As everyone on campus should know, Middlebury will soon launch a new website. The new site, designed by an outfit called White Whale, will support videos, slide shows, enhanced search features, and other bells and whistles. I won’t try to explain the significance of these enhancements—why this build out will be better than our current web—since people who know far more about the design than I do have already done so (for instance, check out the web makeover discussion or MiddBlog).
But I do want to engage some of the assumptions that have guided the development of the new website, and ask some questions.
Assumption #1: as we transfer more and more content from print to the web—an inevitability, given the ever-increasing importance of the internet—the ways in which we communicate as an institution may change.
Conventional wisdom has it that writing on the web should be more concise than writing in print since reading big chunks of prose on a screen is difficult and peoples’ attention spans are more limited. On the other hand, the web is an ideal platform for video and audio, which means that much of the storytelling on the new site will take shape as pictures and sound. This shift is already evident in the press releases that our Communications office sends to external news agencies. While these news releases were once pure prose, and perhaps some pictures, they are now likely to include video. For instance, check out the story that recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education; the video in this story was made by Stephen Diehl.
The implications of this shift are interesting to consider. How would students like to receive an email from the President that contains a video message rather than a written memo? To what extent should administrators and college offices experiment with multi-media in communicating with the campus? As our web evolves to accommodate new forms of media, how should our internal forms of communication change? This is a real question, but please, no Twitter.
Assumption #2: more interactivity is better, and everyone likes a blog.
Okay, I am exaggerating a little, but it is true that the new website will give more attention to blogs that currently exist and new blogs that have yet to emerge. The idea here is that blogs are great forums for debate and discussion, and a more “authentic” (read “less institutional”) vehicle for enabling people (especially prospective students) to learn about the College. And, yes, they can also be important forums for students, faculty, and staff.
A number of community members already run blogs, and some of them are very good. For a partial survey of Middlebury blogs, see this list and follow the sidebar links on MiddBlog (MiddBlog, by the way, deserves kudos for leading the way on this front). However, the College blogosphere is not especially thick; some would say we are not really a blogging community. Is this a problem, a drawback, a good thing, or just the way it is? I am not asking for a referendum on any particular blog—my own included—but wondering about the concept in general. If blogging is a good thing for Middlebury, how should we foster its development?
Assumption #3: we can use the web to build community at Middlebury.
The word “community” is heavily loaded, and deserves more discussion than I can give it now, but one promise of the internet—often debated by specialists—is that the internet can foster democratic forms of communication and action (political and otherwise). This promise is worth bearing in mind as we move forward with the new website. While on the one hand, the content on the web, especially the front page, will be subject to editorial control, with the Communications office managing the main pages, on other hand, there will be more opportunities for people to upload and post content. For instance, there is already a process in place for people to submit stories that might be posted on the site. Theoretically, as this new website evolves, it could become more “wiki”-like in its function, and community members could play a significant role in building the site. In order for this to happen, however, people will need to be committed to making the web a live and vital site. Assuming this is a good thing—and maybe I shouldn’t make this assumption—how can the College foster this sort of involvement?
Comments, as always, are welcome.