On the second day of the IWMW 2008 event Michael Nolan made the commentIf people are saying we need to communicate what we’re doing better, why do so few Web Services depts have a blog?” on the event’s live blog.

Shortly after getting back from the event Michael, a Web developer at Edge Hill University sent a message to the website-info-mgt JISCMail list in which he raised this issue with a wider audience:

At the risk of opening myself up to (probably deserved) flaming and accusations of blatant self promotion, I’ve posted to the Edge Hill Web Services blog questioning why so few other university web teams have a blog:


Comments and feedback welcome!

This led to a discussion on the list – and also responses to Michael’s blog post on the Edge Hill University Web Service’s team blog.

On the mailing list various reasons were suggested for the lack of blogs by members of Web teams :

  • I find it hard keeping up with blogging – reading and writing, [because] I’m too damn busy with other projects.
  • … our workload is so great that this sort of activity tends to sink to the bottom of the list.
    Does anyone think that such blogs would add any value over and above resources such as this list? … So, to turn the question on its head, who thinks that they could benefit from reading another web team’s blog?
  • If every one of us blogged about our work, it would be very hard to sort out the chaff.

Other replied arguing the benefits of blogging suggesting the benefits of the ‘long tail’ (an obscure blog post on the intricacies of XSLT coding is likely to be of interest to perhaps small numbers of others) and how use of filtering tools should help such nuggets to be found by interested parties. Janet McNight at the University of Oxford also suggested that:

I think there’s a feeling that a ‘blog’ has to involve sustained pieces of writing, well-crafted prose, etc; when really all it needs to be is “I was wrestling with [some problem] and found [some neat
solution]: [lines of code, config, whatever]” — or “we’ve been looking into [some new technology] and these are a few of the thoughts we’ve had so far”.

I would very much agree with Janet’s comment. I feel there is a need to regard a blog as a communication rather than a publication medium. After all, many members of Web team who may be reluctant to blog are willing to make use of email lists for advice on often obscure problems – and, ironically, mailing lists tend not to have the richer structure content and software tools which can help people to filter out content which is of no interest and find the material which is.

The comments on Michael Nolan’s blog were, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat critical of the failures of institutional Web teams to embrace blogging (Michael has found only 4-5 examples of such blogs). Matt buy medications without prescriptions Machell, for example, commented that:

it often surprises me how insular the HE web development world is. It seems to talk to itself, but not to the wider web professional community

Alison Wildish responded on both the Edge Hill blog and the website-info-mgt mailing list with some considered views on the matter. She identified some of the barriers to blogging (and note that I will link to her comments on the blog as this is both easier to read, more navigable and has more easily cited URIs than the JISCMail archive) but she still felt that “there aren’t enough of us [blogging] for people to see the real value – yet! If more of us used blogs then we’d be able to gain a real picture of the work going on across all Universities“. Alison went on to list the benefits University of Bath Web Services blog are providing.

But although I would agree with Alison’s views I think there are dangers in forcing people or teams to blog (I should hasten to add that I’m not suggesting that Alison is saying this). I still feel there is a need to discuss the benefits and to gain a better understanding of best practices – and the associated dangers. And I did wonder whether, as many members of institutional Web teams are happy to contribute to mailing lists whether an email blog service, such as Posterous, might provide a lightweight approach to blogging – with this service you simplky send an email to create a blog post, which, of course, has the ‘cool uris’ and usable RSS feeds which JISCMailo lists fail to provide.

But if an email blog tool is still to heavyweight, perhaps another approach might be microblogging. We are, after all, seeing such conversational use of Twitter being used to discuss the pros and cons of team blogging, with the advantage that posts have to be kept to the limit of 140 characters – in this case, as partly illustrated, Michael Nolan raised the issue on Twitter initially, Paul Walk suggested some of the possible difficulties, Mike Ellis, with tongue in cheek, questioned whether Web managers had anything to say and Michael Nolan delivered the punch line 🙂

In the screen shot shown above there are six tweets, ~ 6*140 bytes and three twitterers discussing the issue (there are only 5 active blogs, reasons why this may be, a challenge to the reasons and a witty riposte). Short and sweet 🙂

But more seriously I think there are roles for a diversity of communications tools including email lists, blogs and micro-blogging tools: each will have its own strengths and weaknesses, but we need to experiment and gain experiences in order to find out what the strengths may be. And to revisit Michael’s original reflection on the need for members of Web teams “to communicate what we’re doing better” can it be really suggested that email lists are sufficient?