior in certain ways. In 4.3. The template
Fig. 9, the BUTTONS directive tells Sparrow which
additional actions to make available when an item Following the directives (if any) is the actual
is edited. "move delete" means to include but- template. This area is delimited by the -+- and the
tons to move the item up or down and a button for closing --B. The template specifies what fields an
deleting the item. Figure 10 shows the Move Up, item will have (in this case, two fields: a TEXT field
Move Down, and Delete buttons that result from this and a TEXTAREA field), how those fields will be
directive. formatted, and what text and/or graphics surrounds
The notify directive sends email to a specified those fields.
address whenever an item is changed or added to In the template in Fig. 9. the INPUT tag is an im-
the page. The email contains both the URL of the age button (using the image /project/sparrow/
page as well as the change that occurred. This allows img / edi t . gi f, which is the right-facing disclosure
authors or other interested parties to keep track of triangle). The NAME attribute of this image button,
SparrowEdi t - 0. teils Sparrow which action to take ing it with the <B> tag. In addition to HTML tags,
when the image button is clicked. When this tem- any valid HTML fragment can be included - in
plate is instantiated in an item, the o is replaced by particular, text and images. In this example, the text
the ID number of the item. This ID tells Sparrow "says : * will follow the users name.
which item to operate on. The second field in this template is a TEXTAREA
There are other Sparrow actions for which you field, which simply presents a multi-line text input box
can provide affordances within each item. The af- during editing, and just text when displayed normally.
fordance can be a graphical image or a form button. This field is wrapped by a BLOCKQUOTEtag.
Examples of these actions include inserting a new There are a number of fields available for Sparrow
item above or below the current item; archiving the items, including single-line text, multi-line text, date,
current item: and creating a link to a new page. as in links, menus. images or text that can be toggled on
the Skel page. and off via a checkbox, and email mailto links. For
programmers, Sparrow is extensible with new kinds
of fields that are easily created by writing a Python
subclass. The class requires only a few methods -
The FIELD tags in the template specify what kind anywhere from 20-60 lines of code, following a ba-
of form lield that users will fill in, as well as how sic API -that specifies how the field will look when
the tilled-in field will be rendered when normally editing and how the output should be generated from
displayed. FIELD tags do not show up in items in- the users input. Simply placing the module in a spe-
stantiated from the template; instead, the actual text cial directory allows Sparrow to immediately make
(or other input) that the user enters when editing the use of the new field in any Sparrow page.
field will replace the field, The most basic field is
the TEXT tield. which uses a one-line text input lield.
and displays the users input simply as text.
The PROMPTattribute of the FIELD is required, Items are created on a Sparrow page when the
and is used as the prompt that appears when the item user clicks on a button that says Add new item or
is open for editing. Most fields have other attributes on a graphical affordance like the plus sign +. A new
that may be required or optional. The TEXT lield, for item is instantiated from the template by copying the
example. has an optional SIZE attribute that speci- template and replacing all FIELDS with the users
ties how many characters wide the input field should input to the field. In addition. invisibie delimiters
be. and a DEFAULT attribute that specifies the default (implemented as HTML comments) are included so
text to use in the tield when an item is first created. that Sparrow can easily parse the item for future
Fields may be formatted with arbitrary HTML. editing. An item instantiated from the template in
In Fig. 9. the text field is made bold by sutround- Fig. 9 would look like this in HTML:

<INPUT TYPE='IMAGE' SRC="/project/sparrow/img/edit.gif"
NAME='SparrowEdit-3' BORDER="O">
<B><!--+-->Abe L.<!--/--></B> says:
<!--+-->Rour score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth
upon this continent a new nation...<!--/-->

The opening line. <!--Item-Comment-3-s7-->, (31. The s7 is a sequence number used for conflict
starts the item, identilies the type of template to use resolution; see the next section. The next line is the
(Comment). and identifies the unique ID of the item image button b whose name specifies the kind of
action to take if clicked (SparrowEdit) on which list, and editing of existing entries is not possible.
item (ID 3). The fields in the items are delimited Discussion systems, such as LUNIS ]4] and Hy-
by <!--+--> and < ! - - I- ->. Everything between perNews j, also allow additions to a page. Like free-
the delimiters is user input. Finally, the delimiter for-ails and guestbooks, discussion systems usually
< ! - - I/ - - > signals the end of the item. require entering in new comments on a separate page
Since all the delimiters are HTML comments, from the thread page. They also have an additional
they are invisible in the browser, and the displayed layer of indirection: the thread page shows the title
item looks like this: of the comment, which is linked to a page with the
body of the comment. Sparrow is designed to have
b Abe L. says: all entered information be shown as part of the page
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers
brought forth upon this continent a new nation...
Sparrow can be used as an annotation system,
if the author provides Sparrow regions on the page
for readers to add annotations. CoNote is an an-
notation system that behaves similarly; certain areas
Sparrow supports fine-grained collaboration: one on the page are annotatable, and the annotations
user may change an item on a page without affecting are displayed inline. Other annotations systems, like
other users who are editing other items on the same ComMentor [7] and CritLink,. allow arbitrary an-
page. Pages are not locked during editing, allowing notation of arbitrary pages by using special servers
potentially many people to initiate edits on the same or modified browsers.
page at once. Collaborative Web repository systems, such as
Conflicts need to be checked only when a contrib- BSCW [ 1J and DocuShare6, allow community
utor commits an edit by pressing the *Ok button. members to add files to a page and create new
If the sequence numbers of the edited version of pages (often called folders) for categorization. Such
the item and of the version of the item stored in pages become growing collections of user-added and
the filesystem differ, then an edit to the item has user-edited material. The goal of these systems is not
occurred while the user was himself editing the item. to create Web pages but to present an interface to
Instead of writing out the users edits, Sparrow re- the repository. Editing the stored material is usually
turns the user to the editing region and presents the done off-Web with desktop applications.
two versions for the user to manually resolve. WebEdit [6], WebWriter [2,3], and Wiki Wiki
Because editing with Sparrow occurs at such a Web all implement browser-based editing of Web
tine grain (per item) and the time to edit each item pages. Like Sparrow, these systems allow one to edit
is typically short (because items are small), such pages directly within the browser, thus freeing the
conflicts are rare. user from starting another tool or knowing where
the page is stored on the filesystem. Unlike Sparrow,
they require knowledge of HTML and editing occurs
5. Related work over the entire contents of a page.
Futplex [S] is a system for adding items to Web
There are many CC1 scripts on the Web that al- pages and for creating similar new pages. Like Spar-
low users to till out a form and have their input row, one can add anywhere in a Futplex list, items
appear appended to a page. Some of the earliest appear inline on the page, and any item can be edited.
examples are the free-for-ails and guestbooks Futplex allows new pages to be created and linked in
available on the Web, notably, at the NCSA site. Un-
like Sparrow. these systems usually have users enter
information in a form on a separate page, additions
to the page only appear at the top or bottom of the
49x B.-W Chang/Cornpuier Network.7 and ISDN Sytetns 30 (1998) 489-498

to the previous page. Unlike Sparrow, Futplex uses 7. Acknowledgments

a separate page for adding and editing items, and
there is only one kind of item supported, an HTML Thanks to Eric Bier for many valuable conversa-
fragment. tions about features and new directions for Sparrow.
Thanks also to Don Kimber, who provided many in-
sightful suggestions. Sparrow has also been improved
6. Conclusion and future work based on the feedback of its initial users at PARC.

Sparrow lightweight editing is intended to make

the Web a more useful medium for collaborative References
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