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Creating Community, On-line and Off

The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving were especially busy for Harvard bloggers.

Robert John Bennett ’68, who’s writing a novel on-line, posted chapters 4 through 12 of Part V (“Harvard—The Fourth Year”) on his blog—short for Weblog, or on-line journal. Another blogger, Cynthia Rockwell, a sociology department staff member and freelance movie reviewer, debated the value of scholarly film criticism: “Does this kind of criticism illuminate, or does it bleach raw? I don’t know. Do artists need critics? I don’t know.” Harvard Law School (HLS) librarian Vernica Downey used her blog to remind readers about National Children’s Book Week (“The theme this year is ‘Free to Read’”). And in his blog, Nathan Paxton cheered that month’s landmark state-court decision lifting the ban on same-sex marriages. “This is great,” the Ph.D. candidate in government wrote. “The issue of the place of gays in our society is going to be the hot-button culture-wars issue of 2004.”

Meanwhile, one particularly prolific commentator, known on-line only as The Redhead, waxed wistful about single life. “How is it that some people find their soulmates (if there is such a thing) at 16?” she mused one bleak November afternoon. “Where are all the beautiful souls in this city (they’re too young, or they’re married, or they’re smokers, or they’re in love with someone else)? There’s no justice in the universe.”

Welcome to Weblogs at Harvard Law, an experimental community where more than 350 students, faculty and staff members, and alumni have signed up to publicly express their thoughts about everything from social issues to software, from literature to love. Based at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the initiative is free and available to anyone with a Harvard.edu e-mail address. And except for a few private blogs limited to specific classes, all Harvard-hosted blogs can be read by anybody on the Web.

Harvard’s blogging project stems from a November 2002 conference, sponsored by the Berkman Center, to examine the University’s “digital identity.” Provost Steven E. Hyman challenged those present to use the Internet to unify their famously decentralized institution, building bridges among isolated departments and schools. “The question became how we could set up the different parts of Harvard to talk to each other better,” says center director John Palfrey ’94, J.D. ’01. Participants also hoped to create exciting new on-line communities and fresh ways to use technology in teaching.

Blogging pioneer Dave Winer, a Harvard Law School fellow, heads the University’s experimental Weblog community.
Photograph by Justin Ide / Harvard News Office

With their grassroots appeal, blogs seemed like a good first step. Shortly after the conference, the center recruited a new fellow, blogging pioneer Dave Winer, to spearhead the on-line community. Winer’s own tech-talk journal, DaveNet, was among the Internet’s first blogs; founded in 1994, it predated the term identifying it by several years. “I found this way of telling stories that didn’t have a filter, and it worked,” says Winer, who went on to found UserLand Software Inc. of Los Altos, California, which makes Web-publishing products, and to launch an even better-known blog, Scripting News. After arriving at Harvard in early 2003, Winer quickly adapted his blogging software, Manila, for the University’s Weblog community and launched the program in March.

 

Blogs are public on-line journals, written in reverse chronological order, with the most recent entries at the top. Unlike most graphic-rich Web sites, they consist primarily of unadorned text and links to other sites, although serious bloggers also upload photographs, audio, and video. Blogs usually present a single author’s voice, but increasingly groups and organizations are using the format as well: the law school’s LL.M. class of ’04, the library at Harvard’s Rowland Institute, and the Berkman Center itself, among others, maintain Weblogs.

All are part of a fast-growing worldwide community dubbed the “blogosphere.” About five million blogs now exist, according to Perseus Development Corporation; the Braintree, Massachusetts-based market-research firm expects that number to double before 2005.

What draws people to blogging? First, of course, they have something to say. “I blog to talk, to let it out, to experiment with words, to Be Heard,” The Redhead writes. “I miss standing onstage in plays I believed in; I miss projecting my voice across a thousand seats. I’m loud for a reason. I have a lot to say, and a strong set of lungs, and passion. And maybe out there, someone’s got a question I can help answer.”

In addition, blogging is refreshingly simple, requiring virtually no technical design know-how, or special software. Harvard users simply go to the project’s website (http://blogs.law.harvard.edu), where they can create a blog in two or three minutes by following the instructions. From there, they can post text, links, and photographs as easily as they send e-mail messages.

Blogging is also a cheap—or, in the Berkman Center’s case, free—form of publishing using existing space on University computers. And from a user’s perspective, it’s wonderfully liberated from editorial interference. “You know that old saying that freedom of the press belongs to whoever has the press?” Winer asks. “Now everybody has the press.”

As Harvard’s diverse blogger population illustrates, “everybody” isn’t the stereotypical bored, barely literate teenager. Today lawyers, librarians, and researchers use on-line journals for networking and sharing information; entrepreneurs use them for marketing and customer service; college professors and students use them to extend in-class discussion. They’re increasingly popular among journalists, too. Several correspondents (and at least one Iraqi citizen) maintained high-profile blogs at the height of last year’s war in Iraq, and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism devoted a chunk of the fall 2003 issue of its quarterly magazine to examining the role of blogs in newsrooms. Politicians are adopting blogs as well. By late 2003, nearly every presidential candidate had one, though most real blogging was being done by campaign staff members.

At Harvard, as elsewhere, blog styles are as different as the people behind them. Many are on-line diaries, often featuring an on-line persona or alter ego. The Redhead—who by mid November hadn’t missed a single day of blogging since the project’s launch—writes about anything on her mind: her job, a class, a party, a conversation, an observation. “I let myself have fun, but I try to make sure there’s a point,” she says. Sometimes she prepares a single long entry first thing in the morning or late at night; sometimes she writes several and posts quick-hit entries—one or two sentences on a single topic, written as rapidly as an e-mail message—throughout her day. (Fortunately, The Redhead, a.k.a. Wendy Koslow, is program coordinator for the Berkman Center, where occasional on-the-job blogging is not only permitted, but encouraged.)

