Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Exploiting the Potential of Blogs and Social Networks

Gill Ferrell reports on a one-day workshop about Blogs and Social Networks, held in Birmingham in November 2007.

As you might expect from an event organised by Brian Kelly this was an interesting workshop that tried to do something a bit different and to stimulate debate, if not open controversy, amongst the participants. One of the recurring themes throughout the day was anticipating the consequences of our digital actions. I should maybe have done this before I replied to an email inviting me to write up an event that had already been blogged to within an inch of its life by the time I opened my laptop on New Street Station.

I’ve asked myself ‘Is it really worth doing this write up?’ and from a personal perspective I think the answer is ‘Yes’. Looking back I suspect this day will stand out as one of those defining moments when it suddenly dawns on you that the world around you has changed beyond recognition without you really noticing. This revelation happened while I was scanning the blog posts about the workshop this morning but I think I’ll keep that bit for later because, after all, I haven’t much to say that hasn’t already been said… For this reason my review is a highly selective summary of the bits that tickled, provoked or intrigued me and I’ll include links to the Web site [1], wiki [2] and blogs [3] that can give you all the facts.

Event Introduction

Brian Kelly, UKOLN

Brian opened the event with the encouragement that we should feel free to photograph and record the speakers which I found very refreshing. The talks were also being video streamed onto the Web and to Second Life (SL). Andy Powell of Eduserv was the ‘Wizard of Oz’ pulling the strings (more of this later). At the start of the day there were around 80 people in the room, 8 people were logged in on SL (and goodness knows what reality the 15-20 stranded on a train from Liverpool were in).

Brian’s view is clearly that the future is Web 2.0 and user-generated content. Indeed one-third of the 100 or so audience had used SL, 25% were bloggers, most read blogs systematically and 75% were on Facebook. However 50% of the audience described themselves as IT people so maybe this was only to be expected. Interestingly, only 8-10 people said their institutions had a policy on blogging, while 3-4 had a policy on social networking.

Brian showed us an example of a blog. It was Chris Sexton’s and, as well as being suitably impressed by her IQ, a number in the audience were to discover her passion for Rapper Sword dancing similar to Brian’s. Brian went on to explain that the issue of embarrassing photos appearing on the Web isn’t necessarily due to naivety on the part of the subject – it is often friends who have taken, uploaded and tagged the photos (it’s a good job Brian didn’t know what Chris had on her laptop ready to upload if he put a foot out of order…).

He also made a similar point about embarrassing information and showed us a random extract from a blog that said ‘I watched my drunk Mam paint smiley faces on his knees with lipstick.’ If Mam doesn’t have a Facebook account she may never find out that she has been portrayed in this way. It is also interesting that people blog about things that they would never tell their Mams. Brian also hinted at the dangers of not having a digital past. I was rather intrigued by this. I don’t think there are too many photos of me doing embarrassing things in student bars (film was expensive in those days) but I am aware that my younger self did do a good line in righteous indignation and I suspect any commentary I posted might be less temperate than I would now consider appropriate.

Finally he noted the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) report ‘Sharing, privacy and trust in our networked world’ [4] found that users don’t trust our organisations and libraries – they think the commercial world is more honest about the fact that they just want our money. He left us with the question should we provide such services or should we just point our users elsewhere? We then had speakers in support of managed services pitted against those in favour of a looser approach.

Case Study 1: Blackboard as a Blogging Platform

Stephen Clarke, University of Birmingham

Stephen doesn’t feel that blogging in a managed environment is a contradiction in terms. He believes it has educational value and the low cost and ease of use of software makes it a viable classroom activity. It does however carry a certain element of risk. He made a point dear to my own heart that identifying this risk isn’t the same as saying ‘No’. The simple truth is that you don’t create a risk just by pointing out that it exists. The risk is still there however much you choose to ignore it. For more on this take a look at JISC infoNet’s Risk Management infoKit [5].

