WebTalk : Hosting live conferences on the Web

Judith Donath, MIT Media Lab
Niel Robertson, MIT Media Lab


WebTalk is an experimental server and client that allows Web users to see who else is on a page and to communicate with them. Information on the Web is usually organized and specific; users accessing the same page are likely to be in search of the same type of information and share similar interests. Providing them with the ability to communicate with each other can facilitate information searches and help foster community.

Furthermore, the popularity of various live conferencing systems (e.g. IRC, the chatrooms of AOL, social MUDs, etc.) attests to the usefulness of real-time talk interfaces. Adding communicative abilities to the Web's easy access to many different types of media makes it possible to create conference sessions in which the users can insert hypertext links, sounds and images amidst their normal conversational text.


The main feature of WebTalk is the hypermedia conferencing. The discussions can be public conferences, open to all, or they can be private conversations between two people. These are real-time conferences (like MUDs or chatrooms) held within the context of the Web - and thus able to include links, pictures, etc

The HTML editor makes it possible to quickly mark-up text. In particular, links and images can be "grabbed" from other pages simply by clicking on them. This is essential for a real-time html environment.

The "Who's Online" window shows who else is on the page. The representation can be text or graphics. One can also choose not to be visible, in which case one may visit WebTalk pages without showing up in anyone's Who's Online window. However, if not seen, one can't be heard: it is necessary to be visible to talk.

Shared location is fundamental to WebTalk: you are able to talk only with other people who are on the same page. Yet, the predominant Web activity is following links from page to page. page to page. It would seem confining to have to stay on the same page when conversing with others on it. Virtual locations allow the user to put down an anchor on a particular page - where they appear to remain - and still wander about the Web with their main browser window. This allows people to have a real "home" page, a place where they can usually be found, without limiting their use of the Web.


The WebTalk port is a tcp socket that is kept open for data transfer: it is through this socket that the WebTalk discussions take place.

Conferencing messages are sent with data identifying both the sender and the conference context.

WebTalk server:

WebTalk client:

A functioning version of the WebTalk software exists for demo/critique at the conference.

See http://judith.www.media.mit.edu/SocialWeb/SociableWeb.html for a more detailed version of this document.

See http://judith.www.media.mit.edu/Judith/ for additional information about my (J. Donath) research, much of which is about online communities and collaborative spaces.