Joe Lavin

July 4, 2003

From Computoredge Magazine

The Blog Comes to Harvard


It was an intriguing piece of news for the web logging community. This past January, Dave Winer, creator of Scripting News, one of the longest running web logs on the Internet, accepted a fellowship at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School. At last, blogging had made it to Harvard.

Blogs for Everyone

Winer was hired as part of the Blogs at Harvard Initiative. The goal of the program is to promote blogging at Harvard and beyond. The Berkman Center hopes that it can use blogging to bring the many different parts of Harvard together. For a place as famously decentralized as Harvard, this could help the university's different schools work together in new ways.

When I asked Winer if the program was focusing more on students or professors, he said quite simply, "We'll help anyone who's interested." Winer sees it as his role to assist all those at the school who want to blog, be it a freshman or a tenured professor. In fact, on the Weblogs at Harvard Law site, anyone at the university can now create a free blog hosted by Harvard.

Disclosure: I work for Harvard, albeit in a different school. Luckily, as a staff member, this allowed me to try out the service. Not only does the Berkman Center offer web space for bloggers, they also provide the tools -- in this case a Manila-based web log that is simple to use. (Manila is a blog-writing tool released by UserLand Software, the company that Winer founded.) I simply signed up with my Harvard e-mail address. Moments later, my blog was created, and I was writing my first entry. What could I say? That, of course, was the tough part.

Universities have long given free e-mail accounts to students. In the future, will most schools also give out free blogging accounts? That's what Harvard is doing now, and Winer hopes that other schools will follow. "I'm not doing this just for Harvard," he said. "I'm doing this for blogging in general."

Blog Night at Harvard

Every Thursday night, Winer hosts a blogging discussion group. A wide variety of people were at the meetings I attended. Some were from the law school. Some were students in other Harvard schools or, like me, employees. On my first night, I even ended up sitting next to radio talk show host Christopher Lydon, best known as the former host of NPR's "The Connection" and currently a visiting fellow at the Berkman Center.

That night, Winer showed us how to add pictures to our blogs. A programmer from MIT discussed his recent paper on the development of blogging, while others talked about copyright infringement and whether artists and writers will be paid in the future. (Winer and others suggested that writers will no longer make money; I'm hoping they will.) In short, the meeting was almost the physical embodiment of a blog; the conversation jumped from topic to topic at a frenetic pace, but it remained interesting.

Later, we discussed how blogging could be used in an academic environment. Winer complained that he had heard of a Harvard research project about young voters on NPR for the first time. Since he was at Harvard and this was a subject he followed, he would have expected to have seen the story first on a Harvard web site. "Why did I have to hear about this on the radio first?" he wondered. The unfortunate answer, of course, is that Harvard really doesn't have a central place for news about all the research that is happening on campus. Chances are, many universities don't.

And this is where blogs could really help. The possibilities are endless. There could be a central blog for all Harvard press releases. The Harvard News Office already publishes a daily mailing list with links to news articles about the university called "Harvard in the News." This could easily become a blog as well.

Academic departments could create group blogs. Say the East Asian Studies department wants to keep track of news articles about Asia. All they would have to do is create a group blog, give everyone in the department posting privileges, and suddenly they may have a very useful web site. Even for announcing events, a blog may be preferable to a simple mailing list.

Winer has other goals as well. Recently, he wrote an article in The Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, promoting the idea of citizen bloggers for the New Hampshire Primary. The idea is to give free web space to anyone in New Hampshire who wants to blog in order to highlight the parts of the campaign that the mainstream media may miss. It's an interesting idea, especially since one gets the feeling that candidates visit the living room of just about every New Hampshire voter.

Paid to Blog

So far, the program is having a definite effect. There are now over 150 web logs hosted at Harvard, and it seems that most of the Berkman Center is blogging. "I get paid to blog," Wendy Koslow said with a laugh when I asked her about her job at the Berkman Center. Koslow works as a Program Coordinator there, but she also writes the entertaining blog The Redhead Wore Crimson . Blogging is certainly not a major part of her job, but the Berkman Center has asked her to spend part of her workday blogging -- and not just about work either. Recent entries at her site focused on the writing class she is taking and exactly what she's looking for in a man.

As for Winer, he seems happy to be at Harvard. When I asked him what he has gotten from the experience, he laughed and said, "Arrogance. A lot more people take my phone calls now." Still, it's obvious that he's also enjoying the chance to meet with other bloggers and demo some of the latest features in blogging software at his weekly sessions.

When you think about it, Dave Winer is essentially the first blogger-in-residence ever at a university. Hey, it's nice work if you can get it.


©2003 Joe Lavin

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