In a conference room in Lamont Library, Dave Winer is evangelizing, doing his best to convert to his cause the University’s far-flung Webmasters who’ve come to this monthly meeting of the Harvard’s ABCD committee. Earlier in the week, the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics was his pulpit, and a few hours after his ABCD sermon, he’ll reel in a few more believers at the Law School. He’s a preacher with a projection screen, and, in his jeans and sneakers looking more like a software developer than a gospel-sayer.
In fact, Winer is a software developer; as founder and CEO of UserLand Software, he created software that facilitates Weblogs. Not coincidentally, it’s the wonder of Weblogs – simple personal Web sites that authors frequently update – that Winer is preaching as a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School (HLS).
Not only are Weblogs (“blogs” to those in the know) getting a buzz as the Internet’s next big thing, but Winer and the Berkman Center think blogging might change pedagogical practices at the University and create community on Harvard’s famously decentralized campus.
“Weblogs really are the cutting edge of Web publishing at the moment,” says Berkman Center Executive Director John Palfrey ’94. “[The Berkman Center] felt we had to be doing some interesting research in that space. So we sought out what we thought was a terrific person to evangelize the use of Weblogs on the Harvard campus.”
What a personal Web site is in 2003
Winer, one of blogging’s pioneers and a former columnist for Wired magazine, fit the bill. His own technology-oriented Weblog, Scripting News (www.scripting.com), is perhaps the Internet’s longest running. It’s also an instructive example of what a Weblog is – and isn’t.
“A blog is like a personal newspaper,” says Winer. “It’s sort of publishing on a small scale.” Blogs are generally chronological, updated regularly with the most recent posting at the top, and relative: “You’re often writing about something other people have written,” he says. A recent post on Scripting News, for instance, refers readers to The Crimson’s article describing Dean Harry Lewis’ efforts to crack down on students caught sharing copyrighted songs and movies online, as well as to Palfrey’s blog that comments on that matter. Palfrey’s blog, in turn, points readers to resources for copyright law.
A blog is not, Winer is quick to note, a mail list or a discussion group, where many parties can participate equally. Indeed, he says, this autonomy of voice gives blogs what he feels is a distinct advantage.
“Mail lists often grind to a halt because they have to get consensus. Blogs don’t have to get consensus,” he says. “The magic of a Weblog is that it can move.” Indeed, Winer’s and other Weblogs are unabashedly personal in their editorializing, commenting without abandon on everything from technology-related rulings to new products to Boston’s harsh “spring” weather.
“It really is what a personal Web site is in 2003,” says Winer.
Building intellectual bridges
At the Berkman Center, Winer and Palfrey cautiously claim the new Weblogs at Harvard Law project to be the first blogging initiative at a major educational institution. Since Winer arrived from Silicon Valley in March, he’s been simultaneously educating the University about Weblogs and debugging his Manila software, which provides an easy-to-use interface for would-be bloggers. Weblogs at Harvard Law (blogs.law.harvard.edu) offers a Weblog to anyone – students, faculty, staff, alumni – with a harvard.edu e-mail address. The Berkman Center hosts the blogs on a dedicated server, provides software and support, and aggregates and ranks Harvard’s blogging activity to create a community of bloggers.
It’s the bright promise of creating intellectual community among Harvard’s discreet “tubs” that launched Weblogs at Harvard Law. The initiative arose, says Palfrey, from a conference the Berkman Center sponsored in November 2002 called “What Is Harvard’s Digital Identity?” At that conference, Provost Steven Hyman challenged the assembled deans, faculty members, and technology-forward administrators to harness the Internet to build intellectual bridges that would facilitate the flow of information and ideas between the University’s disparate schools and centers.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Weblogs are the technology for doing exactly that,” Winer says. “It is an incredible medium for sharing ideas and information. There’s a big bright promise for the future.”
Early signs of success
With the Weblogs project in its infancy, not all early blogs on the Berkman Center server take an intellectual tack. Among the blogs probing technology, politics, and culture are pictures of a blogger’s dog, praise of the produce selection at the local Bread and Circus grocery store, and a rant about one blogger’s lousy mood.
“I want to be really careful not to claim victory before we have victory,” says Winer, acknowledging repeatedly that he’s just beginning to probe the promise of blogging at Harvard.
Still, Winer is convinced of blogs’ power to link at least some of Harvard’s distinct intellectual voices and ideas.
To him, success will be creative, interesting applications of blogging technology. As he spreads the gospel of blogs, such applications are springing up. From a recent talk at the Kennedy School, for instance, arose the idea of covering the next New Hampshire presidential primary elections from the perspectives of Harvard bloggers from around the University. At the ABCD meeting, a Graduate School of Education student describes his Weblog, which observes the vibrant blogging community in Iran.
Weblogs and the academy, which both trade in the currency of ideas and information, are natural partners, says Winer.
“The idea of having a laboratory like Harvard University for learning about this technology is incredible,” he says.