UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Third Party or Institutional Provision of Blogs?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 24 January 2007

Scott Wilson (a blogging pioneer at CETIS) reviewed his blog using a matrix developed by Lilia Efimova on the personal versus business dimensions to blogging. Lilia has developed a matrix which aims to characterise personal and business use of blogs. She subsequently cited the experiences of Alex Barnett, a blogger at Microsoft, who moved his blog from his work environment to his own server.

What are the implications of this discussion within the higher/further education sector? I’ve suggested previously that an approach to overcoming organisational inertia and conservatism is to seek forgiveness (if things subsequently go wrong) rather than waiting for permission. And setting up a blog on a remote service (such as WordPress, Blogger, etc.) enables this to be done by anyone, with little technical expertise required. The aim of this approach might be to demonstrate the benefits and to be able to justify the effort. Once this has been done there would often be an assumption that the service could be moved to an institutionally hosted service, which can provide a managed, supported environment, with an expectation that the service will be more sustainable.

But are such assumptions valid? Let’s look at the counter-arguments.

Dangers of losing citation rankings; broken links, etc.: If you’ve established a mature, sustainable blog, moving the content to another location would probably mean having to start from scratch in building up citation ranking in tools such as Technorati.

Tecnorati ranking for this blog
In the top 300,000 blogs!

Technical complexities in migration.: How easy is it to export the contents of a blog and import into a new system? Will links continue to work? Will embedded object continue to work?

Staff and students who are at the institution for a short period: Mature students and short term visitors to an institution may have little to gain from setting up a blog on an institutional server (unless the blog is intended for use directly related to the work or study activity). This might also apply to staff appointed on short term contracts. We can see parallels here with decisions regarding the selection of an institutional or a third party (such as GMail) email address.

Losing one’s community: Established bloggers who make use of a community-focussed blogging or social networking environment, may not wish to lose their community.

Losing functionality: Established bloggers may not wish to lose functionality they find useful in their blogging environment (although they may wish to migrate if the institution provides a blogging environment with richer functionality).

Policies on content: This is the area which relates directly to my introduction to this posting. Will there be problems if blog postings cover both professional and personal interests? What will happen if a posting does not comply with the party line? What will happen if criticisms are made of the organisation (the university administration, the IT services department, the Library, etc)? What will happen if blog posting include swear words?

A minority of users are likely to follow the example described above and host their own server (although this may be the preferred option such for bloggers with the expertise to manage their own server, such as Phil Wilson, a colleague of mine at Bath University). However the option for most users will be whether to use an institutional blogging service or a third party service. I don’t think there is a best solution. Rather I feel this is an area in which we’ll have to observe patterns of usage, and ensure that we can be flexible if an institutional blogging is not used to the extent envisaged. This may be due to a reluctance to engage in blogging activities, but equally it could be be a result of decisions by bloggers to have the flexibility which may be provided by a neutral service provider.

Technorai tags: blogs

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18 Responses to “Third Party or Institutional Provision of Blogs?”

  1. Something interesting in this field is Blogger’s new Custom Domain feature which practically steps you through buying a domain and then pointing the Blogger-hosted service at the domain name you’ve just bought.

    i.e. you don’t need to run your own server to have a Blogger-powered blog running at your own domain name.

  2. although of course, this changes the free blogging service to, effectively, a paid one where the cost is that of your domain name.

  3. AJC said

    Depending on why you’re blogging (visibility, recruitment?) independent sites such as WordPress might well be viewed as having more credibility that institutional sites, which can hardly be expected to be impartial.

  4. Hi AJC – yes, I agree totally about the importance of the purpose of a blog. I hadn’t considered that use of a third party service might imply a less corporate perspective than a blog hosted by the author’s organisation. But clearly one would have different expectations about a blog hosted at blogs.cabinet-office.gov.uk to don at disgruntled-ex-minister.wordpress.com!

  5. I think organizations have to consider carefully where their IT outsourcing “edge” lies. Theory tells us that the boundary should be at “things the organization can do more cheaply internally”. If that’s the criterion, it’s pretty hard to argue against having all an organization’s blogs on e.g. TypePad, for a support cost of U$150 PER YEAR complete. That’s an entire year of support for less than what it costs many organizations to do a single hour of support internally.

