With growth of blogging on campus, Stanford gets caught up in Web 2.0

L.A. Cicero Gerritsen

At http://blog.stanford.edu, blogs are categorized by individual and group type. Margot Gerritsen’s blog, Smart Energy Show (http://smartenergyshow.com), features interviews with peers on campus and in the field about various issues related to energy. Gerritsen, above, is an assistant professor of energy resources engineering.

The Internet search engine Technorati.com currently tracks more than 112 million blogs, while Stanford’s new blog directory lists just 60 to 70 of them — from the student-driven Unofficial Stanford Blog to that of Law School Professor Larry Lessig, who was blogging long before it was a blip on the world’s collective computer screen.

The blogs listed on the directory range from being completely Stanford-centric to those with content unrelated to Stanford at all. Rather, the reason why the university has decided to list them is to highlight the online contributions of members of the Stanford community — students, staff, faculty and alumni — who have embraced the new and dynamic ways of communicating and connecting to one another in the realm dubbed Web 2.0.

The unfiltered nature of this new cyber-frontier and the much more polished approach that a university such as Stanford has with regard to image and messaging may at first seem to be polar opposites. But despite the proliferation of blooper videos that go viral and the antics of more than 212 million MySpace members, there are indeed ways that the new Web can be leveraged to further Stanford’s overall academic mission and outreach efforts.

There is a plethora of voices, as well as undisputedly innovative thinking and researching, coming out of the university by way of blogs. At http://blog.stanford.edu, blogs are categorized by individual and group type. Search for “Bob Sutton” and up comes the management science and engineering professor’s “Work Matters” blog — filled with entries that detail his experiences since his book about overbearing bosses, The No Asshole Rule, became a bestseller.

Also listed in the directory is the blog of Margot Gerritsen, assistant professor of energy resources engineering. Gerritsen’s Smart Energy Show features interviews with experts on campus and in the field about various issues related to energy, in hopes that her content will give more context than that provided by traditional news media, and in a more informed and no-nonsense way. Some of her interviews, each from 15 to 25 minutes, are embedded on her blog — at http://smartenergyshow.com — and now can be downloaded from Stanford on iTunes U.

“People on campus are taking advantage of the technology to communicate in new ways,” said Ian Hsu, Stanford’s new director of Internet media outreach. “All that we’re doing is raising the visibility of that, making it easier for people to connect with what’s already going on.”

Hsu was hired in April so he could apply the strategic thinking he sharpened as a consultant and in the start-up sector after graduating from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in management science and engineering.

Hsu launched the Stanford Blog Directory in September and is continuing to meet with individuals, departments and offices across campus to help them explore ways to leverage online media in ways that will enhance their mission, whether it’s academic or administrative. And true to the social nature of the new Web, Hsu also maintains connections to a network of bloggers off campus.

Should an academic department buy digital cameras and other equipment so faculty can borrow them and create their own blogs? How do scholars know when to make time to be interviewed by an influential blogger in their field of expertise, as they would for a journalist from the New York Times or CNN? And what can they do with all that great footage from out in the field? Just go and upload it to YouTube?

Of course, there’s no one answer for any of those questions, and blogging isn’t meant for everyone, according to Hsu. But nowadays, a variety of web-based blogging services are making it ever easier—and free — for anyone to launch his or her own blog. And for those who want to create a blog on the stanford.edu domain, IT Services can provide technical support. More information is available by going to the directory and clicking on the “Create A Blog” link at the top.

But frankly, Hsu said, starting a blog that is hosted off Stanford’s network via providers such as WordPress.com or Blogger.com makes setup almost effortless because they require so little technical skill—whereas just a few years ago, the average user had to learn HTML code and get special software (such as Dreamweaver) to build a webpage.

“A lot more time was being sunk in the presentation and creating the page,” Hsu said. “I think that’s one of the attractive things about blogging, that the focus is on the content.”

Podcast as podium

Although it wasn’t initially, Gerritsen’s blog is now hosted on Stanford’s network. Smart Energy Show debuted last April, after Gerritsen gave a talk at the Stanford Sierra Camp. An alumnus in the audience who worked for an online video network called PodTech.net suggested that she host a show on his commercial site. Gerritsen, already a tech enthusiast, agreed.

Her terms with PodTech were to supply two episodes per week, and now on Stanford’s servers, she aims to continue producing at that pace. She currently has about 50 episodes, each in the form of a podcast—most of which are in video. At first, the total time spent setting up and recording might stretch out over two hours. But after about six months, she was nailing it in one 25-minute take.

“I would love to be much more professional in that it really becomes a 15-minute documentary, guided by an interview. That’s what I’d really like, because then the educational part becomes much higher,” Gerritsen said. “But right now, it’s really just like the Morning Show or Forum or Fresh Air, where you just come in and talk to somebody.”

