Citizen Bloggers in N.H.?

At Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, our job is to understand and help the Web. In the early days of the Internet much of the innovation happened at the great engineering schools: MIT, Berkeley, Illinois, Utah, Carnegie-Mellon. Now the Internet is entering a new phase, and the action is in the humanities, the liberal arts, business, law, education, journalism, design, medicine, even religion and certainly politics.

My interest, as a software developer, is the Web as a writing environment. The current state of the art in writing on the Web is the phenomenon of weblogs, which have been written about far and wide, but in many ways are still just getting started.

As an expert on weblogs, I’m often asked what they are. I like to say that there are two definitions, one narrow, one broad. Narrowly, a weblog is a site written by one person or a small number of people, in a personal style, presented chronologically, generally not for pay.

More broadly, a weblog is what a personal website is in the early 21st Century. The software used to edit a weblog is both easier and more powerful than personal website software of the 1990s. The innovation in weblog software is that engineers, like myself, have learned how to make writing for the Web easier, while the users have become more familiar with networking. In the future both trends should continue, and weblogs will do more, as will the writers who employ them.

I think weblogs are a very big idea. In fact I have a bet with Martin Nisenholtz of The New York Times, saying that by 2007 the top stories in world news will break on weblogs. This is not merely a bet between gentlemen—there’s real money on the line. I’m sure I will win.

We’re returning to what I call amateur journalism, people writing for the public for the love of writing, without any expectation of financial compensation. This process is fed by the changing economics of the publishing industry which is employing fewer reporters, editors and writers. But the Web has taught us to expect more information, not less, and that’s the sea-change that the big publications face—how to remain relevant in the face of a population that can do for themselves what the “BigPubs” won’t.

Where much of what the Berkman Center does is defensive—protecting the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, in the context of the Internet—I represent the offense. My job is to help people use the Web to exercise rights in clearly non-infringing ways. If the people I help get in trouble with the government, so the theory goes, our country and perhaps the world is in serious trouble.

An example of weblogs at work: In early April, Dean of Harvard College Harry R. Lewis ’68 published a letter about copyright on the Internet. Shortly thereafter Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at the Berkman Center, published a critique of Lewis’ policy. Seltzer is an expert on copyright on the Internet, and her opinion, very respectfully stated, while critical of Lewis, was of obvious interest to the community defined by our weblog. So I linked to Wendy’s piece, and the Dean’s letter, without comment, from the main Berkman weblog.

All this happened very quickly, in hours, and while the University has justifiably expressed an interest in our use of the Harvard name and logo, the comment from Seltzer, and our inclusion of it on the Berkman blog, caused no waves. I find this very gratifying—weblogs are playing a valuable role in respectful debate among powerful and informed people. The dean had to do his job, and we had ours. This is scholarly discourse in the age of the Web: it’s quick—and thoughtful. It’s everything I hoped it would be when I accepted the fellowship at the Berkman Center.

One of the best ideas I’ve heard so far came from Mike Clough, a foreign policy expert I met at the Berkman Center. The idea is to somehow give a weblog to any New Hampshire voter who wants one, and then, much as I’m helping people at Harvard get started, to help the citizens of New Hampshire get started.

Citizen bloggers covering the candidates for U.S. president. Everyone who hears the concept says Hmm, that might work. More than anything, I want the U.S. presidential election of 2004 to be a real election, to mean something. I wonder if many other citizens feel the same way?

With New Hampshire so close to Cambridge, the technology so ripe and the candidates so willing, it seems we may actually be able to route around the professional press and make something real happen this election cycle.

So we’re just getting started with weblogs here at the Berkman Center. We’ve opened a server, where anyone with a harvard.edu e-mail address can create a free weblog. Our hope is that many people will take us up on this offer, and we can explore the potential of this new medium together. Toward that end we have regular meetings every Thursday at the Berkman Center, 7 p.m., to help people get started with their new weblogs, and to share ideas and learn from each other. If you’re interested, come by and let’s get going.

Dave Winer is a fellow at the Berkman Center of Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. He is the editor of Scripting News (www.scripting.com), one of the longest-running weblogs on the Internet.