Upcoming Changes in the Blogs.Harvard Blogging Platform

7/13/2018

In 2003, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society (now the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society) began an unusual experiment: we launched a blogging platform. That seems quaint today in the age of ubiquitous access to services that facilitate the sharing of user-generated content. But it was an uncommon achievement at the time.

That platform—blogs.law.harvard.edu (now blogs.harvard.edu)—allowed registered users from the Berkman and broader Harvard communities, including some from outside those communities, the freedom to reach a wide audience with messages of their choosing without hand-coding html or resorting to Dreamweaver. Recall that Facebook did not launch until February 2004 (with registrations limited to Harvard students). Jack Dorsey posted his first Tweet in March 2006, and Twitter went live for the general public that July. Tumblr arrived on the scene in February 2007. “Weblogs@Harvard,” as it was known, was lauded as the first service of its kind in higher-education.

The Center’s former Executive Director, John Palfrey, recounted the story of the platform’s design and development seven years ago (and eight years after its launch) in a detailed 2011 post. He recalled that it began with the idea that “we should encourage Harvard’s academics to start blogging.” The Harvard Crimson’s contemporaneous coverage of the launch back in 2003 quoted former Berkman Center fellow Dave Winer, who responded to those who might criticize blogs as “frivolous soapboxes” by noting that one never knows “when a great news story might come out from someone who last week was just whining.” (Interestingly enough, the Crimson also quotes blogging pioneer and current Vox luminary Matthew Yglesias, then a student at Harvard College.)

The platform’s ease of use helped introduce individuals and organizations Harvard-wide to the world of online discourse. It is currently home to more than two thousand blogs and nine thousand bloggers. And the platform has an audience in over 100 countries, peaking at over a half of a million page views per month.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the growth and maturation of our blogging platform has mirrored the phenomenon of blogging more generally. Although garnering attention has become trickier, there is now more opportunity than ever before for individuals to reach audiences. Our platform no longer offers a unique opportunity for online engagement. And it is technically antiquated when compared with contemporary, streamlined platforms that offer more advanced tools for social interactions.

While this fact gave us reason enough to think about finding a new home for the platform within Harvard’s central IT department—we first set the gears in motion to do so about four years ago!—a second issue occasions our greasing those gears. The aforementioned 2011 post noted that the Center had managed the platform through terms of use that addressed users rights and responsibilities and that “[t]he call for dispute resolution has been minimal.” This has changed over time as the platform has scaled. The Center is increasingly faced with the types of thorny content moderation decisions that many online platforms that are subjects of our research face every day. Making discretionary judgments about speech (including offensive speech) within the context of an academic institution which maintains a commitment to academic freedom, with such a wide range of users (some much more and some much less connected to Harvard), on a platform that bears that institution’s name, at a time where alternative options abound, has become a tricky business. It should come as no surprise that a research center like ours is a fantastic place to study the online ecosystem—including the ecosystem for content moderation—but is less well-equipped to operate a platform at scale either technically or substantively.

With these two sets of issues in mind, we will end our operation of the blogs.harvard.edu platform in favor of a new platform managed by Harvard University’s Information Technology team. Specifics of that transition are being worked out, and we expect to roll out plans in collaboration with HUIT over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, in anticipation of that transition, the Berkman Klein Center is taking steps to cabin the universe of users with blogs on the platform. In the earliest days of the platform, policies about what users could have blogs were fairly liberal. In April 2007, the platform was migrated from the Userland Manila Web Publishing System to WordPress. At that time, restrictions were put in place to only allow account creation on the new WordPress platform by users having a harvard.edu or affiliated (HBS, HMS, etc) email address. But, early users were grandfathered in and allowed to maintain their existing blogs.

At this point, for all of the reasons set out above, we feel that the time for hosting content from non-Harvard-affiliated bloggers on Harvard servers has passed. We are giving non-Harvard users with active blogs the opportunity to export existing content over the coming weeks. Those users will then be transitioned off the platform.

We look back on the early days of the platform with a lot of nostalgia and echo the enthusiasm expressed back in 2011 about the role the platform played in the birth of podcasting, or in providing a platform to former students like Ory Okolloh (who went on to found Ushahidi), or—generally—in allowing an extraordinary array of “students, faculty, fellows, staff and alumni of Harvard” to “cut their teeth” by posting, commenting, and engaging with one another. From Creative Commons, to Global Voices, to PRX, the Center specializes in playing the role of incubator, where new platforms and other technologies can be piloted before they are spun out to operate in the proverbial wild. We are thus happy to turn over the keys to Harvard’s elite technical team to keep things up and running alongside many other University-wide services. We look ahead with the knowledge that the platform, in its new form, will be well cared for.

Plugin updates – Multilingual and form plugins

The WPML plugin, which allows for the multilingual functionality within WordPress, and the Gravityforms plugin, which allows for the addition of user input forms on blogs, were updated this morning.

A selection of blogs using the plugins were tested for compatibility with the updates and no adverse changes were noticed. If you do experience an issue with the update, please let us know via the contact form.

WordPress upgraded to 4.6

We’re now running wordpress 4.6.1, the latest and greatest from Automattic. This is a minor release change from the previous version we were running. It does incorporate some new features, like new native fonts and editor improvements, but mostly it is a necessary update because of security fixes.

Version 4.6 of WordPress, is named “Pepper” in honor of jazz baritone saxophonist Park Frederick “Pepper” Adams III. For more info about the new features in this release, check out Automattic’s news release.