Stephen then looked at a number of anonymised blogs and, with some audience participation, identified good and bad points about them. We were encouraged to think about the concept of what constitutes an acceptable risk? He identified good blogs as secure, safe and reliable (and where we control the Acceptable Use Policy). This protects students in the same way you would protect them from physical bullying etc. This is particularly important if you are requiring them to use the facility. We were also reminded that it is public money we spend on this. Bad blogs are a fact of life and Stephen’s advice is to keep your distance rather than try to clean up the outside world. He also made the point that ‘managed’ doesn’t have to mean ‘hosted by the university’ so long as you have the right contract and service level agreement.

Birmingham leaves it up to individual academics to moderate blogs. Where the academics are active participants, the blogs flourish; where the students are left to get on with it, they don’t.

Case Study 2: Leedsfeeds: A Blogging Service Based on the Open Source Elgg Application

Melissa Highton, University of Leeds

Melissa spoke from a staff development perspective. Leeds has 3,000 staff of whom 50% are academics (lots of whom have long service) and she sees real benefits in long-term blogs. Web 2.0 words such as ‘open’, ‘sharing’, ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community’ are similar to Leeds values. She would like academics to be blogging about their research in the Leeds Web space. Facebook on the other hand is for social and private life. It isn’t fair to ask staff to make their single identity about work.

Melissa was involved in some JISC i-Skills research last year about how people find, use and store information in their work. This elicited lots of responses about networking and knowing who knows. One quote from the project was ‘Networking with people there is far more useful than anything that comes out of meetings.’ I can sympathise with the sentiment but then again, given that we tend to have meetings with people, why does the problem seem so insoluble?

Leeds opted for Elgg as a blogging tool and hosts the content on its own servers. Elgg offers the opportunity for them to have community blogs rather than just single user blogs with comments. Leeds has a similar experience to Birmingham in finding that the most successful blogs are those where students are invited in by a teacher. The students seem to have no issue with distinguishing this kind of blog from their personal blog and it seems that allowing students to have a readership improves their research skills.

I had one of my ‘how the world is changing’ moments when Melissa pointed out that much of the content of her slides was ‘reused’ from Brian’s slides and she used his notes to challenge some of his assertions. ‘How interesting’ I thought but things were to get wackier still before long…

Case Study 3: Put Yourself Out There

Alison Wildish, Edge Hill University

Alison is from Edge Hill which was awarded university status as recently as 2006 and wants to raise awareness about itself; so it believes that all publicity is good publicity.

Alison doesn’t see the blurring of work/study and social life in digital media as anything other than normal. It is no different to the fact that people don’t switch into another mode the moment they walk into the student union or the pub – they will still talk shop and have a moan. The Edge Hill approach is to say this is good, embrace people using the new tools and make it easier for them to do so. The University has a portal but is looking to interface this to Facebook and other tools.

The policy and strategy on blogging and social networking is not to have one (even in relation to teaching and learning). The University will use the tools while it can but accepts that the same tools may not be there tomorrow. This means not putting all your eggs in one basket i.e. seeing this as an added extra to traditional communication channels and using those multiple tools where available. The University has faced issues such as a group of students on Facebook making both very serious and false allegations against members of staff. As the allegations were on an external site the University had to go through Facebook channels to get it shut down. The prompt response from Facebook was reassuring; but it was noted that it is unlikely the students would have behaved in such a way had it meant approaching the local newspaper, identifying a need to educate them about appropriate use of social networking sites.

Keele University has taken a very different approach following a similar incident and has warned students to watch their digital mouths when on social networking sites. Interestingly it won an O2 award (run via Facebook) as the UK’s favourite university – is there a message about the value of openness etc for us there?

Alison summed up Edge Hill’s approach as ‘Open, accept, allow, encourage.’ The University portal already allows students to embed their Instant Messenger, YouTube and Flickr profiles into their home page and has identified that only 25% of its students still use email. I was still reeling from the revelation that ‘email is for old people’ from last week’s UCISA CISG Conference so this seemed to be another nail in my digital coffin.

Case Study 4: The Student Perspective

Tom Milburn, University of Bath

In a refreshing change from the splendid isolation we maintain at most events UKOLN took the daring step of getting a student perspective on the issue.

Tom is Vice President for Education at Bath Student Union and believes that the UK is the leading social network user in Europe. He reported that c.1,300 of the 2,000 freshers at Bath belong to a social networking community and student course reps consistently give feedback that such sites are useful especially for peer-to-peer support and getting opinions from others for project work.

