Weblogs@Harvard after Eight Years

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.

Early History

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.

Our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy

One of the most common questions we get about the blogs server project relates to the legal work we’ve done to manage the way the service operates, so here are a few thoughts on that front.  We use the classic combo of a terms of service and privacy policy that a few of us worked on in consultation with the community by the Berkman Center’s Clinical Program in Cyberlaw.  Prof. Phil Malone and generations of HLS clinical students have developed and maintained them, building on our informal first drafts.  These terms of service and privacy policy have been copied by many others, with permission — but we strongly encourage anyone to use, rip, mix, burn them in any way that helps your own project.  I can say that they’ve held up remarkably well over time, with only occasional needs for updates.  The call for dispute resolution has been minimal.  So, we welcome others to use our policies, but recommend that you customize them to suit your unique needs and run them by your general counsel’s office first. If you do use our policies, we request (but do not insist on) a link back to W@HLS as a courtesy.

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.

Academic Implications

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.

Internet & Democracy: China, Iran, the Arabic Blogosphere

These are heady days for the study of Internet and its relationship to the practice of politics and the struggles over democratic decision-making. Three stories — in China, in Iran, and throughout the Arabic-speaking world — make a powerful case for the deepening relevance of the use of new technologies by citizens to the balance of political power around the world.

First, there was the Green Dam story. The Chinese government upped the ante in the Internet filtering business by announcing a new regulation on the providers of computer hardware. This regulation would require that new computers be shipped along with filtering software, the so-called Green Dam filtering software. We at the ONI released an analysis of this proposed software mandate. This story matters because having state-mandated software at the layer closest to the user would have an extraordinary chilling effect on the use of these technologies, not to mention the possibilities for censorship, surveillance, and other forms of control that such software would open up for the state. (Plus, there was an increase in censorship activity around June 4.)

Today, there is the crisis in Iran. At a moment of political upheaval, the key stories about what is happening on the ground is being told, and supplemented, by citizens on web 2.0 tools — blogs, Twitter, social networks, on sites like Global Voices. The State Department is reportedly working with Twitter to keep the service up — and the information flowing in and out from Iran, as traditional media find themselves more constrained than in other settings. I am imagining the conversation within the intelligence and diplomatic communities, and elsewhere in politics, about the value of this discourse and open source intelligence in general in these moments of crisis. If ever it were in doubt, I’d imagine today is helping to put many doubts to rest about the importance of this networked public sphere.

In the same spirit, tomorrow, we are releasing our study of the Arabic language blogosphere. The real-space, official session will take place at the United States Institute of Peace, as part of their wonderful “bullets to bytes” series. We’re delighted to have the chance to release our study with these terrific colleagues — and, together, to bust some myths about the networked public sphere in the Arabic world. The idea is to set forth a systematic, empirical study of the extraordinary public conversations we can observe in tens of thousands of blogs across the Arabic-speaking world.

What a week!

Live-blogging Class on Blogging

One of the great treats of co-teaching with David Weinberger is getting to be a student on the days that he leads discussion. Today, we’re taking up blogging, something he knows a thing or two about. You can also follow along with the class notes on The Web Difference class blog. A few of the issues that drew heat, and a bit of light:

– The early discussion has circled around the issue of whether news is tending toward the gossipy, whether on HuffPo or WaPo. The class members disagreed as to whether or not this trend is OK.

– David says that the HuffPo has two things that the printed version of the WaPo doesn’t have: 1) links and 2) people talking back, right there on the “paper,” in real-time. (I wonder whether the difference is so important on the second score, given that a) many papers have letters to the editor and op-eds, b) increasingly, most papers have web sites where one can post comments, and c) maybe some people prefer to have editors choose the letters to run rather than having to wade through 742 comments on the latest HuffPo story.) I agree with the follow-up insight that the difference is that people who read HuffPo and submit comments regularly feel more as though they are in a social setting, in a social network, while those who submit letters to the editors have this feeling less acutely, if at all.

– I’ve been looking forward to see if the students have any reactions to the Boston Globe’s article, by Irene Sege, on Saturday about girls and why they blog. One of the issues we took up earlier in the course, very briefly, is whether there’s a gender difference in terms of how people use the web.

Also: Some excellent students in the class have also created a meta-blog — a blog on blogging — for this class, yet another way to follow along.  The class bloggers pointed to a helpful video reference for those interested in the most basic question: “what is a weblog?”  One might also consider Dave Winer’s classic, “what makes a weblog a weblog?