Along with this update, various plugins and themes were updated to their latest revisions. There were no major version changes, all of the themes and plugins versions only changes by minor versions.

If you experience any issues with the updates, please drop us a line via the contact us link on the homepage (note: you must be logged in to submit the form).

Happy blogging!

WordPress upgraded to 4.4

We’re now running wordpress 4.4.2, the latest Automattic WP release. This is a minor release change from the previous version we were running. It does incorporate some new features, like enhancements that make your, and your readers’ experience more connected and responsive, and a new twenty theme: Twenty Sixteen. The update also includes a set of security fixes, which are always a good addition.

Version 4.4 of WordPress, is named “Clifford” in honor of jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown. For more info about the new features in this release, check out Automattic’s news release.

Blogs.harvard.edu is now live

As mentioned in a previous update, Harvard blogs were slated to move from blogs.law.harvard.edu to their new home at blogs.harvard.edu, which would establish the platform as the official University-wide system. The migration was successfully completed last night.

You should not need to take any action as a result of this shift (besides clicking on ‘update’ banner if you have Jetpack enabled) and you should not notice any change in service (besides a new, shorter URL). If you do, please drop us a line with and explanation of the problems you are experiencing.

The next step in the update to the blogs system will be to migrate the ownership and support of the platform from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society to HUIT. We will keep you posted as this effort unfolds.

Server migration and a few bugs with CSS

You may have noticed earlier this week that the blogs were unavailable for a portion of the day and that some blogs were displaying errors or were displaying incorrectly.  If you noticed this, you are one of the few blog owners or blog viewers who were adversely affected by our server migration early that morning.

We worked over the course of the day to fix the various issues that appeared, including rewriting some code in various plugins and themes. One of the issues that could not be fixed was an incompatibility between two plugins, Jetpack and WordPress Custom CSS (also known as Safe CSS). As a result of this conflict, the WordPress Custom CSS plugin had to be removed. There were approximately 50 blogs that were using the WordPress Custom CSS plugin which were affected by this incompatibility.

We’ve worked over the week to migrate all the custom CSS over, to work with the new custom CSS functionality within Jetpack. However, you as the blog owner who were using the previous plugin now need to enable the Jetpack functionality.

To do this you first need to perform the following steps:

  1. Enable Jetpack
    1. Click on the Jetpack link in the administration section of your blog. The link should appear in your admin left navigation bar as well as on your administration dashboard.
    2. Connect to your WordPress.com account by clicking the connect button and logging in to WordPress.com or if you don’t have an account you can create one on the same page.
  2. Once Jetpack is enabled, enable Custom CSS
    1. If you are not already on the Jetpack dashboard, click on the Jetpack link again.
    2. Click on the ‘See the other 27 Jetpack features’ on the bottom of that page
    3. Hover your mouse over the Custom CSS row – a link to activate that feature will appear.  Click on that link.
  3. Once Custom CSS is enabled, activate your CSS customizations
    1. Hover your mouse over the Custom CSS row – a link to configure that feature will appear.  Click on that link.
    2. A CSS stylesheet editor will appear – your original custom CSS edits should appear in this window.
    3. Click Save Stylesheet to apply the Custom CSS
  4. You should now see the custom CSS changes.

Thank you for your patience in the process of our migration – we apologize for the inconvenience this caused.

A new home for blogs

Over the past several months we have implemented changes and updates to the blogs.law.harvard.edu service to upgrade the site. The last of these updates will be to move blogs.law.harvard.edu to blogs.harvard.edu, which will establish blogs.harvard.edu as the official University-wide blogging platform.

Following these interface and system changes and the shift to blogs.harvard.edu as an official platform, HUIT will assume management of the updated service. The effort to recast and further develop the new University blogging platform has been made possible, in large part, by the support and cooperation of HUIT.

In practical terms, this change means that URLs for the blogging site will no longer have “.law” in them. This switch will happen in the first weeks of September (stay tuned for a more exact date). After this date, you’ll notice that your blog posts will have the blogs.harvard.edu URLs instead of the blogs.law.harvard.edu URLs that they used to have. Your existing posts will be moved to blogs.harvard.edu as well. Any blogs.law.harvard.edu URLs will forward automatically to the new site at blogs.harvard.edu, so that previously distributed links should continue to work as normal. You should not notice any change in service, this change should not affect the search rank of your content and you will not need to take any action.

We look forward to this new chapter of blogging at Harvard and hope you have found these changes to be positive improvements.

Theme and Plugin updates

Along with the recent maintenance release to the WordPress core platform, various themes and plugins were recently updated.

Plugins:

  • Gravity Forms
  • Syntax Highlighter
  • Creative Commons Licensing Configurator
  • Akismet
  • Jetpack

Themes:

  • Twentyfifteen
  • The Newswire
  • Responsive
  • Virtue

WordPress 4.2.3 Maintenance Release

Harvard Blogs is now running WordPress 4.2.3, the latest security and maintenance release from Automattic. This is a maintenance release change from the previous version we were running and mostly it is a necessary update because of security fixes.

There should be no noticeable differences in the platform, however more info about the bugs and fixes included can be found on Automattic’s news release.

WordPress upgraded to 4.2

We’re now running wordpress 4.2.1, the latest and greatest from Automattic. This is a minor release change from the previous version we were running.  It does incorporate some new features, like new character sets (including emoji!) but mostly it is a necessary update because of security fixes.

This release is code named “Powell” in honor of jazz pianist Bud Powell.  For more info about the new features in this release, check out Automattic’s news release.