Saving Harvard’s blog history

Harvard closed down its network of blogs, that helped define the medium in the early 2000s. But, thankfully, they've been saved for posterity.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Matt Mullenweg:

This month, Automattic had the privilege of working with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (BKC) to migrate their early 2000s blogging platform over to our Pressable infrastructure.

The short version: Harvard was one of the earliest universities to truly embrace blogging. It built a network of blogs around its staff, which became hugely influential in the 2000s. But, as the years passed, activity died down, focus moved to social media, and the tech folks decided to pull down the WordPress server they were using.

A huge chunk of digital history was about to be lost. The first I heard of it was digital pioneer Doc Searls rapidly moving his blog. And then, Automattic, the people behind the commercial flavour of WordPress, stepped in to preserve the rest.

I’m really glad they did.

Deleting digital history

One of my deep regrets is that much of the work I did between 2006 and the end of 2011 has been lost to the internet. At Reed Business Information (now LexisNexis Risk Solutions), I built a network of blogs, initially under the bizbuzzmedia name on a customised version of Community Server, and then under the magazine’s own domains using Movable Type. We were driving big traffic at one point, across a network of around 100 blogs.

After I left, some were migrated to WordPress, but all were eventually shut down and removed them from the internet. Odd traces remain. I have an empty profile on Computer Weekly, that’s the legacy of the blog I wrote for them for a while. But, aside from what’s been preserved in the Wayback Machine, six years of content is just… gone.

Stories were broken in those posts. Conversations developed in the comments — and friendships were forged. A chuck of the digital history of these industries was lost, due to technology decisions. This is why I shudder when SEOs start talking about “content pruning”. Yes, it might marginally benefit your site's SEO — but at what cost to readers' experience and history?

Modernising digital history

It’s interesting getting a sense of how they did it. According to Matt’s post, it was a two-step process:

The Harvard Blogs multisite consisted of around 1,500 blogs. To move it over, we systematically migrated the archive to our servers and then upgraded the network to the latest version of WordPress (we also updated a handful of plugins and themes and tested the updated versions against the original sites hosted by Harvard.).

From experience, the “updated a handful of plugins” made me wince; I have some bad experiences of trying to upgrade large-scale blog platforms that are dependent on an ancient plugin that’s not actively being maintained…

But Matt’s final point is one that resonated with me:

There was something really nice about the neighborhood of blogs the Harvard blog network provided that I hope they or another university tries again sometime. Harvard is now 387 years old, I hope these blogs last at least that much longer (that would be 2,410 AD!).

Thos old blogs were a neighbourhood. There was a sense of discussion between them, of ideas bouncing around between writers, in an ongoing discussion. Think of social media discussions, but in depth and moving between sites. That’s what we’ve lost — and which we’ve not yet regained in the Substack era. One of the secrets of finding readers in the pre-social media age was a “share alike” mentality. People linked to each other freely and fluidly, in the expectation that the favour will be returned.

We don’t see much of that these days. As someone who still links out prolifically, I see those who return the compliment — and those who never do.

And yes, I judge them…

Are you part of a community? Or are you just exploiting one?

Bloggingarchivingdigital archiveshistorydoc searlsmatt mullenweg

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.