UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

A Meta-Policy For Institutional Blogs

Posted by Brian Kelly on 1 Feb 2007

I recently published my Policies For This Blog. The comments I received from Phil Wilson and Paul Ayres and the response from Scott Wilson made me reflect on the nature of policies as institutions start to provide blog services for members of the institution.

Paul felt that “metrics, policies and guidelines seems to run against the whole free form of the blogging ethos, where expressing yourself via quick and easy web publishing is a key driver” and Phil’s view was that “other than being a useful set of guidelines to help yourself keep on-topic I don’t really see what the point is“.

These comments reminded me of my experiences when I helped set up (probably) the first institutional Web service at the University of Leeds in January 19993 and began to encourage take-up, within Leeds and also across the wider community. The first set of information providers were keen and enthusiastic, who perhaps felt they were talking part in an information revolution. Soon afterwards, however, problems started. On one occasion I discovered a set of links to pornographic materials from a departmental Web server. After discussions with the department’s User Rep the links (created by a postgraduate students who had HTML authoring expertise) were grudgingly removed and I received an email saying “I still believe the Web should be free.” On another occasion I became involved in a flame war between the Greek and Turkish societies at neighbouring Universities over the contents of a Web site which gave a disputed description over the ownership of Cyprus (“how do I shut down a Web site which is telling lies” was the question I was asked).

Those early problems settled down, as institutions developed Acceptable Use Policies and a more mature understanding of the role of the Web was gained (at once stage, Intranets were felt to run counter to the Web’s culture on free information!) – and the Web became less exciting and content management systems made it more difficult to create content (joke?).

I suspect we will encounter similar problems as applications, such as blogs and wikis, make it easier for users to create their own content.

I also think there’s a danger that institutions will take a very conservative approach to the provision of such services, in order to avoid (or, more likely, defer) a recurrence of such problems.

My take on this is that experienced bloggers (those who have internalised blogging policies, for example) should seek to share their experiences in order to provide a supportive environment for the provision of institutional blogs.

Paul is right, though, to warn of the dangers of too formal an approach. And I think that a top-down provision of blogging policies is likely to result in a conservative approach, which fails to recognise the diversity of uses for blogs and stifles individual (and group) creativity. I’ve been given one example in which a senior manager has argued that a blog could not be provided within a library as it would infringe data protection legislation.

On revisiting my blog policy I realise that there are a small number of elements to it:

  • The purpose of the blog
  • The scope of the blog
  • The target audience
  • The procedures which can help ensure the blog fulfils its goals

In addition I would probably add:

  • The ethics associated with the blog

So rather than a single, top-down policy covering institutional blogs, I wonder whether a better approach would be for an institutions to identify the key principles which need to be addressed, and devolve the responsibilities for policies which encompass such principles to an appropriate level within the institution: this would enable groups such as the University PR and marketing team to have their own set of policies which may be different to those developed by different departments and by research groups and for students.

Might this approach provide a balance between the concerns of the individualist approach of early generation of bloggers and the concerns of the institution? Or would the institutions and the bloggers be happier if everyone made use of an externally-hosted service? It’s then somebody else’s problem.

One Response to “A Meta-Policy For Institutional Blogs”

  1. Paul Ayres said

    Perhaps there are two issues here – institutions needing to cover themselves for legal reasons and individuals putting in some thought about why they want to blog, especially given the massive churn rate of blogs

    It would be nice to think that institutional acceptable use policies were now mature enough to handle the important issues you raise above simply by adding “all of the above applies to our new blog service” at the bottom, that may not be the case … it would be good to hear how Warwick have handled this issue

    For the individual, Stephen Downes paper on How to be Heard, is a thoughtful contribution to refer people to when they can’t answer the “Why do you want a blog?” question

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