Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Weblogs at Harvard Law

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 01, 2003

This Journal Column published as Weblogs at Harvard Law in Technology Source Jul 01, 2003. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

A weblog is a Web site organized as a series of dated items. Usually written by one person, a weblog reflects personal opinions or commentary on items of interest to the author. Weblogs display the most recent entry first, allowing readers to identify new content easily.

Though they are a simple innovation, weblogs have arguably revolutionized publishing on the Web. There are an estimated 500,000 weblogs and 500 million weblog readers worldwide (Andrews, 2002); popular sites such as Kuro5hin draw 100,000 regular visitors. Weblogs have even been credited with the unseating of a major politician (Burkeman, 2002). And it appears that they are here to stay.

Launched in February 2003, Weblogs at Harvard Law allows anyone with a e-mail address to create a weblog. Designed by Dave Winer, author of the popular UserLand weblogging software, the site represents one of the first institution-wide forays into weblog publishing. As such, it also represents a noteworthy precedent for other institutions seeking to promote freedom of discussion and thought among their staff and students.

Potier (2003, ?Ǭ? 11) notes that Weblogs at Harvard Law was created, at least in part, to establish "intellectual community" among "the University's disparate schools and centers." The initiative arose out of a November 2002 conference called "Harvard's Emerging Digital Identity." The Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which sponsored the conference, now hosts the Harvard weblogs. According to Winer, weblogs are "an incredible medium for sharing ideas and information. There's a big bright promise for the future" (Potier, 2003, ?Ǭ? 12).

The front page of Weblogs at Harvard Law is, unsurprisingly, a weblog. In the major left-hand column, visitors will see a chronological series of entries, usually posted by Winer, devoted to the Harvard project and to the topic of weblogging in general. Conference announcements, new articles, and news events form the staple content of the main weblog. In the right-hand column is a simple menu that provides access to the rest of the system. It takes a bit of clicking to find the actual list of weblogs, but by following the Directory link, and then clicking on the Harvard Weblogs folder icon, readers will find two lists-one of weblogs hosted at Harvard and one of weblogs hosted offsite. Alternatively, from the home page, the reader may click on Updates to access a list of weblogs to which content has recently been added.

Because there is no way to evaluate a weblog's contents before entering the page, perhaps the best place for the new reader to start is the Rankings page, which features a list of the most popular weblogs. After the main Weblogs at Harvard Law site, the most popular weblog (as of this writing) is MIT computer science professor Philip Greenspun's site. Clicking on the link leads the reader into a series of social and political observations. Greenspun's writing runs the gamut of anti-war, anti-corporate, and anti-establishment commentary. A recent post from April 14 is typical of his blunt criticism: "At a school for the ruling class, e.g., Harvard or Yale, it really doesn't matter how effective the pedagogy is. If Biff doesn't learn calculus his daddy can still buy him a seat in Congress" (2003, ?Ǭ? 5).

Third on the list (though currently slipping in its rank) is a weblog called "The Redhead Wore Crimson." The posted observations are authored by Wendy Koslow, Program Coordinator at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Much more personal than the Greenspun site, Koslow's weblog documents her creative writing class and offers light commentary and day-to-day observations. Her May 4 entry reads in part, "Wendy's favorite new product: Neutrogena Lip Balm. Oh yeah baby. I got the mango moisturizing formula. I like Neutrogena in general because their facial moisturizer does not make me red and itchy..." (2003, "Early," ?Ǭ? 2, 3).

Fourth on the list is a hard-edged weblog called "A Copyfighter's Musings." Written by student Derek Slater, these posts look at legal issues related to intellectual property and digital media. The About page explains how Slater became committed to this subject. He recalls, "I saw this photo of Dmitry Sklyarov," a software designer caught in a copyright battle between Adobe Systems and the Russian company Elcomsoft. "I realized then, more than ever, that this wasn't all just fun and games-I realized something needed to be done. . . . I've been working on copyfight stuff ever since" (2003, "Intro to me," ?Ǭ? 2). In early May 2003, his topics ranged from the ramifications of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to a court case against four college students who used their campus networks to download MP3 files.

Reading the popular weblogs at Harvard, or for that matter the unpopular writers languishing at the bottom of the list, may seem to vindicate some common criticisms of this medium. Not only are weblogs based on personal opinion and bias, but there also is no editing, no filter, no real control-save for a few obvious and typical limitations (e.g., Harvard Law rules prohibiting the posting of copyrighted material, slander, or other material that might result in legal action against the school). Weblogs, as exemplified by those on the Harvard site, are the antithesis of scholarly publishing. One might ask what business such a medium has in an academic institution.

But to ask such a question is to miss the point. As the format suggests, weblogs are constantly works in progress. They are, moreover, a place to post one's ideas and opinions without the restrictions-corporate, institutional, professional, or academic-that constrain other publications. Thoughts, opinions, and ideas that would never otherwise see the light of day find their home in the weblog. And insofar as the writers read each other's weblogs, this medium constitutes a base for the most open and honest communication in academia today. As Winer (2003) writes, "We're returning to what I call amateur journalism, people writing for the public for the love of writing, without any expectation of financial compensation" (?Ǭ? 6).

There is much more to the story of weblogs in academia, of course. As weblogs begin to be syndicated worldwide through such technologies as RSS, their impact will grow and develop in unusual ways. As Andrews (2002) suggests, weblogs may, en masse, pose formidable competition for more traditional publications in general. But this is a good thing-for, as most supporters of weblogs assert, the people at last have a voice. And what could be wrong with that?

[Editor's note: Stephen Downes's own weblog, published since 1998, may be found at]


Andrews, P. (2002, May 16). News by the people, for the people. Online Journalism Review. Retrieved May 4, 2003, from

Burkeman, O. (2002, December 21). Bloggers catch what Washington Post missed. The Guardian. Retrieved May 4, 2003, from,12271,864036,00.html

Greenspun, P. (2003, April 14). Why do colleges build dormitories? And teach half-time? Message posted to Philip Greenspun's weblog, archived at

Koslow, W. (2003, May 4). Early. Message posted to The Redhead Wore Crimson weblog, archived at

Potier, B. (2003, April 17). Berkman Center fellow Dave Winer wants to get Harvard blogging: Weblog pioneer preaches the gospel of blog. Harvard University Gazette. Retrieved May 4, 2003, from

Slater, D. (2003, February 19). Intro to me. Message posted to A Copyfighter's Musings weblog at

Winer, D. (2003, April 30). Citizen bloggers in N.H.? The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved May 4, 2003, from

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