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Blog on Blogs

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.

26 Responses to “Blog on Blogs”

  1. A staff member says:

    An observation – on November 2, Ron L posted
    http://sites.middlebury.edu/rononmiddlebury/2009/11/02/51-main-opinions-sought/

    As I write this, there are 70 comments in response, unanimously supportive of keeping 51 Main open. That startles me.

    Either many, many minds have been changed in the last couple of months, or people who don’t support 51 Main have not seen the blog post, or there is some mysterious network of supporters-of-51-Main who have been urged to comment there, or those who don’t support it see the broad support it’s gotten and are intimidated from posting a dissenting opinion (highly unlikely on a college campus, I would think). There could be other explanations, too.

    I think it’s very odd – absolutely no dissenting voice after three weeks. That could indicate that soliciting feedback via a blog results in a very skewed sample – and that the results should not be discounted, but also not taken completely at face value. Perhaps. Or does it select for the constituents that the institution most wants to serve?

    I support 51 Main (but have not commented on Ron’s post since I have nothing to add). But “I know people” who do not support the whole idea of the College subsidizing an in-town business that directly competes with local merchants. I have occasionally considered telling one or more of them about Ron’s blog post, but I have decided not to.

    By following this course, am I contributing to the skewed-ness of the comments? Perhaps. It’s a bit of a hidden dynamic in ‘the blogosphere,’ at least in this early stage when not everyone thinks to read the President’s blog (or subscribe to its RSS feed).

    One thing I can say – that post on Ron’s blog illustrates, I think, all three of the assumptions you cite, and in particular that ‘community’ is being built, comment by comment.

  2. Patrick says:

    What to make of anon’s post?

    I suppose the 70 responses on Ron’s blog are no less unrepresentative of public opinion than the 2 or 3 loudmouth faculty I have heard claim to speak for the masses on campus — or so they spoke as they did.

    What is it about midd’s culture that seems to supress dialog or at least public engagement of interesting issues? We seem to be anti-intellectual in that sense. As a staff member, I feel as if the administration tries to engage the community, but fails. The dean and president have blogs and yet anon makes a good point: where is the discussion? 70 responses about 51 Main represent an inpressive display of opinion, but why so one-sided?

    This blog post by Tim may shed some light on this, but then again, too many may choose to supress their opinions.

  3. There’s no doubt that blogs at Middlebury are not particularly participatory – the 70+ comments phenomenon are only possible through active solicitation, as happened with the 51 Main post, or the web makeover thread on the new web design. And as with any comment thread, they cannot be seen as a quantitative measure of support, but rather a qualitative sense of the reasons for (or against) support.

    I think as a small face-to-face community, many people feel uncomfortable either lobbing anonymous bombs (or praise) on a post, or posting a meaningful comment with attribution. As one of the more active bloggers at Middlebury, I am willing to comment publicly about issues because I believe in speaking my mind and using new communication media actively. But that sometimes has consequences – for instance, after publicly commenting on a new item about the New England Review at Inside Higher Ed, I became the “go-to person” for faculty opposition to the NER, even though that was not my position! I’ve been disappointed that more faculty aren’t willing to post comments with attribution on blogs – Tim’s post on “going global” is a good example of an interesting conversation that most faculty never read or participated in. But as an outlier, I can’t quite understand why such participation is not part of the faculty culture here.

    And just to be clear, as a loud mouth faculty member, I claim to speak for nobody but myself…

  4. […] Spears posts “Blog on Blogs,” kicking off a comments conversation on why there are no dissenting opinions […]

  5. A staff member says:

    Um, where were comments ‘actively solicited’ for the 51 Main post? I thought the volume of comments had accrued due to word-of-mouth (or twitters or emails or what have you) – I was not aware there had been ‘active solicitation.’

    Following a hunch, i see that Ryan posted on MiddBlog on the day of Ron’s post, suggesting folks comment. Is that what you’re calling “active solicitation”, Jason? To me, that’s the new ‘word of mouth.’ If Ron or another administrator had posted on MiddBlog or sent an all-campus email, THAT would have been active solicitation, IMHO.