He did however warn us of the need to ‘Beware of your digital footprint’. Students he said can be somewhat naïve about the consequences of their digital actions, they view posts as ephemeral and have a false sense of security as a result of having a username and password. Tom feels universities should give more guidance on the use of social networks especially in relation to harassment and bullying – the ‘flyers’ on Facebook used at the University of Bath are a good example.

Tom thinks blogs aren’t as well used as social networks and their devotees are mainly travellers wanting to keep in touch. In the main students complain that they are harder to find and aren’t updated sufficiently regularly. Once again we heard that the success of such sites as part of a course depends on how much effort staff put in.

Plenary 1: The Hidden Dangers of Social Networks

Stuart Lee, University of Oxford

Stuart ‘I can’t believe anyone normal uses the word folksonomy’ Lee got up prepared to invite healthy debate on his views but it turned out that his presentation had already caused a bit of a storm before he even gave it – this is where things started to get really freaky. It seems that his slides (posted beforehand on the workshop Web page) occasioned comment in a certain blog post which led to one ‘Mr Angry’ denouncing what he was about to say before he even said it. The bit that really got me was that the (non-inflammatory) original blog post was by Gráinne Conole at 10.03 am on Friday 23 November. Now at that precise time I was sitting chatting to the blogging Gráinne at a totally different event both of us blissfully unaware that she was about to start a row, which I would later report on, at a workshop which hadn’t yet happened. It takes a bit of getting my head round that but as a fan of Chaos theory (Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas? and all that stuff) [6] this was the first time I’d really experienced it in action. How different from the turgid exchange of ideas via academic journals that took two years to see the light of day.

Once Stuart managed to get a word out in Real Life, it was hard not to think he talked a lot of sense. He asked whether Web 2.0 really is disruptive? Stuart’s viewpoint at Oxford is quite similar to Edge Hill’s i.e. to see it as an opportunity rather than a problem on the basis that anything that gets people talking to each other must be a good thing. As Head of a central IT function he doesn’t want to build brick walls between the two types of service but does advocate caution about how much we blur the two. There are resource implications for the IT service and there is a need to educate users.

96% of Oxford freshers use Facebook yet most say they prefer only moderate technology use as part of their course. Evidence from this source also seems to point to the fact that students do not use email any more. Stuart finds it ‘shocking’ how much information students are prepared to disclose for questionable benefits (such as advertisers using it to target them).

Oxford hit the headlines when it used photos from Facebook to penalise students indulging in ‘Trashing’ (pelting others with eggs and flour at the end of the exams). In one case a student was identified due to photos her friends had uploaded and tagged. Many students found this shocking as they saw this as their social space and hadn’t realised how their various identities were coming together or, as Stuart put it, how the ‘web of horror builds up around you’. Other students penalised for defamation had either ‘forgotten they’d done it’ or thought their comments were very ephemeral.

Oxford has also experimented with an island in Second Life. The very fact that it has a presence there has fuelled rumours about ‘the end of tutorials as we know them’ and drawn criticism from a range of sources. Stuart relates this to the fact that SL features prominently in the media at the moment so everyone has an opinion on it (however ill-informed).

Another aspect of the changing world that struck me for the first time was the revelation that class boundaries are recognised within social networking sites. Apparently Oxford students don’t use MySpace because ‘it’s full of Chavs’.

Plenary 2: Disruptive Technology and Its Implications for University Information Services

David Harrison, Cardiff University

David also used the phrase disruptive technology in his title and described the difference as relating to issues that are user-centric rather than organisation-centric and which challenge many traditional security and privacy models.

Cardiff has taken the view that there is nothing ‘new’ in disruptive technologies and that existing codes of acceptable use and related disciplinary procedures still apply. What is different is that the user has a greater degree of control (and hence responsibility) and the IT service needs to see itself as a partner rather than a service provider. After all we (most of us) manage to moderate our behaviour in face-to-face settings so why should we be unable to do so online?

