November 1, 2004
Interview questions and answersHey everyone. I'm going to have to "phone it in today," as the TwinsGeek says, since I will be in training all day for a new product we recently purchased for the libraries. I could have written something last night, but I spent my blog writing time last night working on an email based interview regarding UThink for a student newspaper on campus called The Wake. So, if you are interested in the UThink project then read on.
- What made you want to create the Uthink site?
The short answer is I wanted to give undergraduates a way to express an opinion about the U of M and the world around them for that matter. About a year ago the University Libraries conducted a series of focus groups with undergraduates in an effort to find out how the Libraries could serve them better. We were struck with how thankful the students who participated were; they literally thanked us for giving them an opportunity to tell us what they thought. We quickly realized that it was important to find a way where students could easily share their opinions on a regular basis. Blogs seemed like a perfect fit. However, that was just the beginning of the goals we have for blogs and UThink at the U of M.
The University Libraries are using blogs to promote intellectual freedom and to help build community on campus. We also hope to encourage classes and professors on campus to consider using blogs to enhance the learning experience, and a lot of classes are already using UThink in this way. We also hope blogs will help the libraries retain the history and cultural memory of the institution. We hope that students, faculty, and staff will leave their blogs up even after they have left as a record of their time at the university. It should be noted, however, that anyone who starts a blog has complete control over it. You can even totally delete it if you so desire.
Blogs are a great and easy way to express an opinion or share an idea. As the traditional defenders of intellectual and academic freedom, the libraries are excited to offer this opportunity to all the students, faculty and staff of the U of M.
- Are there any others like it? How did you begin?
UThink is the largest academic blogging site in North America. We have more blogs and users than anyone. Harvard also has a blog site (http://blogs.law.harvard.edu), but other than that there is nothing quite like UThink in the United States. Other universities have blogging sites, but none of them have connected blogs to the main authentication system (in our case our x.500 based Central Authentication Hub) like we have. There is not a week that goes by where I don't talk with another university or college that wants to do what we have done.
We started by researching the different types of blog software out there. We knew that whatever software we picked had to be configurable and we also had to be able to connect it to the Central Authentication Hub (CAH -- your email Internet ID and password). The software also had to be able to handle a potentially large number of users on a single installation. Movable Type fit the bill.
- What was the U's initial response? Did they see a need for it?
Yes and no. Everyone at the U that we talked to were excited and actually amazed with the system that we came up with. However, blogs were, and still are, kind of unknown. Most of the people we talk to about UThink are still kind of clueless about what a blog actually is, or what blogs are capable of doing. So, we had to educate a lot of people about what blogs are, their potential, and the goals of the UThink project. Most people at the Universtity were very excited about the possibilities.
- How is it funded? is it costly to run or create?
The University Libraries fund and support UThink. There is a cost to run the project, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn't cost a lot at all. For example, the version of Movable Type that we are running was free (2.661). We will be purchasing a campus-wide site license for Movable Type 3.1 in the near future, though. What this means is students, faculty, and staff will be able to either use UThink as they do now, or they will be able to download the software from the Libraries for their own personal use.
- Do you keep a blog? if so, why do you do it? What's the real draw?
Yes, of course I have my own blog on UThink. I blog to keep my friends and family up to date on whatever is rattling around in my brain. I also blog a lot about the Twins and the Vikings (and the Gophers), and especially about stadiums in Minnesota. It is an important topic to me and I use my blog to share my opinion about that. I actually focus on that quite a bit. But my blog is really an online diary of my life. I blog about my kids and family. I have a photo blog where I share pictures. It is fun to look back and see what I was thinking about on a particular day, or what I was doing.
What is the real draw? I'm not sure what you mean. I guess I would say that I blog for myself, but I love it when what I write makes a connection with another person. I have met so many people through my blog; people at the university and around the world. It has really been a blast sharing my opinion and building a group of regular readers. I am quite amazed that anyone would value my opinion enough to read my blog on a daily basis, but people do. That has been extremely gratifying.
However, that is also one of the main misconceptions about blogs. Just because you write something does not mean someone will read it. It has taken me a good year to build my readership. When I started, my neighbor, my best friend, and my mom read my blog. That was it. If you start blogging only because you want to receive a whole bunch of comments and reader feedback, unless you have a big group of friends who promise to read your musings everyday, you may be a little disappointed. Blogging takes dilligence. Don't expect hundreds of visitors and comments just because you started a blog. It takes time to build an audience. Start a blog for yourself, to practice writing or to track an important topic you are interested in. Eventually, if you want them to, people will start coming to your blog.
- Why do you think blogs are so popular? both for the readers and the writers?
I kind of answered that above, but I think blogs are so popular because first of all, they are a very easy way to create a web page. You don't need to know a programming language, HTML, or CSS. With UThink, you can be up and running in less that 30 seconds! Log in, write your opinion, share a story, post a picture, click "Save," and the software takes care of the rest.
For readers, blogs are totally biased, sometimes offensive, and usually highly opinionated. In other words, they are a lot of fun. If you have an interest there is usually a blog out there that covers that interest in a totally biased and unique way. Blogs are a way to connect people with these similar interests.
Everyone has an opinion about something. Some people more than others. If you are one of these types of people blogging can be a whole lot of fun, and maybe even a little therapeutic.
