Should Universities Host Faculty or Student Blogs? (part 1: examples and fear)

Our CIO is asking whether or not Plymouth should get involved with blogs. Not to be overly academic, but I think we should define our terms.

Despite all the talk, “blogs” are a content agnostic technology being used to support all manner of online activities.

What you’re really asking is instead: what kind of content do we want to put online, and who do we want to let do it?

In thinking about that question, I’m immediately reminded of John Lovas, whose blog at De Anza Community College I discovered via some web searching some time ago. His post on street texts, for example, is a contribution to the community of knowledge on that subject. Most interesting, perhaps, is how he addressed controversy within his professional community. Though he succumbed to cancer in June 2005, his blog still stands as an outstanding example of the quality of De Anza’s faculty.

At the University of San Diego, Lawrence B. Solum‘s Copyfutures blog illustrates how valuable the (default) open nature of blogs are to the class exploration. In Copyfutures (active from 2004 to 2005), Solum’s students posted their work and thinking on matters of copyright and got quick feedback from the intellectual property community. Open source education it wasn’t, but current and topical (on a subject that demanded such) it was.

Harvard’s Berkman Center hosts blogs for all Harvard students, faculty and staff (“anyone with a,, or email address [can] host a blog with us”). The list is longer than I wish to count, but they’re clearly active, and the aggregation of selected blogs at the Berkman Center‘s website reveals a number of thoughtful, no doubt influential, bloggers. Best of all, their terms of use and legal FAQ are offer great templates for any other university considering such services.

Terms of service, of course, mean nothing when what we’re really afraid of is bad publicity. Washingtonienne Jessica Cutler, who blogged about her Capitol Hill trysts, and former Delta flight attendant Ellen Somonetti, who posted photos on her blog, are among a small handful of bloggers who’ve lost their jobs when they crossed one line or another. Bad publicity, of course, can come from non-employee bloggers as well. Kryptonite is still living down blog posts that explained how to open their locks with a Bic pen.

Branding consultant James Torio explains: “Blogs are effective for disseminating information because they have similar characteristics to word of mouth.” But also counters that, for those who understand it, the blogosphere responds to correction and facts in ways word of mouth never did. As an example, he offers Microsoft’s deft handling of the MSN Spaces censorship controversy.

Microsoft felt the backlash from the blogosphere, and to their credit they did not issue press releases or create new advertisements for damage control, rather a blogger [joined] the conversation; he worked with Microsoft’s customers and listened to what they had to say.

Both the Microsoft and Kryptonite cases offer examples of how the internet is changing the public relations demands on any enterprise. Blogs are just one of the tools consumers now use to communicate their satisfaction, delight, frustration, or pain in their dealings with others. allows readers to comment on books, and a raft of other rating sites do the same for every other product, and for better or worse, Wikipedia reports everything the crowd knows on any subject (including Kryptonite locks and the controversy).

It’s worth noting that in none of these cases of fired employees or public relations snafus were the blogs hosted by the companies at the center of the issue. The fact is, if somebody says something embarrassing about you, it doesn’t matter where it’s hosted. What matters is how deftly you handle it.

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