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 media.

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 urge (http://GAZM.org). 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 (2)

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, www.moveable-type.org, 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?

References

1. What is blogging? For some examples of what it means to others, see www.powazek.com/wtf/post or www.lights.com/weblogs/definitions.html

2. http://www.weblogkitchen.com/wiki.cgi?WeblogTheory

3. Harvard University Press

Blogging’s Growing Popularity

Is Blogging a Fad? Arnold Kling
www.corante.com/bottomline/articles/20020621-875.shtml

Blogging G'es Legit, Sort of, Noah Shachtman
www.wired.com/news/school/0,1383,52992,00.html

Are You Blogging Yet? John Foley
www.informationweek.com/story/IWK20020719S0001/1

The Blogging Revolution, Biz Stone
www.webreview.com/2000/07_07/designers/07_07_00_1.shtml

A Nation of Bloggers and Googling by E-Mail: Blog Nation, Pamela LiCalzi O’Connell
www.nytimes.com/2002/08/22/technology/circuits/22DIAR.html

Educational Weblogs

Weblogg-Ed: Using Weblogs in education, Will Richardson
www.ravenrock.com/blog/blog.html

Weblog-Ed: Using Weblogs in education vol. 2, Will Richardson
www.weblogg-ed.com

Middlebury College Educare Weblog
http://manila.cet.middlebury.edu/educare

Edublogs
http://alterego.ManilaSites.Com/stories/storyReader$212

Serious Educational Technology in Search of Quality
http://instructionaltechnology.editthispage.com

DV for Teachers
http://dvforteachers.manilasites.com/

ITC Insights
www.schoolblogs.com/ITCInsights

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