Why I have a website @TimesHigherEd Uncut Q&A


This week, I was interviewed for a feature in the @TimesHigherEd; the opportunity to reflect on my own web presence was just too much to resist. Her are some full answers to the questions I was asked. The THE article can be found here. Thanks to Zoe Corbyn for reaching out.

When did you start your website?, Why did you start it? and what do you use it for?

I designed my first personal website as a PhD student in 1998. Just by chance, I began working with a Professor at my university who was developing the School’s first website portfolio, focused around delivering lecture content via the University’s new digital environment. At this point, I was the one in the school who would deliver intro courses to incoming students about ‘the Internet’. I’d teach concepts that, today, would seem ridiculous to teach – such as, understanding how search engines work, or what hyperlinks do. Although, I wonder how many people would know what code underpins a link. The concept of search engines was still quite new – as was learning about Boolean searches. It all seems extraordinary now. I designed my first site in html, it took another year before we had a wysiwyg – what you see is what you get - software.

It’s hard to remember what prompted me to create my own website – I started by designing sites for academic associations. I think the creative exploration has always been the primary fascination for me. I remember how exciting it felt to design interesting layouts, play with frames, understand templates, design interesting graphics and even create animations on the site. All of that stuff was quite innovative back then and it’s interesting to reflect back on what has changed. I remember when ‘marquee text’ (scrolling right to left) on a site was innovative, then tacky; but if you look now at contemporary media environments – such as 24hr news – marquee text has made a comeback, albeit in a slightly different way. As well, revolving news items in websites has become a core feature of web 2.0 environments – I have a rotating features graphic on my site, for instance.

From very early on I was keen to reach more people with my work. It seemed that the academic world was not particularly great at doing this – I remember one professor telling me that, on average, six people read a single academic article.  I have no idea if that is true, but it sounds plausible given how closed academia can be. So, the idea of opening up to a wider population was a motivation from the start. I think any writer wants their work to be read, whether you are a philosopher or a novelist.

Since 1998, my website has gone through around six or seven re-designs and each of them reflects how the grammar of designing websites changed over the years. At the same time, I think my own desire for change and to learn how to do new things prompts my revisions and each one feels like a refreshing change.

What do you use your website for?

There’s a prior issue I need to address, before explaining what I use my website for, which has to do with how I perceive it as an entity. You mentioned you were not interested in blogs as such, but there’s an important point to make in terms of how content is aggregated now via blogging platform. I think the word blog has become pejorative in certain circles, as if it implies something ephemeral. The reality is that the content management structure that gained prominence through blogs now characterizes every major website. My website www.andymiah.net draws in content from various environments that I use. If you take a peek you will see. It pulls in content from my accounts in Twitter, Flickr and YouTube, Slideshare, Delicious, and other websites I manage. In addition, there is core content – my regular, substantive postings - which are published through the wordpress database structure of my site. Wordpress is great at allowing me to integrate these other spaces. I think Flickr beats other platforms for Photo sharing, which is why I’d rather pull in my Flickr feed, than add the photos to my wordpress database.

I guess one of the overarching principles I apply to my own site design and productivity is to consider what allows me to reach more people. Without a doubt, I think Flickr is the best photo-sharing platform to do this and I have had over 300,000 views since it started. Equally, my YouTube platform, which I haven’t used much, has had over 25,000 views since 2007. As well, Twitter is the best microblogging platform out there and posting tweets through my mobile or Tweetdeck means that content is sent both to my website and my Facebook account.  This layering of information is crucial to keeping everything fresh.

With this in mind, I use it for many different things. First, it is a repository for what I have done, such as publications, speaking events and so on. Second, it tells others what I am doing or about to do. For example, I have a Dopplr plug in, which tells people where I am at any point in time. Third, it is a database of my research interests and a back catalogue for what interests me. To this end, I no longer bookmark websites to my browser. Instead, I publish them to my Delicious account, which then makes them available to everyone – these are also displayed on my website.  I also publish content to be found. For example, if there is a conference I am interested in, but cannot attend, I will re-publish their call for papers in part to keep the record, but also so that anyone searching for this conference will find me. Again, this is the power of Web 2.0 – and of working in the world of academia, where few people do this – I can be sure that if I publish an entry in my website that has the title of a conference, it’ll reach the top-10 Google ranking almost immediately, often being the first hit. This is a way of bringing people I’m interested to me, without making direct contact. Who knows whether it really works or not? I’ve never researched it. Undertaking this task is also like keeping memos about things. Usually, I may recall a conference from a couple of years ago, but finding information about it online may no longer be possible, since the info was only on an academic website, which has been deleted. If I have reposted the information, then I’ll always be able to find it, for instance, if I wanted to connect with its organizers

Did you design and build it yourself, or if not then who did? Do you maintain it/update it yourself?

