You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Upcoming Changes in the Blogs.Harvard Blogging Platform


In 2003, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society (now the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society) began an unusual experiment: we launched a blogging platform. That seems quaint today in the age of ubiquitous access to services that facilitate the sharing of user-generated content. But it was an uncommon achievement at the time.

That platform— (now—allowed registered users from the Berkman and broader Harvard communities, including some from outside those communities, the freedom to reach a wide audience with messages of their choosing without hand-coding html or resorting to Dreamweaver. Recall that Facebook did not launch until February 2004 (with registrations limited to Harvard students). Jack Dorsey posted his first Tweet in March 2006, and Twitter went live for the general public that July. Tumblr arrived on the scene in February 2007. “Weblogs@Harvard,” as it was known, was lauded as the first service of its kind in higher-education.

The Center’s former Executive Director, John Palfrey, recounted the story of the platform’s design and development seven years ago (and eight years after its launch) in a detailed 2011 post. He recalled that it began with the idea that “we should encourage Harvard’s academics to start blogging.” The Harvard Crimson’s contemporaneous coverage of the launch back in 2003 quoted former Berkman Center fellow Dave Winer, who responded to those who might criticize blogs as “frivolous soapboxes” by noting that one never knows “when a great news story might come out from someone who last week was just whining.” (Interestingly enough, the Crimson also quotes blogging pioneer and current Vox luminary Matthew Yglesias, then a student at Harvard College.)

The platform’s ease of use helped introduce individuals and organizations Harvard-wide to the world of online discourse. It is currently home to more than two thousand blogs and nine thousand bloggers. And the platform has an audience in over 100 countries, peaking at over a half of a million page views per month.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the growth and maturation of our blogging platform has mirrored the phenomenon of blogging more generally. Although garnering attention has become trickier, there is now more opportunity than ever before for individuals to reach audiences. Our platform no longer offers a unique opportunity for online engagement. And it is technically antiquated when compared with contemporary, streamlined platforms that offer more advanced tools for social interactions.

While this fact gave us reason enough to think about finding a new home for the platform within Harvard’s central IT department—we first set the gears in motion to do so about four years ago!—a second issue occasions our greasing those gears. The aforementioned 2011 post noted that the Center had managed the platform through terms of use that addressed users rights and responsibilities and that “[t]he call for dispute resolution has been minimal.” This has changed over time as the platform has scaled. The Center is increasingly faced with the types of thorny content moderation decisions that many online platforms that are subjects of our research face every day. 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. It should come as no surprise that a research center like ours is a fantastic place to study the online ecosystem—including the ecosystem for content moderation—but is less well-equipped to operate a platform at scale either technically or substantively.

With these two sets of issues in mind, we will end our operation of the platform in favor of a new platform managed by Harvard University’s Information Technology team. Specifics of that transition are being worked out, and we expect to roll out plans in collaboration with HUIT over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, in anticipation of that transition, the Berkman Klein Center is taking steps to cabin the universe of users with blogs on the platform. In the earliest days of the platform, policies about what users could have blogs were fairly liberal. In April 2007, the platform was migrated from the Userland Manila Web Publishing System to WordPress. At that time, restrictions were put in place to only allow account creation on the new WordPress platform by users having a or affiliated (HBS, HMS, etc) email address. But, early users were grandfathered in and allowed to maintain their existing blogs.

At this point, for all of the reasons set out above, we feel that the time for hosting content from non-Harvard-affiliated bloggers on Harvard servers has passed. We are giving non-Harvard users with active blogs the opportunity to export existing content over the coming weeks. Those users will then be transitioned off the platform.

We look back on the early days of the platform with a lot of nostalgia and echo the enthusiasm expressed back in 2011 about the role the platform played in the birth of podcasting, or in providing a platform to former students like Ory Okolloh (who went on to found Ushahidi), or—generally—in allowing an extraordinary array of “students, faculty, fellows, staff and alumni of Harvard” to “cut their teeth” by posting, commenting, and engaging with one another. From Creative Commons, to Global Voices, to PRX, the Center specializes in playing the role of incubator, where new platforms and other technologies can be piloted before they are spun out to operate in the proverbial wild. We are thus happy to turn over the keys to Harvard’s elite technical team to keep things up and running alongside many other University-wide services. We look ahead with the knowledge that the platform, in its new form, will be well cared for.