Back in December 2006 I attended a quarterly meeting with the JISC and MLA (UKOLN’s core funders). At the meeting I reported on this blog (blogging, and related Web 2.0 services are important aspects of UKOLN’s work plans which our funders are looking for us to advise on). I was also able to report that my director, Liz Lyon, had sent an email to UKOLN’s staff list the previous day which gave details of a presentation (PDF format) by Herbert Van de Sompel and Carl Lagoze (leading lights in the US digital library development community in the US), which cited one of my early postings. It was obviously very pleasing to be able to update our funders with this evidence of the potential for blogs for maximizing the impact of UKOLN’s work.
Use of a Hosted Blogging Service
One aspect related to this blog which I haven’t covered to date is the use of a hosted blogging service rather than installing the blogging software locally. A deliberate decision was made to make use of the hosted WordPress.com service – the need to explore options which may be of particular relevance to the museums, libraries and archives community, who may not necessarily have the technical expertise and resources (nor indeed motivation) to install software within their organisation. At UKOLN we are very aware that the preferences and approaches taken within the development community in higher education may not e suited to the cultural heritage sector – so the blog experiment provides a valuable opportunity to explore best practices in using a third party service – and will be described in a paper on “Web 2.0: How to stop thinking and start doing: Addressing organisational barriers” by Mike Ellis (Science Museum) and myself which we will present at the Museums and the Web 2007 conference. (Note that although the emphasis has been on exploring options for the MLA sector, the use of third party blogging services is also relevant to the higher and further education sectors, as illustrated by JISC’s Digitisation Programme Blog).
I’ve recently discussed ways of measuring the impact of blogs and suggested possible approaches to blog policies: issues which, although possibly alien in nature to some of the early pioneers in blogging, may need to be addressed in the wider public sector environment.
I also provided some suggestions on how lightweight policies might be useful in overcoming the institutional conservatism which might be found in public sector organisations such as local and central government, the civil service, etc. An implicit assumption was of self-compliance with such policies. However there is also a need to have in place contingency plans in case problems occur.
Managing Possible Problems
One potential problem area is what happens if a blog succumbs to a spam attack while the author is away (either planned absence, such as holiday on unplanned absence such as illness). In the case of this blog, although the Askimet spam filter has been very successful in blocking automated spam attach, I have to ask myself what would happen if a) spam managed to evade the spam filter; b) the blog received manually-submitted spam or c) offensive or illegal comments were submitted? I’ve discussed this issue with a colleague and suggested that we extend the approach taken with use of other third party services (including Google Analytics) by me giving him administrator access to various services I see in case of problems.
Trust Your Users
Further thought led me to reflect on the perspectives of the institution. I met recently with a colleague in the marketing department at the University of Bath who was very interested in the possibilities of various Web 2.0 technologies for communications with staff and students and to enable members of the institution to promote the institution themselves I suspect he may have an easier job that his peers at other institutions as Bath is such as beautiful city and the university does have a very good reputation for its teaching and learning and research. I therefore suggested the the University may benefit from adopting the Web 2.0 catchphrase of “trust your users”.
There’s a need, though, for some deeper thinking than just resorting to simplistic slogans. What happens if some users aren’t trustworthy? We could go back to the notion of moderated blogs (which might provide additional quality control mechanisms) but this would result in the notion of a blog as a publication rather than a blog as a conversation.
So I thought about my own personal perspective. What happens if I say something outrageous in my blog? A simple response to this would be to point out that on a public blog such as this, my professional integrity is at stake and that, as the blog encourages feedback and debate, anything outrageous would be picked up by the blog readers – and multiple feedback channels are available, ranging from the comments facility and the Meebo chat too through to email, telephone, face-to-face discussions or even a chat over a pint! And, of course, as an employee of the University of Bath I have to comply with University policies. which outlines employees’ rights (Freedom: Within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions) and responsibilities (Corresponding responsibility: To support the same freedoms for those of differing views.)
My suggestion to organisations who may have concerns over use of blogging services for engaging with their users would be to trust your users within the context of individuals having an awareness of their responsibilities, complemented by feedback mechanisms and backed up be contractual requirements in exceptional circumstances.
Of course when blogs become pervasive I suspect we’ll look back at such debates with amusement – why such a fuss over blogs but not email, for example!?