'Blog' expert sets sights on Harvard: Postings could break barriers

By Tom Walsh

March 10, 2003

The self-proclaimed ``Pied Piper of Weblogs'' has sold his house in California, loaded his car and is heading east this week to begin a stint at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.

``What I want to do during my fellowship is start a lot of Weblogs in the university, then watch what happens, innovate and try out new ideas,'' said Dave Winer, 47, a California software developer and former contributing editor at Wired magazine.

Weblogs - or ``blogs'' - are the Internet's supernova of the moment, their numbers expanding exponentially in recent months. A blog is generally described as a Web page that is an online diary, updated on a regular basis, and providing links to other blogs and Web sites that interest its author.

The constant updating - some bloggers post their thoughts several times a day - is what helps set them apart from more traditional Web pages.

A blogger becomes part publisher, part writer, part Web site host. The Weblogs at Harvard project aims to study and ``evangelize'' blogs, said John Palfrey, the Berkman Center's director.

``The idea came out of a conference on the digital identity of Harvard,'' Palfrey said.

In a diverse institution such as Harvard, he said, individual schools and research centers often don't communicate well with one another.

``We wondered, can we try some new technology to break down the barriers? Blogs can be that technology,'' Palfrey said.

The project will provide blogging guidance and software to anyone with a harvard.edu e-mail address. People will be encouraged to share ideas on what is happening in their corner of the university.

``It's an important next step in the evolution of Internet technologies,'' Palfrey said.

Because it's affiliated with the university, the Berkman Center's project will lack some of the rowdiness often associated with the Internet.

Some rules will have to be imposed, Palfrey said, such as a ban on promoting products, causes or political candidates.

Winer, a Brooklyn native, became one of the world's first bloggers when he started his own Weblog (scripting.com) in 1996.

Before taking the Harvard fellowship, Winer stepped down from his post as chief executive of the California company he founded, Userland Software Inc., a developer of Web software.

Winer said the evolution of blogs is following a path similar to other technologies, like the Internet itself.

``The early adopters are engineers and software developers, followed by librarians and lawyers and educators,'' he said. ``Then comes business and then professionals - like doctors - and then government.''

Winer believes universities and the corporate world will find blogs a creative, cost-effective means of coordinating working groups, and of keeping affiliated but far-flung enterprises apprised of one another's efforts.

While Winer will concentrate on the university realm, the blogging of business has already begun.

``We have a research group posting virtually every day or two,'' said Alan Meckler, chief executive of New York-based Jupitermedia Corp.

One of the initial concerns Meckler had was to protect the commercial value of the research and opinions of its analyst-bloggers while keeping the blogs interesting.

So far, Meckler said, the experiment have been a success.

``I can't point to a dollars-and-cents figure, but clearly the (bloggers') views are getting tossed around and attracting attention,'' he said.

``It's a kind of guerilla marketing campaign.''

But making the blog too obviously commercial could turn readers off, Meckler said.

Skeptics have said Weblogs will prove to be a flash in the pan, just another fad that will fade away as the novelty wears off.

Winer, however, believes Weblogs will continue to proliferate, especially as the software continues to develop and makes blogging ever easier.

``It's going to become a basic skill, like using e-mail or a computer,'' Winer said.

Copyright 2003