The SoA is talking in Portland about on-line communities. Comments:

1) Williams needs EphCOI: Williams-connected Communities of Interest. If on-line communities involving alumni (and students/faculty/staff/parents) are ever going to work, it will only be in the context of shared interests of some sort. My thoughts now are more or less the same as two years ago. The main change is that a blog with new content every weekday is clearly the best way to start. Sign up one staff member to help (read: ensure that at least one new item appears each day) and then find one or two alumni and students to lead the effort. These will be the first authors.

2) Start small. There is no need to create 15 of these from the start. Prove that the concept is a workable one with just one or two sites. I will ensure that an Ephs in Finance blog will succeed. Perhaps Dan Blatt ’85 could be recruited for Ephs in Entertainment. Why not our own Ben Fleming ’04 for Ephs in Journalism? Jen Doleac ’03 for Ephs in Policy? When I took DeWitt Clinton ’98 out to dinner in San Francisco, he was filled with big talk about organizing an Ephs in Technology group of some sort, perhaps with Evan Miller ’05. Recruit them. But first demonstrate the potential (and Williams’s commitment) with a working example.

3) Be open. There must be no logins or passwords (except for authors, obviously). Anyone from anywhere must be able to read these blogs. Anything less will lead to failure. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t bother to participate. There is an argument, perhaps, for keeping some things hidden. For example, no outsider can see my internship posting on the internal OCC site. If it makes the powers-that-be nervous, fine. Hide stuff. Yet, for the most part, this is stupid. Hidden stuff will never be a common point of interest within any EphCOI because most readers won’t, obviously, be able to see it. In addition, I actually hate the fact that I can’t (easily) check to confirm that my listing is correct on the OCC site. There is no real reason for hiding this material. If OCC didn’t want too many outsiders to see it, they could just ask Google to not index that information (DeWitt Clinton can tell you how). But anything that is clearly labeled as “For Williams Students Only” is, obviously, not going to draw a lot of attention from non-Ephs.

3) Be friendly. A blog-savvy person from OIT, like Chris Warren, can help ensure that the blogs have all the standard feeds and options. Older readers will appreciate the ability to easily print things, especially long threads (something that might be nice for EphBlog). Younger participants will insist on RSS and the like. It might even be nice to include options to sign up for a (week) daily or weekly e-mail summary with embedded links. The key is that the EphCOI must make it easy for Ephs to participate in whatever manner they prefer with a minimum of hassle.

4) Start simple. Although there might be a case in the future for advanced tools like forums, there is no need for that now. A blog with comments will be enough. Note, also, that you must simplify the lives of the authors as much as possible. For example, you should handle spam deletion. Authors should have no other responsibility beyond posting and commenting.

5) Start now. The natural partners for this effort are OCC and SoA. John Noble, head of OCC, is an impressive individual who clearly grasps the importance of bringing alumni and students together. The more involved that alumni are with undergraduates, the more successful that OCC will be in its primary mission. SoA is — how to put this kindly? — technologically backward and inward looking. That will change with time. Perhaps the EC could force that change. But, as best I can tell, they have no idea how to create an on-line community that alumni will actually participate in. Nor do they have much inclination for learning from those who do. So, OCC should invite SoA to participate but press on without them if (when?) they decline to do so.

6) Be tolerant. The College and SoA find wide-ranging discussion scary. What if someone posting on Ephs in Finance says something like this, this or this? Won’t powerful people be offended? Perhaps. But (polite) free discussion and debate is the only thing that will cause people to participate. Censorship means failure.

7) Be polite. Although you can not (and should not) prevent Ephs from discussing and debating controversial topics in finance, nothing prevents you from ensuring that those debates are civilized, that participants are polite and that abusive commentators are banned. Do those things. Give all authors the ability to delete and edit posts and comments. Because Ephs are sensible, they will use this power wisely. But keep an eye on them just in case.

My forecast: I think that John Noble and Chris Warren have the perfect combination of technical skills and creative vision to make EphCOI a reality. By the end of Spring Break, I think that we will have an Ephs in Finance blog with several authors (me, some students, Robin Meyer for OCC? an alum working at SoA? John Noble?). I think that this blog will have new material each weekday and that this material will be interesting. I think that, each week, there will be scores of readers, both alumni and students. Some of the material will just be posts about finance Ephs in the news. Some will be information on finance-related job openings and internships offered through OCC. Yet the very best material will arise from the interaction of students and alumni. Students have questions about life in finance and alumni have answers. Williams just needs to bring the two groups together.

Once everyone sees the success of an Ephs in Finance blog, we will soon have an Ephs in Entertainment blog, an Ephs in Education blog, and so on.

Full Disclosure: I am an excessively relentless and unrealistic optimist.

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