Friday, February 10, 2012

Early Online Harvard Facebook Email Thread

After talking to a reporter about the Harvard culture around the time Mark Zuckerberg was here, I dug out some old email to jog my memory about the early efforts to move the Harvard House face books online. These were printed brochures with basic information and photos of members of each House, students and resident staff and tutors, which had long been used to create House community. It seems that some Houses started to create online versions of their Face Books around 1996, while I was dean, and I was involved with the discussions of uncoordinated effort duplication and privacy. The Harvard Computer Society, which often serves as a central resource for otherwise decentralized projects like this, wanted to help out. The minutes of a February 25, 1996 HCS meeting has an agenda item called "Online Facebook" and two bullets:
- idea is to have one main photo server that other people link to.
 - Political issues will be most difficult.

As a matter of historical record, I post below most of a subsequent email exchange I had with the FAS Registrar, who was one of my direct reports. I have redacted some names.

The date of this email is October 6, 1997. So more than six years before Facebook started (and five years before an alum brought Friendster to my attention) Harvard was trying to figure out a sustainable model for managing online facebooks in a way that was sensitive to student privacy expectations. Of course, there were other development projects that seemed more urgent, so we never got around to doing this one properly …. The indented text is from the Registrar, the flush text are my interpolated responses.

Harry: I write to provide you with an update re: on-line face books. X and I did meet with three students from HCS to review issues relating to on-line facebooks.

We shared with the students the standards/guidelines we had previously discussed with you. The students agreed to do everything they can to secure the student images (photos); however, given that the access vehicle for the on-line facebooks is Netscape, it will be possible for those within the Harvard domain to download copies of the facebooks. We agreed that we should provide information to students which references the appropriate sections of the handbook which would let them know they should not tamper with the images in any way. There is no way, however, for HCS to completely secure the image within the Harvard domain. We are now at the point where HCS would like a sample set of data from me so that they can begin to think about the web facebook application. We learned during our meeting with the students that three houses have facebooks on-line: Pforzheimer, Mather and Eliot. The first two I was able to access which means they are available within the Harvard domain. I could not get into the Eliot one which probably means the server it is on is not available outside of Eliot. Given that some Houses have already moved to on-line facebooks and that others want to shall we just share the guideliens[sic] we developed with the houses so that they know how we view their participation in this project, including their responsibility to inform the students of the fact that they are going to have the image and data on-line for those students who have not restricted directory information and who have not exercised their option to inform the Houses that they don't want their image on-line. We could then have HCS follow-up house-by-house to develop the on-line facebooks. However, it does seem to me that some Houses may want to work with HCS in the design of the Facebook but may want to keep it on their own server and not provide access to the Harvard domain. Do you have any strong preference in this regard?
I know Eliot house has locked the world, as it does physically. [HRL: A reference to the fact that Eliot House kept its gates locked against even other Harvard students more than other Houses did--another issue I was dealing with.] I would prefer that we develop a standard for harvard-wide access and make it as easy as possible for the Houses to plug their data into it, so there will be a disincentive for customization. Of course any house that wants to work directly with HCS could continue to do so, at some greater cost to itself.
Do you want me to send our recommended guidelines to the Assistants to the House Masters, or, do you want to discuss this with the Masters at one of your regular meetings?

This is not good fodder for Masters meetings. I would prefer to send the Masters a memo explaining what we are doing, and putting the spin on it  outlined above. The technical details can go in a separate packet to the  Assistants.
Also, HCS would like to have the on-line facebooks moved to another server in the long-term rather than keeping it on their server (which, of course, was provided to them by HASCS [Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services]). I discussed this with Y, because it seemed to me that if any unit has responsibility for FAS-wide computing support, it is HASCS. However, Y is concerned about the resouces[sic] he would need (staffing and computing) to provide the level of service (help assistance, general inquiry assistance) that would arise from the facebooks being on-line. He also felt that given all of the other projects he needs to complete, that this one has low priority. So, if HCS begins this process, they will have to be committed to keeping the facebooks on their server for the long-term. I will be sure the students we met with know this.
OK. Let's get started and face the longterm issue if we are fortunate enough to be successful.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.