Throwing Code Over the Wall to Non-Profits

Total blue sky, inspired in part by a wonderful gathering pulled together by Jake Shapiro at PRX and Vince Stehle at the Surdna Foundation, picking up on thoughts from various contexts:

If I could start (or otherwise will into existence) any non-profit right now, what it would do is to develop and apply code for non-profit organizations that are under-using new information technologies for core communications purposes. The organization would be comprised primarily of smart, committed, young coders and project managers, primarily, who know how to take open source and other web 2.0-type tools and apply them to connect to communities of interest. (Perhaps some coders would volunteer, too, on a moonlighting basis.)

There are a bunch of problems it would be designed to solve. There are lots of non-profit organizations, such as public media organizations or local initiative campaigns or NGOs in fields like human rights, for instance, that would like to leverage new technologies in the public interest — to reach new audiences for their work and to build communities around ideas — but have no clue as to how to go about doing it.

I think the stars are aligned for such a non-profit to make a big difference at this moment of wild technological innovation. There are lots of relevant pieces that are ready to be put together. Ning and many others have developed platforms that could be leveraged. SourceForge has endless tools for the taking and applying to solve problems. Blogs, wikis, social networks (think of the Facebook open API), and Second Life (or whatever you’d like to experiment with in the participatory media space) are also easy to put to work, if you know how. Most small organizations know that Digital Natives (and many others) are spending lots of their lives online. There are others who do things like this — consider the wonderful Tactical Tech in the global environment, as well as those who do development for political campaigns, like Blue State Digital — whose learning might be leveraged here. There is plenty of “pain in the marketplace,” as venture guys might say. There are smart coders coming out of schools who want to do well enough by doing good in a mission-driven organization (think of the geekiest members of the Free Culture movement). The goal would be to take these technologies and making them work for carefully targeted customers in the non-profit space.

The non-profit would require a reasonable pile of start-up capital to get set up and to have ballast for lean times, but it would have a revenue model. It would charge for its services, on an overall break-even basis. It would not develop things for free; it would develop things for cheap(er) and with real expertise for non-profits that need access to the technologies. (One could imagine a sliding scale based upon resources and revenue and so forth.) It would also have a training services arm. Clients would be required to pay for some training, too, so that the organization would have an internal capacity to keep up the tool that’s developed for them.

I could imagine it loosely based in a big, open, low-rent space in Central Square in Cambridge, right between MIT and Harvard, with collaborators around the world. I suspect there are others doing something like this, but I am constantly surprised by the number of times I am at meetings or conferences where prospective customers tell me they don’t have a provider for their needs.

Charlie Frentz's First Post and "Last Words"

Charlie Frentz, Harvard College student and Berkman intern as well, recapped his summer with BzzAgent with his “first ever blog post.” Read also the great comments his post generated. Charlie’s clearly a natural born blogger, as well as entrepreneur. I read his inaugural post from Shanghai, a city buzzing with entrepreneurship, where Charlie would no doubt fit right in (and nope, the blog wasn’t filtered). Don’t stop now, Charlie; you’re just getting warmed up!

CNET Touches on Blogs and Copyright Issue

It’s extraordinary to me that, several years into the blogging-and-RSS phenomenon, we still have the issue of a lack of clarity around the permissible re-use of user-generated content, as reported by CNET’s Elinor Mills (“Please don’t steal this Web content“). Fair use is part of the answer; Creative Commons licenses are another part of the answer; social norms are part of the answer; but there’s a layer missing, on top of Creative Commons licenses, to allow for the paid re-use of user-generated content. (Previous posts on this topic linked from here.)  Mills points to Lorelle on WordPress for more.

Sunshine Hillygus on Internet and Campaigns

Prof. Sunshine Hillygus is presenting about her study of the persuadable voter here at SDP 2007. She has a book coming out with Princeton University Press shortly on her research. I asked her what the most surprising/biggest finding of her book is. She said that she is trying to get away from the question of “do campaigns matter?” to a more nuanced view of how the various actors (including voters and the candidates) are using new information in such a way that they change their minds, and one another’s minds, over the course of a campaign. She also alluded to the conclusion of the book, in which she is “sounding the alarm” about the hyper-targeting of voters based on the aggregation of new data elements and the used of these data to target individual voters in ways that raise privacy issues. I am eager to read the book!