    I can see how the MiddBlog entry may explain some of the comments on Ron’s blog, and perhaps the high number of them. But I was really impressed to see that Kay Teetor and other non-college ‘townies’ commented on Ron’s blog. I kinda don’t think they got there from MiddBlog. Is there a sign or something at 51 Main asking people to post comments? I’ve been there a couple of times in the last few weeks and didn’t notice one if such was there.

    I also realize I should have said something in my first post – I’ve chosen a degree of anonymity because I work in a part of the college that is in Tim’s reporting structure and, believe it or not, I have heard colleagues of mine speak disparagingly of fellow staff members who comment frequently on blogs (particularly blogs run by ‘higher-ups’) – they feel it’s kind of like ‘brown-nosing’ (from what I understand). I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of that, so I’ve chosen an anonymous handle. Thought you should know that’s part of the blogging dynamic, too.

  6. Ian McBride says:

    First, I want to argue that the web is a great medium for these discussions. I don’t think we need any further proof than Tim’s post on Study Abroad where the comments featured a discussion between the administration, faculty members, current students, parents, alumni, and students currently studying abroad. Without the web, the discussion may never have occurred because Tim’s proposal was his own and it would be difficult to send out messages about it through any forum other than a personal blog without it carrying the assumed approval of the administration. If that burden were overcome, the discussion would likely have been limited to an email to students and faculty and perhaps an on campus forum in McCullough. That conversation would exclude parents, alumni, prospectives, students studying abroad (who certainly have an opinion on the subject!), staff, and faculty from other institutions, all of whom were able to voice their opinion on the blog if they so wished.

    I am glad that conversations like these were begun on the web, rather than holding to the crutch of sending out an all-campus email. I do believe that we are due for a shift in how we communicate and that it has to be led by having these informal type discussions in a medium where many (though not all) can participate. Shrinking back and closing off the discussion by limiting it to the same old channels would be a sorry step backwards.

    You asked what we could do to improve these communications. I think blogs work best by being honest about our own views on the subjects being discussed. The author of a blog is assumed to have some mode of authority over the discussion (this is why I still think discussion boards are a better medium, but that’s a different topic), so the author should express their views on the subject. Overtly. Contrast the post on Study Abroad with the follow-up post on our liberal arts roots. I know what Tim thinks about study abroad, but the post on the liberal arts cites some history, an article and asks for comments so I’m left guessing at the author’s views. Honestly, the same could be said in contrasting MiddBlog with similar student blogs like Wesleying or Ephblog. Blogging should be a two way conversation between the author and the readers, but for that to occur we need more than “[this]Blog wants to know what you think”.

    But the best thing we can do to encourage web communications is be accepting of the times it doesn’t work and encourage people to continue. Be willing to accept that 100% of what you post is just dead wrong and you’ll have to make another post saying, “Hmm, I see your point,” and you’ll have a lot more fun online.

  7. Tim Parsons says:

    I love the atmosphere here at Middlebury-it’s one of the best unexplained perks of my job here. But, blogging in this educational atmosphere like this one is, well, a little stressful. While I’m an infrequent blogger at best, what I do finally get around to posting is quite time intensive. Blogs at Middlebury aren’t about which starlet wore what, or who broke up with who, but are educational essays, or long thought out opinion pieces. Not something I can whip up on my lunch half hour. The piece I wrote on Ginkgoes sent me into the LIS website looking up journal articles (I was in heaven, and a long ways from my UVM days). But this is on my own time, like tonight, while helping my 8th grader with her math homework.

    And I love it. Let’s bring out that old maxim, “labor of love”. I hope I’m adding something to the community here, because I feel like I take quite a bit.

