Microsoft researchers are working on technology that makes it easier to navigate Usenet news groups, and which could help clear clutter in e-mail inboxes.
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A concept called the Community .net Server takes a new approach to displaying Usenet groups and message threads, making it easier for users to pick a relevant group, cut out spam and display the most active threads first.
The concept is for Usenet groups, but can be extended to e-mail, said Microsoft research sociologist Marc Smith.
Usenet is a giant, distributed database of news groups, that predates the World Wide Web. Postings can be read with a web browser or with reader software such as Microsoft's Outlook Express.
Typically Usenet groups are listed alphabetically in a reader, group information is limited to basics such as the number of messages and message data is limited to message size, poster name and time and date of posting.
"We need tools that will help us better discover and use online communities. The interface to a social space was designed by some of the most antisocial people in the world," Smith said. "You want to see more metadata about these communities, such as how many people are in there and come back."
Microsoft Research loads news group and message data into a SQL Server database for analysis. Users can get a detailed overview of activity in Usenet groups. This allows a user, for example, to find not just a group on Windows XP with a lot of messages, but one where many postings get replied to, Smith said. A proof of concept interface called Netscan is online on the Microsoft Research website.
Furthermore, message analysis before the list is displayed to a Usenet user can make sure that only relevant messages are shown. Through a personalised homepage a user can be kept up to date on replies to posting and keep track of threads, groups and posters. A concept of the personalized homepage is not yet available.
Smith believed the analysis technology can replace the "Outlook Today" screen in the Outlook e-mail client. The "Outlook Tomorrow" screen would display message threads, remind users they have not replied to a person they usually get back to immediately and provide other information on the inbox.
However, Smith has yet to persuade any Microsoft product groups to incorporate the Microsoft Research "social accounting" metrics. The Exchange, MSN Search, Windows and Outlook teams have shown interest, and some inside Microsoft are using the tools to track the Microsoft newsgroups, Smith said.
Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service