Blogging comes to Harvard

Blogging veteran Dave Winer on teaching the art of the blog to one of America's top universities, and how he thinks the new technology will reshape the future of journalism.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
6 min read
America's oldest institution of higher learning has hopped on the Internet's hottest new trend, hiring software developer Dave Winer to help get students and faculty blogging.

Harvard University has given the former software executive a fellowship at its Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, part of Harvard Law School, in order to head up the new Blogs at Harvard Initiative. Winer, who studied math at Tulane University before collecting his master's degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin, will instruct Harvard students and faculty in the art of posting daily dispatches to the Web.

Before becoming blogging guru to the academic elite, Winer founded and was chief executive of Millbrae, Calif.-based UserLand Software, which specializes in content-publishing tools and services. He wrote or contributed to a number of relevant specifications, including SOAP, XML-RPC, RSS and OPML. He is perhaps best known for launching Scripting News, one of the Internet's longest-running Web logs.

The 47-year-old Brooklyn native spoke to CNET News.com from his offices in Cambridge, Mass., where he is in the process of organizing Harvard's existing blogs.

Do you remember the first Web log you saw?
It wasn't like I saw it. It was like I created one. It was in February 1996, and it was part of the 24 Hours of Democracy Project, a response to the Communications Decency Act (CDA) I did when I was a contributing editor at Wired. We were getting sponsors and new services coming online, and I thought I'd better start putting things in a page, in reverse-chronological order. Then I thought, "This is useful. We should take a look at this when the project's over."

We didn't call them Web logs then, but they very much were. I started one for Frontier, UserLand's scripting environment--I was then CEO of UserLand Software. A year later, in April 1997, I started Scripting News, my Web log. It's probably the longest running Web log on the Internet right now--or one of them, anyway. Superlatives like that usually turn out not to be true on the Internet.

How did they come to be called blogs, and how has the medium or format evolved?
Every year it's bigger. Jorn Barger--his Web log is called Robot Wisdom and he's the guy who came up with the term. There's a lot more people doing it now and it's a lot easier because we've been working on making it easier, and people are getting more comfortable with the Internet. Ultimately it's going to be a basic skill like e-mail or using a word processor. It's going to be like writing, and that's why I'm at a university now. We'll teach all the students and the teachers how to do it, and in turn they'll teach their students. So we're getting ready for the long haul here. So tell me how this relationship with Harvard Law got started.
It happened really quickly. I'd been doing software development in a commercial setting for a number of years and wanted to do something different. The people at Harvard were very interested in getting information shared between different parts of the school. They had a conference late last year where they were trying to establish what was the digital identity of Harvard University, and the idea came out. It's a very big decentralized school with a small core and a whole lot of schools that are part of it--the business school, the school of government, library sciences--and in that way it's sort of like a company with divisions. How do you get those divisions to work with each other and share information so they don't duplicate efforts? All the things we worry about in the commercial world turn out to be issues here as well.

The solution sounded very much like Web logs, so a bunch of people told Harvard, "You should talk to Dave." And I happened to be on the East Coast at Christmas and came up to Boston, and next thing you know they offered me a fellowship.

There may be 10 Web logs on the whole campus, and frankly that's just a very early beginning. It should be integrated in all the aspects of the work of the university.

It's hard to believe that the blog hasn't reached Harvard already.
There may be 10 Web logs on the whole campus and frankly that's just a very early beginning. It should be integrated in all the aspects of the work of the university. My charter is the whole university. Nobody has to do it, but the opportunity is open to anyone who wants to do it. If we have 100 really great Web logs, I will be very happy and everyone else will be very happy. What exactly will your role be at Harvard?
I will be an evangelist and an educator and a scholar. I hope I'm here to learn as much as I am to teach. After doing all this software for all these years, I haven't spent that much time with users. And the problems have been largely technical--how do we do these things,? What are the basic features, and how do we tie them together? Now I want to be on the other side of the fence and see how a community reacts to this. How can it be better? What are the barriers? I want to learn, and then share what I've learned. You publish and let every one know what you've learned. You've said that the missing story on Web services is their individual rather than commercial application.
The corporate application of Web services is perfectly valid. There's nothing wrong with using the Internet as way of moving money and purchase orders around. But that's not all there is, and it's not even the most interesting application. The way I see Web services is as a way of connecting server applications with writing tools for the purposes of creating Web logs. There's lots of stuff happening there using SOAP or XML-RPC, RSS and OPML. So what you see happening is people creating beautiful writing tools for creating Web logs and aggregations so they can read multiple sources. What impact has the blog had on the way information is shared, particularly with respect to journalism?
In some areas, like tech reporting, the Web logs have largely replaced the professionals.

Journalism is a high calling, but it's really no more than points of view on what's taking place.

Hey, wait a minute.
News.com might be the exception. Think about what the landscape looked like five or 10 years ago, with just a handful of publications instead of a whole industry. People now get the information from each other and for each other using Web logs. There are still professional journalists writing, but a lot less. Web logs are journalism. Have they had a big impact? Absolutely. When a big story hits, I don't necessarily trust the professional journalists to tell me what's going on. If I can get the Web logs from the people who were actually involved, I'll take that.

A really remarkable thing came out from the BBC, where they asked amateur photographers to send them pictures. So they're jumping onto the trend that's going to grow and grow and grow. With the Columbia disaster, where did the pictures come from? Not from professional journalists.

So you're saying that professional journalists don't provide any value, any context, any background that helps make sense of the news?
The typical news article consists of quotes from interviews and a little bit of connective stuff and some facts, or whatever. Mostly it's quotes from people. If I can get the quotes with no middleman in between--what exactly did CNN add to all the pictures? Maybe they earned their salaries a little bit, but Web logs have become journalism, and it's much richer. Journalism is a high calling, but it's really no more than points of view on what's taking place. I think the pros are going to use this tech, and they are doing it more and more. Do you think the blog will have a similarly profound effect on education? Will the trend spread from Harvard?
It will. Absolutely. I've already gotten e-mail from tons of educational institutions that want to be up on what we're doing. And many are way ahead of the curve with Web logs. Harvard has extra significance because it's not just any university. It's a very influential place.