ArsDigita Archives

Adding Collaboration to a Web Site

without buying or maintaining an RDBMS, by Philip Greenspun (

ArsDigita : ArsDigita Systems Journal : One article

Every Web site ought to be able to collect reader comments, support a discussion, collect reader mailing addresses, and collect statistics on how many people followed links out of the site. Unfortunately, there haven't been any packaged tools on the market that do these things well.

In 1994, I attempted to create a more collaborative Web by developing software and giving it away. Hardly anyone wanted my software. So I started an online publication, the Web Tools Review, to document the software that I was giving away. Still, hardly anyone was downloading my software. I eventually wrote an entire book about how to make one's site collaborative. Still, nobody downloaded the software.

Could this have been because what people wanted was merely electronic brochures? That people were 100% happy with static sites? I didn't think so. My conjecture was that relational database management systems were too expensive to buy and maintain. In fact, even at MIT's computer science research labs, we had no machine running an administered relational database until I installed one in 1997! (Until then I served all of my collaborative content from the Hearst Corporation Web cluster that that I'd architected.) Thus, an MIT computer science professor wouldn't have been able to make use of any of my code, simply because his computing infrastructure was too old to accomodate it.

So in 1996 I decided to start giving away not only the source code but also the computer time and relational database management system. It turns out that, though the fixed cost of setting up and running an RDBMS is shocking, the marginal cost of adding one more service is minimal. So I teamed up with America OnLine's Primehost subsidiary. They would maintain a machine running AOLserver (my favorite Web/DB integration tool) and the Illustra RDBMS. I would write software to let other Web publishers configure this machine to serve their needs.

Finally, it is working. Hundreds of publishers are using this AOL/Primehost-maintained box ( to run Q&A forums, comment servers, mailing lists, clickthrough logging, and link management.

The overarching principles behind this system are the following:

  • all the services are free to publishers and readers
  • publishers establish and maintain their own dynamic content
  • my software signs pages with the appropriate publisher's email address. My software tries to look as though it is in fact running on the publishers' own computers. Readers should never be aware that they're being shunted from one physical server to another.
  • it should be obvious how to maintain one's content, i.e., there should be an admin link in every place where there is user content. This link is password-protected of course.
  • publishers should have no reason to contact me except to request new site-wide features, e.g., if they forget their password my server should offer to email it to them.
  • publishers should be able to pull all of their data from my machine in a convenient format, e.g., comma separated values. They need to be able to do this in case they want to perform custom analysis or stop using my service.


This is the simplest service: users can add themselves to a private mailing list to which only the publisher can send email. Note that, despite the name, SPAM actually cannot be used to inflict email on an unwilling audience. My software appends a URL to each message that lets the recipient remove himself from the list with a single mouse click. Visit the SPAM mailing list service start page for more info.

Read Chapter 13 of How to be a Web Whore Just Like Me for an explanation of the technology.


Once your site hits the 10 hit/second mark, you'll find yourself overwhelmed with requests for reciprocal links. You can either spend the rest of your life checking out other folks' sites and evaluating them for quality or start using the BooHoo link manager.

The most important feature of BooHoo is that it lets other people add links from your pages to theirs without bothering you. Other important features are moderation--you can delete links that you don't like and even blacklist ranges of URLs, e.g., "**" if you don't want Microsoft to be able to use your site to promote their city guides. Finally, BooHoo attempts to cure misery for users by checking links periodically and removing those that repeatedly fail to answer.

Read Chapter 14 of How to be a Web Whore Just Like Me for more explanation of the rationale behind this system.


I did not write the most interesting things on my site. They are there because I wrote a little bit of magnet content and then let it sit there until expert readers added the real story. For example, look at part 2 of my Berlin/Prague story and compare it against the comments added by readers.

Every page on my site can collect and display comments. This can happen on your site too. Start by visiting the Loquacious comment server home page.

In Chapter 14 of How to be a Web Whore Just Like Me, I wrote extensively about the surprising evolution of this system.


Reader comments on material that you wrote certain qualify as cheaply acquired content, but the ultimate in cheaply acquired content reader comments on material that other readers wrote. You can acquire the latter by running a Q&A forum or threaded discussion group. You'll want flexibility in terms of which threads are archived and you'll want to give readers flexibility in terms of whether and how often they want to be alerted via email of new postings. Take a look at the Q&A forum for to see how this functions for a community of perhaps 10,000 photo nerds. Anyway, you can run something very similar for your own site by visiting LUSENET and setting up a forum (which you can present to your readers as threads or as Q&A or both).

Read Chapter 13 of How to be a Web Whore Just Like Me for an explanation of the technology.

Well, this isn't exactly a collaboration service, but it is slick and free and RDBMS-backed: Find out exactly how many people follow links from your site to sites that you recommend. Read Chapter 7 of How to be a Web Whore Just Like Me for an explanation of the technology.

What I've been meaning to do is beef up so that it can also serve banner ads, but I haven't done it because (1) I personally don't have any banner ads on my site, and (2) I don't really like banner ads.


Is your Web server up and responding right now? If it weren't, you (or your paging service) would get email within 15 minutes from the Uptime System. Anyway, it is a server monitoring system, not a collaboration service but I think it deserves to be on this page because it too is slick and free and RDBMS-backed.

Coming Soon

I'm going to let you collect contest entries, like I do with the FlashPix of the Month contest.

Is this the best way to do things?

In the long run, a publisher is best off running his own server farm and RDBMS. Mostly because all of these services are more powerful when integrated. For example, the publisher ought to be able to ask "how many readers posted at least one comment on automotive pages, clicked through on three banner ads, and asked a question in the Q&A forum?" That's not possible now because each service is designed, for simplicity's sake, to stand alone.

I wrote a book chapter about integrated software for online communities. I supervise 40 software developers maintaining and extending an open-source toolkit for building integrated online communities. Until the average small Web publisher is capable of keeping a server online 24x7, I will maintain

Oh yes, but what about people who aren't Web publishers?

I also run a range of consumer services.

Reader's Comments

Thanks for providing these tools! They allowed me to add a mailing list and a Q&A forum in half an hour to I couldn't have done it myself.

-- Bill Dedman, April 27, 1999
Phil, Thanks for a fantastic set of useful - and free - services. Chug Roberts

-- Chug Roberts, August 14, 2000