To Blog or Not to Blog: Report from the Front

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Dan Hunter, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, used to read more than 100 blogs a day, but after a while he had trouble keeping up. Now he tracks a mere 50 blogs, spending a couple of hours each day on topics such as technology, intellectual property, video games, architecture and interior design. “They fulfill an information need I have: to keep up to date on what is going on in my professional life, or see cool stuff for my personal life, or to be amused,” he says.


Knowledge@Wharton recently asked a group of Wharton faculty and staff to share their thoughts on the blogosphere. Those who are enthusiastic participants (and not all fall into this category) have lots of company. About 57 million American adults — or 39% of Internet users — read individually authored web logs, or “blogs,” according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which does surveys to track Internet use. About 12 million American adults, or 8% of Internet users, keep a blog. They do so for a number of reasons — to share professional or personal ideas and opinions, crack jokes, air political views, or comment on current events.


Here is a sampling of what Wharton faculty members have to say about blogging.


Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics, is a dedicated blog reader, especially when it comes to technology news and innovation. He sifts through 300 to 400 blogs using NetNewsWire for the Mac, a blog management tool that allows him to quickly scan new posts. He also goes directly to 10 to 15 blogs that he particularly likes, “mostly from people I know in the technology world, such as Robert Scoble, Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito, Dave Winer, Doc Searls and Jeff Jarvis. I can put their posts in perspective, or email them if I have questions.”


Werbach, who is the organizer of the annual Supernova conference, looks for blogs “that tell me something I don’t already know, including in areas where I am an expert. Even with all the resources I have available as a Wharton faculty member, the distributed global network of millions of bloggers will generate ideas and turn up links that I wouldn’t find otherwise. Used well, blogs are an extraordinary filtering mechanism for the vast array of information available online. They are a complement to, not a substitute for, mainstream media — something forward-thinking news organizations are realizing.”


Werbach finds time to make his own contribution to the blogosphere. On Werblog, he writes about telecom policy, next-generation Internet companies and business models, and emerging communications technologies. He has also touched on personal topics, such as the birth of his children.


Stat 434: It’s Changed


J. Michael Steele, professor of statistics and operations and information management, is using a new blog structure to teach Statistics 434, an undergraduate course on financial time series (such as asset returns and interest rates). The blog, which Steele describes as “probably one of Wharton’s snazzier course pages,” allows him to post content, handouts and homework assignments in ways that are easily accessed and maintained.


Steele likes to blog, both in and out of class. He writes a blog called “Bird Flu Economics” on blogspot (Google’s blog hosting site), which explores the economic implications of a potential avian influenza pandemic. Among his provocative postings: “Paris Hilton vs. Bird Flu: How Do the Internet Mindshares Compare?” and “Hand Hygiene: The Boring Way to Save a Few Hundred Thousand Lives (Or More).” Surprisingly, Steele is not an avid blog reader. “I’m too busy writing,” he says.


Not everyone who responded was enthusiastic about the blogging boom. “Blogs are the latest forum for people who have nothing to say that others actually care about,” states Wharton marketing professor Xavier Dreze. The mode of a distribution, explains Dreze, “is its highest point. What this means is that there are more blogs with 0 subscriptions than blogs with one subscription or two or three or four. There is a reason why the modal number of subscriptions to a blog is 0.”


He doesn’t read blogs because “I don’t see the point. It’s a bunch of people writing their opinions, and those people have no credibility. The information content is very low.” Established media outlets, such as newspapers and magazines, have standards and fact checkers to help guarantee accuracy, he notes, but “anybody can print a blog and say, ‘Hey, I’m an expert. Let me tell you about this.’”


Wharton marketing professor Barbara E. Kahn is not a big fan of blogs, either. “I don’t like the ‘unverified’ aspect of them … that anyone can write anything and there is no pretense of validation,” she says. From time to time, however, she does find blogs helpful. “Periodically, when I am looking for a consumer reaction to products or ideas, then I will search out and read relevant blogs. It is a way to get ‘market research’ on consumer products.”


Management professor Saikat Chaudhuri is also skeptical of blogs. “I actually don’t read any blogs because I am still trying to demystify their value,” he says, adding that he thinks their relevance “lies in receiving informed opinion by experts on a topic as a reader, developing one’s reputation for such expertise as a contributor, and providing a focused discussion forum in general. However, there are many such blogs to choose from, so I find it difficult to distinguish between genuinely useful ones and those merely exchanging or relating social experiences.” 


While Kendall Whitehouse, Wharton’s senior director of student and instructional technology, agrees that, in general, “there’s more noise than signal” in much of the blogosphere, he also stresses that this doesn’t mean that there is no value in blogs. In addition to following a number of individual bloggers whose opinions he respects, Whitehouse finds worth in the aggregate voice of the blogosphere. “Sites like Digg.com let you track what’s happening in the blogging world in near real-time,” states Whitehouse, and can “give you an instant snapshot of what topics people are talking about.” Viewed in this way, the blogosphere may exhibit the same “wisdom of the crowd” phenomenon of community-developed content sites like Wikipedia.


Don Huesman, senior director of faculty technology at Wharton, concurs that, “In most cases, an individual blog is fairly worthless, but in the aggregate, they can be quite powerful.” Huesman points to the blogging boom in countries like China. “There are so many voices there that it’s impossible to monitor them all. And, ultimately, this will have a profound impact.”




Nien-he Hsieh, professor of legal studies and business ethics, spends one or two hours a week reading a few favorite blogs. He particularly likes the Legal Theory Blog, which includes information about upcoming philosophy conferences and seminars. “Although I don’t pursue research in the law, given the work of some of my colleagues, I find the blog useful for being informed about recent work in their areas of research,” Hsieh says.


He also enjoys the Business Ethics Blog and is considering using it for teaching. Another favorite is Engadget, where he can learn about the latest consumer technology.  


Marketing professor Patti Williams follows a blog called Ad Rants. “The blog covers [noteworthy] campaigns and individual ads. I often find interesting examples and use the content to update my own examples in class,” she says. She and her husband write a personal blog, accessible only to their families. “We use it keep them up to date with everything our children are doing,” including the posting of pictures and texts, Williams says.


Boingboing and Terra Nova


Hunter, who uses a Mac-based aggregator called Shrook to manage the many blogs he reads, cites a few favorites: boingboing, Kotaku, 5ives, and Terra Nova, a collaborative blog he founded and writes for. The latter explores the significance of virtual worlds and online games. He also is using a blog for teaching this term. “Students are expected to post material to a student-only blog. This provides an account of their learning and gives useful information to other students, forces them to think about the material before the exam, helps with their understanding, gives an indication of how they are doing during the course of the term, and so on,” he says.


Hunter hopes the blog will help students be more reflective. “The lightweight character of blogging takes away the fear of failure and the pressure of things like multiple essays,” he says. “It also means that other students can comment on the work and provide peer feedback.  It removes the authority of the professor as [the sole classroom] arbiter, which, all in all, is a good thing.”

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