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Friday, January 23, 2004

Weblogging at MIT, since 1945

Update: More new-blogger text tips and picture tips added (01/26)

It's not every day I get to tell MIT folks about computers.

Andrew Grumet does it more often -- and is much more organized about it. For our class today, I'll probably spend more time scurrying around the room saying "click here for SSH" while people follow Andrew's outline or Michael's or mine. However, just the idea of being in front of an MIT classroom makes me think of Vannevar Bush, who may have been in an MIT lab when he first had the idea of engineering a solution to his own information overload.

So, because learning and writing styles vary, and we already have good linear outlines as an alternative, here's a rambling history lecture for any new webloggers who like reading big blocks of prose. Feel free to print it and take it to lunch, or come back and read it after class.

A former MIT dean and director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research & Development during World War II, Bush certainly knew about information overload. As a possible solution, he proposed a device to store the things he read, the things he wrote, and the associations his mind made between them. He called it a "memex" in a July 1945 article titled As We May Think.

(Not having a memex, or a weblog, he put the article in the Atlantic Monthly.)

Twenty years later, that plural "we" and the verb "think" were behind an online system for collaboration demonstrated by Douglas Engelbart; in the process he invented the "personal computer" tools we use every day -- the mouse and hypertext links embedded in text on a screen.

Around the same time, a less-linear thinker named Ted Nelson stretched Bush's associative links to the limit: A universal computer-based publishing system that would use "hypertext" (he coined the word) to quote and link text and multimedia -- and (the real magic) paying the authors of quoted documents. We haven't reached that Xanadu of his, but in 30 years we've put together some pieces of it.

Why blog? Sharing sparks

But I think the impulse to "blog" goes back a lot further than Bush, Engelbart and Nelson, to the first humans sitting around a flickering campfire telling stories. Now we stare into flickering computer screens, draw some inspiration from what we read between the flames, and add some of our own sparks to the conversation.

Webloggers are many kinds of people, all communicators: hunter-gatherers, shamans, journalists, storytellers, scientists, ranters, singers, and more.

(Credit: I first heard a version of that "flickering screen" metaphor from a folksinger, Bob Franke, being interviewed by a radio host who couldn't imagine such a spirit typing his words into a computer instead of writing them with a goose quill or something. He doesn't have a weblog yet, alas.)

What are weblogs?

How many of you have some kind of web page already?

How many of you know the HTML codes to make a few words bold or italic, or to link one page to another?

As Andrew says, weblogs are really just frequently-updated Web pages with their time-stamped contents stacked in reverse chronological order... usually made with tools that save you from knowing HTML.

Most weblogs are created with software that not only makes it easy to publish online and link to other pages, but to notify an online community that the page has been updated, and to share links to the blogs of selected members of that community.

Other "community of readers and writers" tools include RSS, which allows people to publish or subscribe to an automated stream of weblog contents and other news, including RSS feeds from The New York Times, BBC, and other brand-name sources of information. Weblog hosting services, each a community in itself, are provided by the makers of blogging tools like Userland Radio, Blogger, TypePad, LiveJournal and others.

Harvard host

Our examples for this class, Harvard's Berkman Center weblogs, are hosted with a program called Userland Manila, one of the first blogging tools to allow you to write and publish through a Web browser window without needing to master the codes, commands and acronyms of HTML, CSS, FTP, SSH or LSMFT.

Here's the process, by the numbers:

  1. Log into the Harvard weblog server at
  2. Create a new account using an MIT or Harvard e-mail ID.
  3. Check your e-mail to retrieve your weblog's password.
  4. Come up with a title for the weblog.
  5. Come up with a title for your first entry.
  6. Type (or cut and paste) something to share.
  7. Add any appropriate links.
  8. Preview your item.
  9. Edit it.
  10. Post it.
  11. Log out.

Cast of characters

10:09:21 AM    

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