    I think technology in general creates a great challenge for organizational inertia, as things that were value-added internally continually become commoditised and should be outsourced. For example, I’m not convinced organizations should still host their own web sites, although there was clear value in this just a few years ago.

  6. Hi Richard – thanks for those figures. Hosting your own blogging service should enable you to have a richer environment (I’d like to be able to make use of JavaScript in my blog, for example, but this can’t be done in the externally hosted version of WordPress). However there clearly are costs associated with providing richer functionality – and there does need to be a cost-benefit analysis.

    I’d not thought about the out-sourcing of Web sites – although, on reflection, we do this for a number of our project Web sites. This might be an interesting topic for this year’s Instituional Web Management Workshop – anyone fancy submitting a proposal?

  7. When we were approached by an academic who wanted his students to have blogs, we considered three approaches to providing the facility. One of these one outsourcing. The specific service we looked at was Typepad, but obviously we were aware of some of the other services.

    The problem seemed to be that we could not find a service that offered exactly what was required – now this is often a problem, and compromises need to be reached, but the requirements seemed to be pretty basic. Firstly, we wanted the blogs to have a URL in our domain. At the time (and I suspect this is still the case, but I’m happy to be proved wrong), we could not find a service that allowed us to operate under a subdomain (e.g. blogs.rhul.ac.uk) that then allowed us to host multiple blogs (e.g. blogs.rhul.ac.uk/studentA, blogs.rhul.ac.uk/studentB etc.) The domain services mentioned above work fine for a single blog, but what about 6500 (i.e. roughly our UG population)?

    Related to this, we also were unable to find something that allowed use to manage many accounts in a practical way – the multiple user options that services like Typepad offered just didn’t seem to go far enough – we wanted each student to have their own blog, not to have somekind of ‘sub-blog’ under a main blog.

    In the end we went with hosting a package locally that we could integrate with our LDAP for logon etc. What was also noticeable was the lack of packages that supported this type of mass user activity. I remember being puzzled when Warwick Uni launched a blogging service for students that they had written their own. However, when I looked at the practical aspects of hosting many blogs, I started to realise that none of the open source packages out there did this very well.

    It may be in the future students arrive at University with their blog already – like email today, but look at the way most universities still provide an entirely separate email address for their students…

  8. [...] Writing about web page http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com/2007/01/24/third-party-or-institutional-provision-of-blogs/ [...]

  9. There are certainly advantages to building a system in-house over outsourcing. By building the system in-house at Warwick we were able to provide some features that would not be possible by using something such as Typepad. At Warwick, the blogs system is tightly integrated with our authentication system, and this allows us to also provide advanced permissions systems based on the status of the user at the University.

    Whereas most blogging systems allow users to restrict entries to specific groups of people that have to be added directly, Warwick Blogs allows users to restrict entries to staff, students, alumni or to even dig deeper than that and restrict entries to a specific course, tutor group, etc. Of the ~80000 entries on Warwick Blogs, around 40% are restricted from public viewing.

    Developing in-house also allows us to integrate Blogs with other services, such as our CMS, by developing our own APIs (I think Typepad and Blogger support this too, but not with the level of control over authentication).

  10. John Dale said

    What will happen if a posting does not comply with the party line? What will happen if criticisms are made of the organisation (the university administration, the IT services department, the Library, etc)?

    Well, you can see this two ways; either it’s a bad thing because you don’t want criticisms of your organisation made in a public forum (perhaps you’re worried that they may not be valid, or perhaps you don’t care if they’re valid, you just don’t want them out there). Or maybe it’s a good thing; academic institutions are about freedom of expression and ideas. Would a reputation of being afraid of criticism, or wanting to supress it, be in any way desirable?

    What will happen if blog posting include swear words?

    Well, the sky hasn’t fallen in yet. Perhaps it never will.

  11. Hi John – thanks for the comments. I’d agree with your comments that such issues are related to the role of an organisation and how an organisation perceives its role.

    OTOH, our organisations aren’t just me and thee – in some HEIs the PR and marketing departments may have different priorities.

    There will also be additional pressues in other sectors (which UKOLN, for example, serves). The FE and the cultural heritage sectors, for example, support children and minors to greater extent that HEIs – and are also more closely constrained by central and local government policies and the more conservative culture one often finds there.

