More often that you might think, we get asked about how the Weblogs@Harvard project (the server on which this blog appears) got started and why we at the Berkman Center maintain it. I got several questions about it in the context of an event this week, in fact, eight years or so into the project. I thought I’d write it up briefly as a first-person account, as a way to have some place to point people to when they ask. It also seems to me to be a useful, if odd, bit of history to record about the use of social media in an academic community. There are no doubt other ways to tell the story, but this is a blogs server after all, so I’ll lean into the medium as a way to deliver this message.
The story starts in the winter of 2002. I was executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School (we have since become a university-wide center, but we were at HLS officially then). It was cold, as it is in New England winters, and I was sitting in what will probably be my favorite all-time workspace, a gray, woodframe building on Massachusetts Avenue, in the northwest corner of the Harvard campus. An email blinked across the screen, one of very many that day. A trusted friend connected me to a man named Dave Winer. I really really needed to meet Dave, the friend said. And soon. He made the virtual introduction to Dave, and we agreed to talk.
Within a few days, Dave was now on my actual doorstep, knocking on the locked door of the woodframe building. Why was it locked? It was locked because it was winter break at Harvard, a day or two before New Year’s, if I have it right. Dave was in a hurry. He had big ideas. I sensed that I didn’t want to miss them. There he was, ready to rock, he said, and what he wanted to work on would be transformative.
The basic idea was that we should encourage Harvard’s academics to start blogging. He had a simple idea: let’s put up a blogs server (he happened to own a company that made one, as it turned out) and invite anyone in the community to start blogging.
It wasn’t long before we had appointed Dave to be a Berkman fellow. It was very shortly thereafter that we had that blog server up and running. Dave wrote about on his own blog, Scripting News, as did the Harvard house organ, the Gazette. The launch was covered by the Harvard Crimson, too.
The community took things from there. To where, we did not know, but it was fast and furious. Dave taught everyone who would listen about what makes a weblog a weblog, which is still a useful post. Dave and friends established an active blogging discussion group around the service; for about six years, this group met on most Thursdays in the Berkman Center’s space, but was otherwise independent of the Center. Dave had lots of help; I recall much effort by Wendy Koslow, J, and many others. Many people dug in; we argued about whether it was a good idea or not; and the community grew out of the conversation. Much credit during this period goes to those who attended and coordinated the Thursday Blogs Group. Dave also hosted what I think of as the first “unconference” in the form of “BloggerCon.” The BloggerCon attendees, too, deserve much credit for the conversation that they kicked off and then sustained over several years.
As a brief technical overview: The system we used initially was called Manila, a platform developed by UserLand Software (which Dave owned; he let us use it for free). Our deployment was successful: about 500 people, including faculty, students, fellows, staff, and alumni, created blogs in the first two years alone, mostly, I think, because Dave was out there talking people into it. In 2006, we transitioned away from Manila, which had served us very well, to the evolving WordPress MU platform. We made use of the transition to close down old and abandoned blogs. That transition was difficult and complex, but provided us with a newer, more stable and flexible blogging platform on a more powerful server.
Today, we still offer free weblogs to any member of the Harvard community. We allow registration to anyone with an email address ending in harvard.edu, hbs.edu, or radcliffe.edu.
We have always supported the use of RSS to syndicate content on our blogs server. In fact, the Berkman Center, on behalf of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, is the copyright holder (as a light-handed “Trustee”) of the RSS 2.0 specification. Through the use of RSS, content on our blogs server is syndicated all over the web, as well as being used in other sites around Harvard that support RSS, such as the Harvard course management platform, iSites. Please find some further technical notes below from my friends in the technical side of our house.
The context in which we most often get questions about this service is from people interested in whether it’s been a good idea or not from an academic perspective. My answer is: yes, absolutely, for us, anyway. The benefits have been many.
The most immediate was that our in-person conversations were enhanced by the discussions that had occurred online in between our f2f meetings. We’d often be in a meeting of fellows or faculty, or in a class, and someone would mention the blog post of another colleague from the intervening week, and how someone else had responded. It helped to establish a common language and served as a sustaining force for the conversation that helped a highly distributed community to thrive.
On an experimental front, I think this project helped us in our desire to push forward the use of social media in academic life in ways that helps to build communities around ideas. Even when people in our community moved off to other blogs platforms or universities or the Dreaded Private Sector, the links that we built with one another on this server have persisted. Students have used this server as they began their important public careers; I recall Ory Okolloh starting her first blog in a class I was teaching at Harvard Law School well before the fabulously-successful Ushahidi project got going and her many other good works around the world. I think some skeptics about blogs (you know who you are!) got more interested in them through the early instantiation of this project and became champions of this and other important online media. The start of podcasting can be traced in part to the syndication of audio recordings that Chris Lydon, Dave Winer, and Bob Doyle (the Wikipedia entry on the history of podcasting has more). To this day, students, faculty, fellows, staff and alumni of Harvard cut their teeth on this blogs platform. A few of us have used it continuously since its launch.
Has W@HLS transformed the academy? Of course not. But eight years after its launch, it’s still a worthy experiment. Few such experiments are. This community and this technology are still changing and growing in important ways. I’m grateful to all those who helped get it started; have maintained it (Hal Roberts, Sebastian Diaz, and their teams leap to mind); and gotten into social media in the academic world by using it.