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OPML Chapter One: The Harvard Book of OPML

The biggest institutional supporter of OPML over the past several years has been Harvard University.

It is perhaps not surprising that a university would see the potential of an outline-oriented approach to online information. Outlines are a fundamental way to express knowledge.

The generality and power of outlining is most obvious in annotated bibliographies, which are probably the most comprehensive units of knowledge created and shared in an academic community. The libraries, in turn, are organized to help students, faculty and researchers generate such bibliographies and access the referenced materials. Research surveys, summaries of current issues, scholarly papers and books all have a fundamentally outline structure. Indeed, the university itself is structured as an outline: Teaching and research in a university revolves around outlines: the university and its departments, research centers and their groups, majors and concentrations and their required course.

Outlines in turn are portals to other forms of expression. One can have an outline of mathematical equations, an outline of field research, an outline of experimental data, an outline of audio and video recordings, or an outline of Second Life communities.

Indeed, outlines are a central structural metaphor for the university. And outlines are almost always how collaboration is begun (“hey, take a look at this outline”) and how the creative results of collaboration are summarized and shared (“here is an ouline of what we came up with”).

Harvard has long wrestled with how to use information technology to make its knowledge more accessible, both within its own community and, increasingly, with the rest of the world. For the “rest of the world” aspect, see for example today’s post below. There will be a lunch tomorrow at the Berkman Center, with Charlie Nesson hosting a discussion a conference scheduled for next spring entitled “How Open Will Harvard Be to Internet and Society.”

As part of this overall theme, Dave Winer was invited to be a Fellow at Harvard several years ago, and was asked to use blogging, RSS and OPML to help transform the University. If you want to get a rich sense of the times and the task Dave faced back then, read his wonderful piece for the Harvard Crimson, which is available online in blog form, with additons, on the web. This is a classic piece that deserves to be read widely. Here is my favorite excerpt. It is dated April 30, 2003:

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 a 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.

Citizen bloggers in New Hampshire?

One of the best ideas I’ve heard so far came from Mike Clough, a foreign policy expert I met at Berkman. 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, we work together to help the citizens of New Hampshire get started.

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

New Hampshire, so close to Cambridge, and with 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.

I’ll be visiting Dartmouth College (in New Hampshire) on May 9, and then will return during the summer, perhaps often, to interview candidates, and write about it on my weblog.

Our server is open

We’re just getting started with weblogs here at Berkman. We’ve opened a server, where anyone with a harvard.edu email 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 Berkman, 7PM, see our weblog for details. Every meeting we spend about one hour reviewing the software, I answer questions, take requests, and drill the core stuff every week, so that newbies always learn something, and always feel welcome. Then we spend about a half-hour talking about what we’re learning and sharing ideas on how the technology might be better used.

Dave Winer

Thus began several years of experimenting which saw the first university-wide, open blogging service established at Harvard, and saw Dave convince the New York Times to become the first major newspaper to make available public RSS feeds. While both were Fellows at Harvard, Dave and Christopher Lydon did the first podcasts–which included realtime coverage of the US Presidential Primary in New Hampshire as well as upwards of a hundred interviews with experimenters with blogging around the world. Ultimately Chris took this around the world with web broadcasts from Africa, the Carribean, and South America.

Many of the leading applications of community information technology at Harvard are built on a foundation of OPML. Many Harvard bloggers have moved to outline-based blogging, using the OPML Editor or the OPML Workstation Writer and their associated free open hosting services. Complex, multiple-layered OPML outlines can be easily examined in the Grazr AJAX OPML viewer.

Professor John Palfrey at Harvard Law School oversees a comprehensive online resource on Internet Law in a public set of OPML files which combine course outline, syllabus, and RSS blog lists of experts writing in the field. The result is a stunning summary of the state of a fast-moving field, combining John’s overall perspective with daily, real-time updates from other experts in the field such as Larry Lessig.

John maintains the popular “Blogs for Teachers” public aggregator site, with OPML output, on TopTenSources.

The H20 online educational community, which is a multi-university collaboration to share course materials, uses OPML to make its library of course materials available in an open format. Users can make “Playlists” of educational materials and publish them in open OPML on the site. Anyone can visit the site and use the OPML materials.

Finally, OPML is being used by researchers at Harvard to conduct studies of communities of bloggers, literally around the world. Berkman Fellow Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices recently used OPML outlines of Global Voices blogs to create a Google-based search service for the Global Voices community.

Indeed, the collected blog subscription information held within Bloglines forms an open dataset, in OPML, that can provide enormous insight into the reading lists of the hundreds of thousands of the web’s core users.

Companies that have been spun off into Cambridge’s OPML Alley include Mike Kowalchik‘s and Adam Green‘s Grazr, referenced above, as well as our own John Palfrey’s and Bela Labovitch’s TopTenSources, which in turn publishes human-and-machine-edited OPML source lists on many hundreds of topics. Pito Salas’ Blogbridge is the most powerful aggregator available, and allows remote access to OPML feeds–meaning that a complex network targeting shared, dynamic OPML feeds can be readily constructed and will operate automagically. In addition, Pito publishes OPML feeds for use by others, including his Top 100 blogs opml source. Last-but-not least citizen blogger and evangalist Lisa Williams’ (of H2Otown/ Watertown) soon-to-be launched Placeblogger site which uses OPML to provide central access to hundreds of citizen journalists in towns around the US.


As I compose my book on OPML, I am of course influenced by what happens on the web as I write. I am going to include references where helpful to contemporary, topical material such as the announcement from the Berkman Center below. When I look back, these refernces will provide additional context for the book. In the present, these links and posts elaborate on the theme of the post.

Home – Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Tuesday Luncheon Series: Charles Nesson asks “How Open Will Harvard Be to Internet and Society?”

How Open Will Harvard Be to Internet & Society? That’s the big question for the Internet & Society 2K7 Conference, set for May 31 and June 1, 2007. What would a more open Harvard mean or look like for faculty, for staff, for students, for alumni? Is there an understanding among all as to what open access is? The process and the conversations in the lead up to the Spring conference are integral in the shaping of the conference; Professor Nesson will speak at this Tuesday’s luncheon at 12:30 p.m. about his hopes for Internet & Society at Harvard, but will as importantly be listening to the needs, desires and perspectives of those affected by the policies across Harvard and beyond.

Charles Nesson, with fellow Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, has been chairing biannual Internet & Society conferences since 1996.

Charlie’s preliminary blogpost on this conference: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/nesson/blog…
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