Not that Gerritsen aspires to have the most popular online program about energy issues. She doesn’t even want her show to be a rebuttal to media coverage every time some story comes out that she feels lacks accuracy or perspective. Her target audience is her students, venture capitalist friends who share her interests and nongovernmental organizations.

“But it took me a while to get comfortable with putting myself forward like this because you’re open to a lot of criticism,” Gerritsen said. “I think the biggest barrier, more than the tech barrier, is just the comfort level of being out there, voicing opinions, having it broadcast all over the Internet and just being on camera.”

And it seems her audience is growing. Gerritsen said her podcasts have been shown in classrooms in this country and abroad; and she recently finished filming atop an offshore oil-drilling platform near New Orleans. She was invited by the American Petroleum Institute after someone came across her blog.

“I have a fantastic excuse to go and interview people and talk to them. This is something that otherwise I wouldn’t do,” said Gerritsen, who was taken up in a helicopter to get aerial shots of the platform. “I’ve noticed in the last half year that I now have a much wider, more complete view. I have a much better idea of what’s going on.”

In the beginning, Gerritsen just recorded audio episodes. But PodTech soon asked that she produce video. So she bought her own camera, a wireless microphone and, with the help of School of Earth Sciences web manager Clay Hamilton, set out to work.

Gerritsen said she has a list of about 50 people she wants to interview and 10 to 15 topics that she wants to explore, and not just clean tech or alternative energy. Gerritsen said she would like to cover all aspects of energy and, to do that thoroughly, produce a total of 100 podcasts. To subscribe to the Smart Energy Show on Stanford on iTunes U, go to http://itunes.stanford.edu.

“I think you need to hire people who are actually producers,” Gerritsen said. “So you need the producers and you need some technical staff, and then I would have a whole bunch of equipment on loan for people who want to try their hand at this.”

Buzz in the blogosphere

But besides blogging, Hsu suggested some would do well to be blogged—to make time to speak to highly read bloggers. Agreeing to be interviewed by bloggers, as if they were newspaper or TV reporters, will depend on the professor or administrator, the topic and the importance of the blogger. Talk to the right one, however, and not only can it increase the chances of reaching opinion leaders in a given field, Hsu said, but hits and linkbacks by other bloggers could raise one’s search stock.

“So there’s kind of a secondary effect,” said Hsu, adding that he can help individuals identify prominent bloggers and even recommend computer programs that can do so. “You’re reaching influencers. People who are highly interested in the topic are talking about it online, and that in turn creates Google juice.”

Even Hsu’s own endeavors are starting a buzz among academic bloggers. On AcademHack.org, a site that aims to nudge academic institutions into the digital age, an entry posted on Oct. 23 about the directory ends, “ ... while Stanford might not be endorsing the content of any one of these blogs, they are certainly promoting the idea of blogging for those in the academic community.”

The author was Dave Parry, a doctoral candidate at the University at Albany, who is writing a dissertation about postmodern literature and new media. But even those who were predicting the digital revolution before it began are now noting how it’s taking hold at Stanford.

Off campus, the university’s contributions to Web 2.0—by way of technological innovations developed by its students and faculty, as well as the visionary leadership of scholars such as Lessig—are many. But in other ways, Stanford and universities around the country have a lot of catching up to do, according to Shel Israel, an expert in innovation for more than 20 years.

Israel is an author and Silicon Valley consultant. He has played a central role in introducing some of technology’s most successful products, including PowerPoint, FileMaker and Sun Microsystems workstations. He also co-wrote with Robert Scoble what is considered to be the definitive book on business blogging, Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers.

Israel also researches and speaks about social media and writes about it on his blog, Global Neighbourhoods. In a recent interview, he said Stanford must do more to implement social media such as blogging and Facebook into its outreach efforts across all segments of the campus community: sports fans, student groups, alumni and high schoolers who should come to Stanford.

“I don’t think too many of your students are reading newspapers these days,” said Israel, who helped teach a Continuing Studies course last spring on social media and society. “Two years ago, three of the Fortune 100 companies used blogs. Today, 75 percent of them do.”

And it’s not about the technology, according to Israel. The technology behind blogging is as relevant as the gadgetry inside a cell phone; and as for who should be blogging, Israel equates that to a question along the same analogy: “Who should use a telephone?”

Gerritsen said her extensive traveling and being on the tenure track make it difficult for her to continue producing a steady stream of episodes. But she remains excited about her blog and would like to reach a stage where she produces podcasts that can be bundled up and distributed to colleagues who are teaching courses; and beyond that, to make mini-documentaries such as those produced by Professor Stephen Palumbi, director of Hopkins Marine Station. (Those can be seen at http://www.stanford.edu/group/Palumbi/microdocs.html.)

“The media landscape is quite fragmented now,” Hsu said. “The influence of traditional media and newspapers is declining. Niche media, blogs, very specific community-oriented sites like Digg are rising in influence, and it would be good for our faculty and staff—communications staff around campus—to understand that dynamic.”