In terms of build and content, yes, I’ve created all my personal websites and I publish all my own content. The present version is based on the Arras theme available in Wordpress - one of the big shifts in the last few years has been away from self-designed templates towards themes, the foundation of which is designed by others, – it signals the shift towards open source culture. In any case, I’m not an expert in xml – I wouldn’t dare messing around with some of the code, as it’d be a full time job. I’d also not know how to build a wordpress theme from scratch.

On the other hand, every graphic on my site has been selected, cropped, optimized, inserted and published by me alone and every post is generated by me alone. Most of the time, the image is also taken by me.

I’m self taught in web design, so each time I re-design, I spend a bit of time trawling the web for advice on design and build, but also hoping that if I get into trouble, that I can find my own way out of it by consulting the web or a couple of close friends. This happened most recently with my latest website design. There was a point at which I knew I had to move from a static html server to a dynamic xml server and design, using a content management system, but it had always seemed complicated. One day I just went for it and hoped I’d figure it out. It took a couple of days of having my site down, but I got there in the end – and the world of hosted Wordpress is infinite! It really feels like a step forward personally and professionally to have made this move.

What are the challenges of keeping your website and how much time do you devote to it?

In terms of the time I devote to the site, it varies really. Around the time of a redesign, it can be daily task to tweak its elements, which may last a week.

In terms of weekly activity, I guess I spend a few hours a week working on it, but even this is difficult to qualify.  For example, I recently posted an article about Stephen Fry’s twitter account called ‘Is @StephenFry a fake?’.  Posting the article itself didn’t take much time, but writing the articles did. To this end, the majority of the time is on the creative rather than technical side and I see that part of the work as an integral part of my academic research.

Very often, ideas I develop and publish on my website end up in academic research papers. To this extent, my website is a catalyst for my research productivity. I would say that the biggest challenge is technical – computers just aren’t fast enough still. It takes too long to process movie footage and images, especially when compressing.

I could do with one mega-computer that is built for this kind of work and one other, but really this wouldn’t work. For the last 10 years, I’ve only ever used a laptop – and more recently a smart phone – so there’s a trade off here inevitably. But definitely, the biggest challenge is that the computer just can’t keep up, which is the one aspect that slows me down.

Why did you establish it separately from the university?

I suppose it existed before my current university affiliation, so to continue in this way made sense. Equally, universities are not really in a position to facilitate this kind of website, I think it has to be a personal endeavour.  Being an academic is not like being a celebrity; universities don’t see us as their star products to be publicized and there are no dedicated publicists to optimize what any academic could achieve, given the right marketing – yes, academics desperately need better marketing!

I’ve argued for many years that public institutions are terrible at adopting open source platforms and sharing content generation rights and that in a time of such economic scrutiny, the University budget cuts should look first at trying to streamline their web presence by empowering their academics to produce their own content. Platforms like Blackboard are obsolete and we shouldn’t pay for them.

In any case, if you want to be an early adopter of new environments, sadly, the university as a whole is not the place to start. That said, at the departmental level there is a lot of scope to innovate. In my own University, our School of Creative and Cultural Industries has adopted Wordpress blogs, Twitter accounts, Flickr and YouTube spaces very early on, but there is a sense of these places being an integral part of our core business.

For my own website, I am sure the university would have given me a domain space, but the flexibility of my own space is the main motivation for keeping it separate.

How essential do you feel it is? / Is it now an imperative for academics to have their own websites?

One of the first things I advise new PhD students is to get their own website. I think it is especially important when starting out as an academic, but I’d also explain this as an obligation and something they will inevitably have. Their decision is whether to leave it to the university to articulate, or to take some ownership over their public profile.