    But I think any talk about Blogging at Middlebury needs to keep this in mind. I don’t see a typical blog paradigm here: bad, quick blurbs with no proofreading,and no substance, just blogging about other blogs. Feeding the blog beast needs to be done weekly so as not to be ignored, and the best ones are daily. Middlebury blogs are more intensive than that, as well they should be, but aren’t going to fit into a typical “blog” style and format found outside academia.

  8. Michael Roy says:

    Since the comments here are focusing on blogging, and leaving out some of the other interesting assumptions about the webmakeover project, I’ll be a good lemming and go for the blogging topic, too.

    My take on blogging at Middlebury is that it is still in its infancy, and we are still very much an email culture. Within LIS, we are struggling with how to manage our own internal blog, with some people thinking we ought to stick to a blog-only communication protocol, and other practical-minded people thinking that to do so excludes those who haven’t yet found the RSS religion, or haven’t hacked together an iGoogle portal. There are compromises, of course, like allowing people to get an email everytime someone posts to a blog, or sending out semi-regular digests of what’s happening on the blog via email.

    I take Ian’s point that the blog post/comment paradigm isn’t always perfect, and that discussion boards are often more democratic and allow for more interesting branching of conversations.

    If we think more communication should take place via these blogs, what’s to be done about it? That’s what Tim is asking in his post. I suspect that as earlier commenters noted, we need to do a better job of calling attention to interesting and important conversations that are taking place on our website by various means: email, signs, etc.

    What’s interesting about this thread, though, is that, like the 51 Main thread, nobody has come out and said: enough with the blogs, already.

    — mike

  9. Midd Parent says:

    [quote]What’s interesting about this thread, though, is that, like the 51 Main thread, nobody has come out and said: enough with the blogs, already.[/quote]

    This thread is more or less preaching to the choir. Hard to come out against something if you’re involved in doing it. Now, in fairness, I am one of those people who don’t subscribe to feeds but either set up for email notification or just basically check it out like I would sections in a newspaper. And as part of full disclosure, if it’s not already obvious, I fully admit to being a stalker of Middlebury info and am really looking forward to the new website (although I still wish it had more photos of campus or at least one on the home page). Of course, some of this stalkerish behavior is a direct result of having a relatively non-communicative kid attending the school. It allows me to feel connected without burdening him and gives me more to ask about than “How’s class going?” when we do talk.

    As for negative comments about 51Main: it’s my understanding that most of the opposition would come from other businesses within town that might see the establishment as unfair competition, but the truth is, the place fills a very different niche. Do they want underaged students or seminar groups just hanging out? It would be my leap of logic that suggests that they don’t complain because they aren’t serving those same needs, thus it’s not really competition. Certainly, the more traffic brought to the downtown area the more opportunity for overflow to flow their way. And perhaps they might be enjoying some of that benefit. If there were a lot of truly legitimate complaints/concerns, I honestly think there were a couple of venues to make that known, including the Addison Press comment sections.

  10. JP Allen says:

    The “active solicitation” aspect of the 51 Main responses worked like this: as word slowly spread about the 51 Main post, people in charge of certain groups (i.e. Verbal Onslaught) picked up the story and urged their fans on Facebook to speak up on the blog. Maybe the glut of positive responses is based more on the number of pro-51 groups than it is on the number of pro-51 individuals.

  11. By “active solicitation,” I didn’t mean by Ron or Tim, but by sites like MiddBlog, Twitters, FB, etc. Also didn’t mean that it was inauthentic or “sockpuppets” – rather, just that most blog posts at Middlebury receive little traffic and discussion unless there is an active rattling of the bushes to encourage people to go there. Even MiddBlog has a very niche readership – in a class of 25 last year, only 2 of my students had ever read MiddBlog (obviously not representative sample, but it was a media studies class, so hopefully they weren’t technophobes).

    Mike’s point is key – we’re not a blog-centric campus, and we run on email. And that makes communication less public, more hierarchical, and less participatory. And this is despite the fact that 2 of the top administrators have had blogs for years.

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    principles
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    yourselves
    and the bloggers with some parties and fun

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