  12. John Dale said

    Actually, thinking about it some more, Owen’s point about hosting many blogs is another important consideration; clearly you’d be nuts to build your own system to host a single blog, or even a few blogs. But if you think you may end up with thousands of blogs, and you want your system to run for many years, then you need to think about issues above the level of the individual blog, such as:-

    – Life-cycle management. What will you do as students and staff arrive and leave? Will it be easy to make new blogs, to freeze old blogs (or to delete them entirely if that’s what the leaver wants)? Will you want to offer your users the option of retaining their blog after they’ve left? Will you be able to manage the closing off of old entries across a large number of blogs in a way that suits you?

    – Content management across a large number of blogs. If you’re unlucky enough to be comment-spammed by someone who leaves an objectionable advert comment on 500 of your users’ blogs, have you got tools to easily and quickly remove them all in a single operation? If someone reports abuse to you, can you quickly act at the level of the comment or the entry or the blog concerned?

    – Do you want to present views on your blog collection above the level of a single blog? Should readers be able to view collections of entries taken from many blogs, by tag, or by department or by some other organising aspect? Will you need to take permissions into account so that different viewers see different entries in the collections?

    I suspect that Owen hits the nail on the head when he distinguishes hosting one blog from hosting many blogs; I haven’t seen anything out there, even now in 2007, when the range of blogging tools available is pretty mature and impressive, that I would regard as suitable to let me manage a whole university’s-worth of blogs in the same way that our bespoke tools do.

  13. The issue of scability is an important one. I’ve just looked at the Elgg social networking site, which currently has 12,057 active users. The software, which was developed within the UK higher education community, is available as open source and institutions such as the University of Leeds are evaluating it (they currently have 1,890 active users). This software might be worth looking at.

  14. That’s http://www.elgg.net/, not http://www.ellg.net/ :)

    It’s also worth noting that ELGG runs on the ELGG spaces infrastructure, which (in lieu of discovering actual data) I would guess lives on a server farm, not just a machine or two.

  15. Hi Phil – thanmks for spotting the broken link (which I’ve now fixed). So much for my best intentions to check links when posting! Still, who needs a link checker when I’ve got such good live checkers :-)

  16. I’ve just received email confirmations of the last 21 comments submitted to the blog – going back to Richard Akerman’s posting on
    24th January, 2007 at 8:54 pm. I received this on 26th January, 2007 at 15:49!

    This might be another example of limitations of third party services – I’ve no service level agreement with WordPress.com, so I’ve no comeback if email delivery times were of importance.

  17. Stan said

    Speaking as someone who (so I’m told) has implemented the largest social networking system in UK HE, using the fabulous Elgg, clearly our considerations were largely about scale as well as functionality. Whilst evaluating the various blogging tools available at the time, I was quite amazed at the extent to which very few of the tools actually offered what I considered to be pretty basic technical requirements such as LDAP authentication, the ability to automate blog creation and the ability to register users via xml feeds from our MIS systems – pretty much none of the main products offered any of these in ways that left me feeling confident they’d work at the scale we needed them to. So, when I contacted the guys at Elgg with my list of requirements and they instantly said yes to everything, we clearly started seriously talking to them. The end result is a social network of 36,000 users – launched at the start of this academic year and, so far, greeted with great enthusiasm by students and staff alike. We’ve also integrated it into Blackboard so we have single-sign between the systems so the social networking facilities sit alongside and very much complement the traditional VLE facilities of Bb. Whilst not wishing to sound like a salesman, we’ve also benefited from the fact that Elgg is a proper social network system – not just blogs and has significant potential for developing a PLE for every students as well as a shared learning environment for courses, communities of interest and any other grouping that wish to form themselves an online presence. I’m really pleased with our decision – there’s no way we could have done this by outsourcing/external hosting as far as I’m concerned.

    Stan

  18. John Dale said

    > The end result is a social network of 36,000 users

    Hi Stan. That’s a really interesting number; can you say anything more about it? Is that 36,000 people who are all members of the institution, or does it go beyond the institution? What have those 36,000 people actually done to be counted in the set? Have they posted something, or commented on something? Or are they just readers and/or potential contributors?

    Regards
    John

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