David had some interesting things to say on the subject of multiple identities. I had a strange sense of déjà vu about this and wondered whose blog had leaked his presentation until I remembered I had been talking to him about the subject in a bar only the other night – how old fashioned is that? He looked at how we all operate in multiple realms and how shielding our true identities (e.g. via an avatar in SL) can sometimes be a barrier to things we want to bring into the real world in order to explore and develop them further.

Discussion Groups: How Should Institutions Respond?

We broke into discussion groups and our thoughts on the various topics were ably recorded by a set of reporters and can be found on the workshop wiki [7]; so here are just a few snippets.

It seems that merely blogging isn’t enough; some people micro-blog (regularly updating one’s status on Facebook counts as micro-blogging) and some even twitter in the bath.

There was general concern about the potentially transient nature of many popular sites and the issue of what happens if you use a service for critical activities only to find it disappears or isn’t scalable. It was suggested that low cost contractual agreements may be a better option than free sites.

The wide range of potential users was noted which gives rise to the issue of whether it is possible to apply your Acceptable Use Policy to applicants or alumni.

Andy Stewart, a relatively recent graduate, became quite incensed when it was suggested that much of this activity was peripheral to actual learning. He felt very strongly that a university education is about more than just getting a grade and it struck me that people like myself who studied in an era of much lower participation rates can easily underestimate the importance of social networking sites in creating a sense of community within large institutions.

Brian Kelly came back to the question ‘Will it ever be embarrassing not to have a digital past?’ and suggested in future there may be companies who will compete to create one for you.

The experiment in streaming into SL didn’t quite go as planned due to the bandwidth at the venue being inadequate to send the data out. The Wizard of Oz analogy was thus quite apt. Andy did however come up with a Plan B and managed to stream audio whilst clicking through the slides himself ‘in world’. His message was ‘In principle the technology is within reach but you need to understand your network’.


In summary this was an interesting and thought-provoking event. One of the key messages from many quarters was ‘There is nothing new about Web 2.0’. In one sense I find this reassuring whilst in another it disturbs me greatly. It is reassuring to think that we are engaging with the technologies rather than blocking them and given the context that most of the participants were from an IT background the willingness to include Web 2.0 resources within the portfolio is a good thing.

What worries me is that if the same attitude pervades in the learning and teaching community we will miss all sorts of opportunities to do things differently and better. The sociologist Robert Murphy [8] describes very well this ready capacity of the human mind to try to fit the new into a preconceived order and context. He states that, had anyone reported to the Roman authorities that Christ had raised Lazarus from the dead, their main concern would have been over whether or not they ought to issue him with a new birth certificate. We must beware that in our keenness to be seen to be keeping up and coping with something that is new and different we do not fail to seek and exploit ways of doing things differently. Lest I provoke a tirade of outraged blogging I think this audience was doing a lot more than merely coping with Web 2.0 (death threats via ye olde email please if you want a prompt response). I shall however give the last word to the delegate who warned us, ‘I’m starting to think we are totally missing the point about what students want – we’re a generation away from how they operate’.


  1. Exploiting the Potential of Blogs and Social Networks event Web site, accessed 30 November 2007 http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/events/workshops/blogs-social-networks-2007/.
  2. Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs And Social Networks event wiki, accessed 30 November 2007 http://blog-social-networks-2007.wetpaint.com/
  3. Brian Kelly’s UK Web Focus Blog on the event, accessed 30 November 2007 http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com/2007/11/27/exploiting-the-potential-of-blogs-and-social-networks-2/
  4. OCLC. Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World, accessed 30 November 2007 http://www.oclc.org/reports/sharing/default.htm
  5. JISC infoNet’s Risk Management infoKit, accessed 30 November 2007 http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/InfoKits/risk-management
  6. Lorenz, Edward, N. ‘Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?’ address at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington, 29 December 1979.
  7. Notes from the Discussion Groups http://blog-social-networks-2007.wetpaint.com/page/Discussion+Groups
  8. Murphy, Robert, F. The Dialectics of Social Life. Alarms and Excursions in Anthropological Theory. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London. 1972.

Author Details

Dr Gill Ferrell
JISC infoNet
Northumbria University
Hadrian House
Higham Place
Newcastle upon Tyne

Email: gill.ferrell@northumbria.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk

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