- How do the Uthink blogs work? Is there any privacy? Can the bloggers or the readers be anonymous? Can anyone read any of the blogs?
UThink blogs can be read by anyone. There currently is no capability within UThink wo make a blog, or a blog posting, private. Readers also may not be anonymous. The initial directory after the UThink domain (http://blog.lib.umn..edu/) is always the user's U of M Internet ID. Essentially, the University Libraries will fight for your right to say anything you want, but you are going to have to stand by what you said.
- Are there any rules or regulations in Uthink? Are there any restrictions on content?
UThink is governed by the same rules that govern the free web space provided to every student, faculty, and staff member by OIT (http://www.tc.umn.edu/~internetid). The University Libraries will defend the intellectual and academic freedom of the user as defined by the Regents of the University of Minnesota (http://www1.umn.edu/regents/policies/academic/Academic_Freedom.pdf) when appropriate.
- Have there been any problems so far (technical or dealing with the users)? Do conflicting viewpoints and controversial topics ever get out of hand? Does anyone moniter the content?
As of today there are 8,195 individual posts or entries on UThink. And while there have been controversial topics posted on various blogs on UThink, and a lot of discussion (and maybe anger) based on those posts, so far there have been no official complaints or any content-based problems on the system. And no, no one "monitors the content." There is simply too much to monitor. And I am very happy to report that there also haven't really been any technical problems either. The system has really hummed since we unveiled it last April.
- How sophisticated is the system in relation to other types of blogs?
The system, Movable Type, can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want. Movable Type is quite possibly the most popular blogging software in the world. It is extremely configurable. If you know what you are doing you can make your blog look like whatever you want, and do some pretty amazing things. Movable Type also has a huge body of users that develop "plug-ins" that extend the functionality of the software. If you would like a plug-in installed just let me know and I'll see if it is compatible with UThink. If so, we will install it.
- How easy is it to use?
Well, I would say it is very easy to use, but I am a little biased. However, like I said above, with UThink you can have your own blog in less than 30 seconds. You could probably have your first post up in less than a minute. We have also developed a tool called the "Template Changer" through which you can select from over 20 different designs and change the look or your blog with a click of a button. We hope to add a lot more templates or themes in the months ahead, and we encourage anybody skilled in HTML and graphic design to submit possible designs for inclusion in the system.
- Why do you think people want to let total strangers read personal things about them? On ther other hand why do people like to read others' journals?
I don't know. Maybe there is a touch of exhibitionism or voyerism in all of us. Blogs are raw, unfettered, and written by people like you and me. The only requirement to write a blog is that you have something to say. That usually isn't a problem for any of us. Sometimes, what you write or read is total crap, but sometimes it is well written and maybe even inspired. I suppose that is what makes it fun. You never know what you will get.
- Do you read any blogs on a regular basis? What are your favorites and why?
I like the TwinsGeek (http://www.twinsgeek.com). I also like Aaron's Baseball Blog (http://aarongleeman.com). Aaron is also a student at the U of M and every once in a while he will write about his experiences at the U. Usually they are hilarious. I also like James Lileks's Bleats (http://www.lileks.com/bleats/index.html), not because I agree with his politics (or disagree) but because he is such a good writer. I am stunned by the quality of his musings, especially considering he usually writes them "off the cuff" and usually late at night. There are more, but these are pretty much the ones I check every day.
- What makes a good blog? If someone wants to start a blog, what are some
things they should keep in mind? How do you create a good blog that people
will like to read?
A good blog is usually well written and has some sort of focus. One of the problems with my blog, as I see it, is that I write about so many different topics that I'm sure I alienate a lot of people. Most well known blogs, or blogs with a lot of readers, usually focus on a particular topic, like politics or the Twins. A good blog is also usually updated regularly, preferably daily, but it doesn't have to be. However, if you are trying to build an audience, don't expect people to come back if you only write once every two weeks. And like I said above, don't expect tons of readers right away just because you started a blog. And don't get frustrated either. Again, blogging takes dilligence.
Start a blog because you have an opinion to share. Use your blog to hone that opinion and your own skills as a writer. Don't shy away from controversy, but stand up for what you believe in. Just start writing and sooner or later you will begin to trust your own opinion more and your ability to coherently express it. Blogging can be very liberating and a lot of fun.
Also, you don't have to start a blog just to get a whole bunch of readers. You could also start a blog to manage a group project, or keep track of what your friends are up to. With UThink you can also start a blog to keep track of citations from library databases, or as a record of the process you used to write a research paper, thesis, or dissertation. There are many different ways to use blogs. The UThink software is very flexible and will allow for a lot of what some people would consider atypical blogging.
- Thanks Again!
Sure thing. Let me know if you have any other questions or if you need me to elaborate or explain further any of my answers above. One extra thing I'd like to add is that for some reason Google ranks UThink blogs very highly. For example, do a Google search for "minnesota wisconsin axe." My site is the 7th on the first page and even comes before the official UW athletics web site. Google seems to rank UThink blogs much higher than other blogging sites, like LiveJournal or Diaryland. I believe this is because the UThink domain (http://blog.lib.umn.edu) denotes that the content comes from both an educational institution and a library. Anyway, I think that is pretty interesting.
Posted by snackeru at November 1, 2004 8:26 AM | UThink
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Well done sir.
Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at November 1, 2004 3:50 PM