Blogs: A Disruptive Technology Coming of Age?
To blog or not to blog, that is increasingly the question for those of
us supporting our academic communities. Lest you think the editor fell
asleep and missed correcting that last sentence, some background is in
order. In 1997 Jorn Barger coined the phrase Weblog to describe a site
that combined links, commentaries, and personal thoughts and essays from
the perspective of the Weblog author. The promise of the Web, however,
was that everyone could publish, that a thousand voices could flourish,
communicate and connect. But only those people who knew how to code a
Web page could make their voices heard. For early adopters this was enough.
Today it’s not.
The desire to communicate is powerful and technological innovations are
frequently driven by our basic needs. After all, e-mail was developed
by Internet network engineers who needed to communicate about what they
were doing. No one had a clue then that the text message system they hacked
together was the first killer app of the new network they were building.
Blogging software makes the expression of writing, including the incorporation
of hyperlinks for publishing on Web pages as easy as word processing (and,
given the bloated state of today’s word processors, I’d say
much easier). (1) Ordinary mortals with little or no knowledge of HTML
can easily put their writing on the Web. People can expound ideas, describe
their daily routines, or reflect on what matters to them as easily as
sending an instant message.
Not surprisingly, blogging, the verb form, has been viewed as a public
form of journalism, giving anyone who wishes the opportunity to comment
on events of the day. Indeed, as of this fall (Sept. 2002) several journalism
schools at major universities have added courses in blogging to their
curricula (see U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism, http://journalism.berkeley.edu/program/newmediaclasses/weblogs/,
and the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, http://www.ojr.org/ojr/future/1021586109.php,
for examples). This is viewed by the blogging community as either vindication
of their efforts, or the usurpation of their private reserve by the establishment
But blogging has exploded beyond journalism (see sidebar on the growth
of blogging). Web entrepreneur Jacob Shwirtz likens this growth to the
digital equivalent of sharing stories around the campfire, almost a primal
The New York Times estimated in August that there were now over
a half a million Weblogs, with the number growing.
Blogging is well ensconced in the education community. Educators in K12
and higher education are using blogging tools for:
- Student logs (writing with various intentions) and portfolios
- A place for students, parents, and community members to collaborate
- Peer coaching environment for faculty
- Classroom management tool, e.g., place for posting assignments
- Knowledge management tool for compiling research logs, reference tools,
policies and forms
Many sites offer hints at best practices and guidelines for new educators
interested in getting started (see Educational Blogs sidebar). There is
even an emerging discussion around the theory of Weblogs and their use
Blogging software can be as simple as using your browser. This is the
approach taken by some basic Weblog hosts (e.g., Pitas, www.pitas.com,
or, Blogger, http://blogspot.blogger.com).
A variation on the hosted blogging approach is those sites in which your
blog is part of a community of users on the site. A directory of the members
of the community, including optional interest profiles and related services
bring together otherwise anonymous voices broadcasting personal journals
to the world. Among the more well known of these are LiveJournal (www.livejournal.com)
and Xanga (www.xanga.com).
Xanga has all the appearance and functionality of a portal community,
with news feeds and featured blogs on the home page.
Using your browser is convenient, but working on your site depends on
connecting to the net. More features are available with software tools
that when installed on your computer allow you to work on your site offline
and synchronize when you connect. In addition, these tools permit setting
up feeds from other sites that support syndication, that is, automatically
inserting content into your site through channels based on the World-Wide
Web Consortium’s RSS application (Resource Description Format Resource
Site Summary), an XML-based lightweight syndication format that can carry
an array of content types: news headlines, discussion forums, software
announcements, and various bits of proprietary data. For details see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rss-dev/files/specification.html)
Another approach to bringing the publishing and editing process from
the Web to your desktop is the use of server based publishing software.
In this case, the tool for editing your blogs is accompanied by the server
software that you install on your server. Your server could be a machine
you run and manage on your campus, one that is hosted by an Internet Service
Provider, or one that is offered by a blogging hosting service.
Several Perl application suites for blogging are available (e.g., the
popular Moveable Type blogware,
or Blosxum, www.oreillynet.com/~rael/).
There are powerful content management tools that provide feature rich
blogging support from Userland (www.userland.com)
who produce the popular Manilla dynamic content management system. Userland
offers a client application, Radio, to connect to their hosted backend
object-oriented content server (Frontier). You can download and install
Radio to use on their site or run the whole thing on your own using Manilla.
A relative of the blogging world is the techie haven Slashdot (http://slashdot.org/).
Slashdot has a personal journaling feature, but it is primarily a moderated
community discussion space. However, the software that powers Slashdot
is itself an open source community effort provided under the GNU Public
License to anyone interested at http://slashcode.com.
It powers a number of sites around the Web including Harvard Law School’s
blogging site for the dissemination and discussion of legal news concerning
information technology, http://grep.law.harvard.edu.
The growth of blogging may actually portend something else. The explosion
of blogging is in part due to the march of technology, which has made
what was once difficult—publishing Web content—extraordinarily
easy. E-mail was around in universities and government labs for years
before a simple interface and increasing reliability made it accessible
and attractive to the general public. Note that Manilla software from
Userland is described as a content management system. As it and products
like it continue to evolve, what happens when content management becomes
as simple to use as Web logs? When technology becomes simple enough, and
leverages a basic human need, like communication, it becomes ubiquitous.
Companies that follow good business practices can dominate their markets
and succeed. But in periods of rapid technological change, all bets are
off. This was the argument made by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen,
in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause
Great Firms to Fail (1997) (3). Who will recognize when changes of this
sort are occurring in the world of blogging? Or is it content management?
1. What is blogging? For some examples of what it means to others, see
3. Harvard University Press