Many Harvard bloggers specialize. Vernica Downey, the HLS librarian, writes primarily about research, rare books, and children’s literature. Her blog, titled “Thinking While Typing,” draws a small but loyal audience of regular readers. “I’m very popular among German librarians, for some reason,” says Downey, who writes primarily outside work. HLS fellow Christopher Lydon, a former public-radio talk-show host, uses his site to explore the social and cultural effects of blogging. He posts extensive text and audio interviews with leading bloggers, including some of those managing the on-line presidential campaigns.

Some educators use blogs as teaching tools. John Palfrey, a lecturer at both HLS and the Extension School, posts syllabi, reading materials, and lectures on class blogs; he encourages, but doesn’t require, students to use them. He views the technology as a way to extend the classroom experience, and to provide a new forum for people who might be too shy to speak up in person. “This helps us explore how people express themselves,” says Palfrey, who also maintains an HLS blog on legal issues.

One Harvard staff member blogs to support a blossoming stage career. Erin Judge, an assistant to two HLS professors by day, does stand-up comedy in Boston-area clubs at night. Her blog, “On Being (un)Funny,” prompts some people to see her shows, she says. Its real strength, though, is as a testing ground for new material. “When I go onstage, I have five to seven minutes. There’s no room to try out something you’re taking a risk on—certainly not at first,” she says. “So I find it very valuable to have this forum. I try to write something of length three times a week.” Then she collects feedback from regular readers—friends, fellow comics, other bloggers, her mother in Texas—and revises her routines before performing them.

Like other communities, Harvard’s Weblog project relies on rules. Users can’t run businesses or political campaigns using the University’s technology, and they can’t imply that Harvard endorses anything they write. At the same time, the project’s coordinators—who believe the experiment will work only if bloggers know they can publish freely—never censor content. That is a critical factor for participants, who tend to become passionate about free speech. “I feel like I can say whatever I want,” Judge says. “If anybody else I know had a blog at the place where they work, they wouldn’t feel comfortable posting certain things.”

Asked how coordinators would handle, for instance, a blog containing hate speech, Palfrey says that hasn’t been a problem—yet. "The community is self-policed, and that works remarkably well."

Until late October, the University hadn’t interfered, either. But then College junior Derek Slater posted internal memos from Diebold Election Systems, an electronic voting-machine manufacturer, on his blog. The documents, which described possible security flaws in the company’s equipment, had already been widely circulated on-line. After Slater posted them, Diebold complained to Harvard, arguing that Slater—and Harvard, as host—had violated U.S. copyright law. Initially, Harvard told Slater to “cease and desist” and warned him that, in keeping with school policy, he would be banned from University computer systems for a year if it happened again. Slater, backed by the Berkman Center, argued that posting the memos fell within the copyright law’s “fair use” provision. In November, Harvard’s general counsel agreed, saying the University no longer considered the matter a violation. Diebold later dropped the complaint.

 

Despite blogging’s popularity, it has some drawbacks. The biggest problem: many blogs are downright boring. The worst offenders take the most mundane material imaginable and share it with the world. One typical example, from a Harvard-hosted blog: “After approximately 20 years of use, my GE toaster oven broke last night. Today I went to Target to buy a new one….They had a very nice Black & Decker toaster oven for $29.99 and I purchased it. My mother purchased a toaster oven for less about a year ago. However, hers does n0t work. But she won’t admit it.”

Another pitfall: abandonment. Perseus, the market-research company, says two-thirds of all blogs languish unattended (which researchers define as having no posts for two months), while one-quarter are “one-day wonders,” created and then forgotten. Not surprisingly, the Harvard project’s directory is littered with apparently abandoned blogs. In one case, an incoming freshman kept a detailed diary of his first few days on campus this past fall, even creating Dickens-style headings for his chapters (“In Which I Do Something Entirely Unexpected”). By the following week, though, he’d apparently lost interest; he never blogged again.

Because the Web is a public medium, bloggers occasionally attract unwanted attention. Koslow’s high-spirited site briefly attracted a male fan whose constant e-mail messages made her uncomfortable. “I e-mailed him and said, ‘Please don’t contact me anymore,’” says Koslow, who doesn’t know whether the man was part of the Harvard community. “The second time I did that, it worked.” The experience made her more cautious about posting personal information: she took her work e-mail address off the blog and now uses nicknames or initials when referring to friends and colleagues.

Despite the growing pains, most bloggers remain true believers in their medium’s value and promise. Downey, for instance, feels guilty if she gets so busy she goes several days without blogging. When that happens, she says, she posts a message letting readers know “I’m still here; this Weblog hasn’t been abandoned.” Once she decided to take a break from blogging, perhaps permanently—but she missed it so much she found herself back on-line within a week.

Coordinators can’t yet say whether Harvard’s blog project is, in fact, building intellectual bridges on campus. “It’s way too early to declare victory,” Palfrey says. But it is building community. Some participants have become fast friends off-line, gathering for weekly meetings at the law school. In October, many attended the HLS-sponsored BloggerCon, a conference that attracted 150 participants from as far away as Japan. Meanwhile, Palfrey says, Stanford Law School expects to offer Weblogs to all its students, beginning this fall.

On-line, many Harvardians faithfully stop by fellow participants’ blogs to read and comment on each other’s postings. “I feel like my blog has a little neighborhood,” says Koslow. Dave Winer, project coordinator and medium pioneer, skims maybe a dozen blogs daily. “Every one of them is a teacher of mine,” he says, “and they teach me something new every day.”