Academics at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society began what they described as an “unusual experiment” 15 years ago. They created an online platform where people from within the university, and some from outside, could write whatever they wanted and share it with the world.
Weblogs@Harvard, as it was then known, was considered pioneering. Facebook didn’t yet exist. Social media was in its infancy. And starting a blog usually required some knowledge of code. Harvard’s blogging platform, now known as blogs.harvard.edu, made it easy.
The university was one of the first higher education institutions, if not the first, to provide such a platform. It served as an incubator for ideas, helped to make podcasting a thing and was a space for students, faculty and staff to “cut their teeth” on the World Wide Web.
This era of internet history is now coming to an end. The Berkman Klein Center announced last month that it would no longer manage the platform. A new platform will be created and managed by Harvard University’s information technology department. But how much of the old platform’s content will be preserved or transferred to the new platform remains unclear.
A spokeswoman for Harvard said the IT department “is in the process of evaluating the platform for migration,” but she did not clarify what steps, if any, are being taken to archive the platform’s content.
An Internet Time Capsule
The possibility that the blogs might simply disappear has upset people interested in preserving the platform's history. Dave Winer, a software developer and writer who was a fellow at the Harvard center when it started the blogging platform, expressed disappointment that this snapshot of early internet activity might be lost.
“There’s a lot of history there,” Winer wrote in his blog. “I can understand turning off the creation of new posts, making the old blogs read-only, but as a university it seems to me that Harvard should have a strong interest in maintaining the archive, in case anyone in the future wants to study the role we played in starting up these (as it turns out) important human activities.”
In a subsequent blog post this week, Winer called on Harvard and its librarians to not only take steps to preserve these internet records, but help to “set standards for how the web can continue long-term, even in the age of silos and corporate ownership.”
Bryan Alexander, a futurist, educator and higher education technology consultant and writer, said that taking down the old platform, without making any effort to preserve its contents, would be “tragic.”
“It would be really, really sad if they closed it down,” he said.
Like Winer, Alexander questioned why Harvard didn’t just make the old platform read-only and keep it up on the web.
“Harvard can afford to keep a server running,” he said.
Keeping Up Appearances
Berkman Klein Center administrators said in the announcement that they would no longer manage the blogging platform for several reasons: the world and online publishing had moved on. Blogs.harvard.edu “no longer offers a unique opportunity for online engagement.” And the blogging platform is technologically “antiquated” compared with “contemporary, streamlined platforms that offer more advanced tools for social interactions.”
Moderating content on the platform also became a problem. “Making discretionary judgments about speech (including offensive speech) within the context of an academic institution which maintains a commitment to academic freedom, with such a wide range of users (some much more and some much less connected to Harvard), on a platform that bears that institution’s name, at a time where alternative options abound, has become a tricky business,” the statement said.
In its early days, the platform had liberal policies about who could start up a blog. More recently it restricted the creation of blogs to people with Harvard email addresses. But some early blogs belonging to people from outside Harvard remain. These non-Harvard-affiliated people will have the opportunity to export their blogs before being “transitioned off the platform,” the statement said.
Alexander said he wondered whether the difficulty the center expressed in moderating content was “something of a red herring.” He said if the problem was unsavory comments then an easy solution would be to turn comments off or ask blog authors to moderate them.
“I wonder if behind the scenes there was the threat of a lawsuit or something like that,” he said.
There were more than 900 live blogs on the platform as of July 2018, meaning the blogs have at least one post, according to the center, and "probably 200 are active and maybe 100 are really active.” The blogs have 700,000 visits per month, with around three million page views by humans and many more by bots.
Though use of the platform has dwindled, institutionally hosted blogging platforms like Harvard’s are still active and can still have value, said Alexander. Hosting blogs at an institutional level can enable academics to analyze blogging activity. Universities can also brand the content and create a searchable resource. By hosting blogs in-house, the risk that a third-party provider might cease to exist, and the content be lost, is minimized.
But academic blogging habits have moved on, said Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of digital humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University. Academics don’t necessarily want to be tied to an institution -- they want to develop an online presence that they can take with them if they move on.
The University of Mary Washington still has an active institutionally hosted blogging platform called UMW blogs, said Martha Burtis, director of the digital knowledge center of the university. But the popularity of the platform has diminished since the university started offering faculty and students the opportunity to control their own blogs through an initiative called Domain of One’s Own.
Burtis doesn’t foresee a time when the university might move to take down UMW blogs, even if it became inactive. Maintaining the platform does incur costs, but archiving the site would also be costly and would raise difficult questions about content ownership.
Though Burtis would like everything on UMW blogs to be preserved so that “people in the future can witness it,” she says the institution is mindful that students and academics experimenting online might not wish for their work to be preserved forever.
“I think across the board culturally, we’re trying to get our head around what preservation is in the age of the internet -- what is safe to keep, and what data and information could be weaponized.”
Jim Groom, a former UMW academic and co-founder of Reclaim Hosting, the company that runs the Domain of One’s Own service, said that blogging has morphed with the dawn of social media. Twitter can be thought of as a “microblogging platform,” said Groom. People blog on Tumblr and Flickr and Facebook. “In the end 'blogging' is just another word for writing on the web -- and I would say more academics do that now than ever -- and it has never been more crucial that they do,” he said.
Fitzpatrick agrees that social media has had a huge impact on academic blogging, and not necessarily a good one. She noted calls in recent months by some academics, including herself, to move away from sites such as Facebook and Twitter and back to their own blogs. Fitzpatrick wrote in a recent blog post that social media can limit conversations to a select audience of one's friends and followers and make discourse unfocused, scattered and difficult to find online. The return to “traditional” blogging, is “gaining momentum,” she said.