August 29, 2006

C.U. Creates Six University-wide Student Blogs

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First it was Xanga and Livejournal. Then company blogs joined the parade. Now, Cornell is also embracing the Internet phenomenon with the introduction of six student blogs on its website yesterday.
The blogs, targeting prospective students and their families, offer weekly doses about life on The Hill from a group that includes a navy ROTC student, a junior at Cornell in Washington and a women’s crew coxswain.
“Cornell started classes on Thursday, and I must say, no matter how old you are, there is still something special about the first day of school,” wrote Jennifer Lin ’09 in “Jennifer’s Blog: the sophomore year surf.”
Topics range from moving day to add/drop: “It’s an unpleasant necessity and an experience every Cornellian goes through” to Project Runway: “All I can say is that if anyone (even Michael Kors) tried to dress my mother up in anything from this episode, I am 100 percent certain that she would turn and walk right off that runway.”
The students must post at least two entries a week. For their work, they receive $50 in gift cards a month from retailers like, iTunes and The Cornell Store and can also obtain tickets to campus performances and lectures.
The term weblog was coined back in late 1997, but university-sponsored blogs remain a minority in the fast-expanding realm of online journals. Cornell is one of the first Ivies to host a university-wide student blog in a fashion similar to schools like Colgate, Clarkson and Rider. The University of Pennsylvania has at least two blogs specific to individual schools.
Lisa Cameron-Norfleet, program manager for developer relations at the Office of Web Communications, first conceived of the blogging project last February. She brought her idea to Thomas Bruce, vice president for communications and media relations, who was looking to spice up Cornell’s website. Cameron-Norfleet had blogged extensively about the redesign of, and she suggested to Bruce that the University create blogs to better represent the undergraduate experience to high school students.
The project took off late last May. From the start, Bruce was a strong advocate of the project, but his peers in the senior administration harbored some reservations about using a new, relatively uncensored medium.
“It’s kind of a scary prospect to the administration to let students talk about whatever they want,” said Cameron-Norfleet.
Partly to assuage the administration’s concerns and partly to meet a tight deadline, she recruited from students who already had experience speaking for Cornell – campus tour guides, Cornell Tradition members and Undergraduate Admissions employees.
From the 30 to 40 students who applied, she selected five tour guides and one Cornell Tradition student to become the student voices for Cornell.
“A lot of the Ivy League schools seem incredibly intimidating. These blogs are a way to show people we’re just like them – they can get into Cornell too,” said blogger Jenna Bromberg ’08, who is also a tour guide.
Alex Payne ’09 said that these blogs offer prospective students something different from a regular campus tour.
“A little more stuff can fly in terms of personality. … On the blog, it’s student-to-student conversation. On the tour, it’s tour guide to family,” he said. Payne, a sports and politics aficionado, dissected the Yankees in his first entry.
Of the writers, two are sophomores, three are juniors and one is a senior. They represent four colleges: the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Human Ecology and the School of Hotel Administration. Many more females than males applied for a position, and the racial diversity among the applicants was limited, according to Cameron-Norfleet.
If the project is renewed, she said she hopes to open up the application to a broader student body.
While most students will not have a chance to write on the official blog, they can join the discussion by creating an individual blog about the University. Many such blogs already exist; the most famous example is Cornell Blog by Elliot Bäck ’06. MetaEzra and IvyLeak, which reports on all the Ivies, are also popular.
The official bloggers agree that, for the most part, they have freedom to write about anything they choose and do not need to censor their words.
“I’m not trying to make Cornell look like Heaven, because it’s not,” Lin said. “I won’t try to sugar coat anything, really.”
Even still, the project application’s language makes clear that the writers cannot approach their entries as they could a personal or non-Cornell affiliated site: “But you should be fully aware of the fact that your blogs will likely be visited by members of the Senior Administration at the university; all of whom are people not known for being shy when expressing their opinions. Rest assured that you will be spoken to if you stray across the line.”
As for exactly where that line lies, Cameron-Norfleet does not have a clear-cut answer.
“I can’t define the line, but I’ll know when I see it,” she said. “In the way that I explained it to the students, think about your mom reading this.”
Disagreement with the university or administration’s policies is fine as long as the student is respectful, she said. For example, if a blogger does not support President David Skorton’s recent divestment from Sudan investments, he or she can dispute the policy but should not badmouth the president or personally attack him in writing.
Despite potential editorial snags, the success of many corporate blogs shows that having a human voice can make a difference in a competitive marketplace. Companies use blogs to connect with their customers, involve them in decision-making and generate buzz around their products. Top executives are buying into the story – by the end of this year, nearly 70 percent of companies will have a blog, according to a June report by Internet and technology researcher JupiterResearch.
Still, because this is a pilot year for the University, there are no precedents to go by, as Benjamin Crovella ’07 points out.
“We don’t know really how it’s going to go, so we’re just making it up as we go along,” he admitted.