Academics should be obliged to make themselves more visible through websites. I think the fact that we are funded publicly dictates that what we do should be as well publicized as possible to really shape society as we hope to. I also think the progress of software makes this inevitable. Consider how academics research, for instance. We still go to libraries, but print budgets are being cut, most academics use electronic databases to download pdfs and even our system for storing our research is changing. Consider the growing popularity of a platform like Mendeley, which is the first social and intelligent bibliographic platform. This site permits an academic to publish their searches, but also will suggest other readings to the user based on their history – this changes things radically: the academic no longer goes to the library, the library comes to the academic. It’s the next stage after ‘publication alerts’.

Yet, while I think all academics should have their own websites, I realize that my own research interests underpin the amount of time I dedicate to my own site and not all academics are in a similar position.  I think more scientist have developed their own websites since the government has pushed the interest to develop more public engagement dimensions to research. That said, we do see moves towards this – open access publishing obligations with major research grants is one such trajectory.

Clearly, an academic can get by without a website, but there is so much more an academic can do if they have one. The difficulty – as always – is the digital literacy gap, which has trumped the digital divide as the major obstacle in digital culture. We all have access now as academics, but the platforms shift so quickly that understanding what to do requires continual re-training or a willingness to go out there and learn in your own time.

Has your website helped boost your profile?

I’m sure it has. It’s hard to qualify and, of course, it’s only a boost if the website has credibility, but I would expect that I am more well known because of it. Equally, I don’t think this can be the motivation for creating one’s own site. I guess I have faith in it reaching people, but have never studied this and would probably do it regardless.

Have you had any interference from the university? Do they mind you having it?

Far from it. I have never asked whether the university minds or not, but have always felt supported to innovate online. I would hope that universities treat such spaces as an extension of academic freedom and an integral part of being a scholar. Any major outputs of mine go through the corporate marketing office of the university, which can help reach further – but, like many academics, I also help to write my own press releases.

Do you link to your website from your university home page and if not, why not?

Yes, in both directions. I also manage my School’s web assets, so there’s a lot of cross activity and I can dictate what content links where.

How do you balance putting up professional and personal items?

I don’t publish much on my personal life.  I think most of what I put online is about my professional life in some way, though there is a little crossover. For example, I may write something about a film I’ve seen and publish that as an article on my site, but I didn’t go to the film in order to write something. These boundaries are a little fuzzy, but you won’t find any information about what I had for breakfast in my Twitter stream – unless it was really good! Having said that, I have just set up a Twitter account for my new born son, so who knows? I think one’s comfort zone for the professional/public divide also evolves over time.

Any tips for other academics who are thinking about getting a site?

I think academics should think about their web presence on numerous levels. Everything is about aggregation now, so having one space may not do the job. If you’re completely open to getting online and want advice that allows you to go all the way, then a) by your domain name b) by hosted server space c) set up a wordpress powered site, d), create accounts on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, e) get a computer that has Adobe Creative Suite installed, f) learn a little bit of xml and html, so you can spot errors, but most importantly g) cultivate your online curiousity – I think there’s a lot we can learn from being trained and, indeed, courses that teach us about web production allow us to get a head start. However, it’s most helpful to become the sort of computer user that, when faced with a problem, will be inclined to search for the answer yourself than to log a call with your helpdesk.

Any other academics websites that you particularly like or that inspired yours?

When it comes down to it, it tends to be the academic rather than their website that inspires me. Equally, it tends to be friends whose sites I frequent more often. For example, Nick Bostrom has had a really simple site for many years, just keeps a regularly update with links to pdf papers. Alternatively, going all out geek, Anders Sandberg is one of the generation who keeps things stripped down and linux powered. In science, Richard Jones is one of the people who has committed to doing the public engagement work by publishing on his own site. It has been a while since I’ve felt inspired to design my site, but I have ripped off a few other sites.. I designed my previous site in the style of the BBC News website, for instance. At that time, the node-based layout was just becoming popularized. I think my network of being inspired has changed too. I’m more likely to be inspired by a great photographer’s site or a design company than an academic’s, I guess because web designers, rather than academics, are at the cutting edge of web development in terms of presentation.

One other thing…

I think a couple of other questions are interesting to consider, which I’ve thought about. One is about where we publish as academics. I have often wondered whether I’d be better off if we all just forget academic journals and publish on our websites. This shift has happened a bit – look at all the number of online journals that are out there, which don’t require any subscription. If they can increase their impact factor, then they will hold all the power.