Every man and his blog

from the November 2005 Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

The thing that has made the Internet such a powerful and revolutionary medium for communication is the ease with which any individual, from the humblest to the greatest, can be in touch with the entire world. Get anything online and it has the potential to be read by anybody, anywhere. No wonder then that over the last few years “blogs” have stopped being just an Internet quirk and have become a global cultural phenomenon.

A “blog” (shortened from the words web + log) is a web-based publication that is updated regularly by its author or authors. At their simplest blogs are little more than online diaries, but they usually contain opinion as well as personal news. Usually, they are dedicated to a single topic (e.g. politics, information or reviews) and they can be written by individuals, or collaboratively by a group of writers with a common interest.

Many blogs allow visitors to leave public comments, and a successful blog will usually end up having a community of readers centred around it, all reading the daily updates and commenting back to the writers or other readers. As a result, blogs are beginning to replace many of the more traditional methods of Internet discussion such as bulletin boards or newsgroups.

The importance of a cultural phenomenon can often be measured by the amount of new jargon it generates. People who “blog” are called bloggers. The totality of blogs is known as the “blogosphere”. When a large amount of activity or debate erupts around a particular subject in the blogosphere, it is called a “blogstorm” or “blogswarm”. The tools for publishing blogs are sometimes referred to as “blogware”. A “moblog” is one that is updated regularly with photos taken from camera-phones. People who create bogus blogs in support of their spam e-mail campaigns are known as “sploggers”, and a new blog -related term was probably coined during the time it took you to read this paragraph.

0511dish.jpg (9773 bytes)Blogs have been around since the late 90s, but really began to gain prominence in 2001-2002. They grew naturally out of a rising glut of web sites dedicated to political comment after September 11, and America’s reaction on the world political stage. One of the first to develop a large international following was Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish (http://andrewsullivan.com). It contained a wide array of political and social comment that was often controversial, leading to what we’d call “robust debate” in New Zealand. Imitators and rivals multiplied, and the blogosphere was born.

0511omv.jpg (10547 bytes)The Iraq War gave rise to still more blogs as those on the left and the right felt the need to bless the world with their opinions. However, it was probably the candid accounts of events in Iraq published by the soldiers themselves (known as “milblogs”) that led to blogs being seen as an alternative news source; one that was perhaps more trustworthy or valid as it was written by those actually experiencing the war firsthand, and consequently less prone to journalistic bias. Shortly after the recent London terror attacks, personal blogs written by those close to the action were able to enhance and complement mainstream press coverage for anyone with Internet access.

The rise of this sort of “citizen journalism” is not universally popular, of course. Media traditionalists see it as an erosion of the strict objectivity that should characterise good reporting. However, Yahoo News (the world's most popular Internet media destination) has now stated it will begin featuring blogs side by side with professionally produced news stories, and this is a firm indication that blogs are here to stay.

In some parts of the world, blogs have already become mainstream with many people now consulting them, not just for alternative news sources, but also for a wide range of more mundane purposes. A recent survey in the United Kingdom found that three quarters of those surveyed consulted blogs before making major purchases. Again, blogs were seen as more honest and reliable because they were not subject to the same marketing agenda as corporate or commercial websites.

The blogosphere is continuing to grow. Purportedly, a new blog is created every second and the number of blogs available is doubling every five months. It seems inevitable, then, that blogs will become a bigger part of our lives, even if some of us haven’t been giving them much attention so far.

There are probably two main places you should start looking if you want to find out what’s available and of interest to you in the blogosphere. These would be Technorati (www.technorati.com) and Google Blogs (www.google.co.nz/blogsearch). Each maintains its own massive database of online blogs, and provides a simple interface into which you can enter keywords of interest. They work just like search engines and will return to you a list of recently blogged articles about your topic, along with an indication of how many hours ago each was published.

Visit a few blogs, bookmark those you like, and feel free to add your comments to what others have written. Bloggers love feedback, and the whole point of them is to engender discussion. Just like with search engines, though, the results can be a little mixed, and it may take a little time for you to find just what you’re after.

And if it turns out that nobody is really covering your topic of interest as competently or knowledgeably as you could, don’t despair. Setting up your own flash-looking blog and maintaining it regularly is as easy as writing an e-mail. There are a number of online sites dedicated to providing cost free easy-peasy blogging capability, with all the hard stuff is taken care of for you. It’s possible to know virtually nothing about blogs, and still have one up and running in less than five minutes.

0511blogger.jpg (3525 bytes)One of the most popular of these sites is Blogger (www.blogger.com). There’s a quick and easy to follow introductory tour you can take, but if you haven’t got time for that, you can just jump right in and set up a blog in three easy steps. Open a free account, choose a name for your blog, and select a template from a wide range of good-looking examples. Once you’ve done that you can compose your first blog

Blogger will provide you with your own web address (such as http://mygreatblog.blogspot.com). You’ll be able to receive and respond to comments, and your posts will automatically be archived according to the date you wrote them.

If you do have a little knowledge of Internet code (and you certainly don’t need it), your chosen template can be modified to any extent you want and a large number of settings can be modified or switched on or off. If you want to publish your blog to an existing web site, you can load your FTP details into Blogger, and it will even do that for you with a minimum of hassle.

Blogger is just one of many that offer this sort of no-fuss blogging capability. Other similar sites include livejournal.com and myspace.com. There are also a number of sites where you can download your own blogware for independent use. Two of the more popular of these include movabletype.org and Greymatter (www.noahgrey.com/greysoft/).

If you’ve got something to say, why not share your thoughts with the world? A shared blog can also be a great way for a family to keep I touch. If a new blog is added to the Internet every second of every day, there’s no reason why the next one can’t be yours.

TEN BLOGGING TIPS

A successful blog is one that gets read and there’s a lot of competition out there. Here are a few ways you can increase the hit-rate on yours.

  1. Write often. It doesn’t have to be much, but potential readers will get bored if you don’t have regular new content. Also, the more often you update, the more often search engines like Google will visit you to update their database.
  2. Be topical. Write about things that really are interesting and be original. Let your personality shine through. Write well, but don’t obsess about perfection.
  3. Where appropriate and relevant, link to other people’s blogs. This will help you get noticed, and you may gain reciprocal links back.
  4. Leave comments on other people’s blogs. Be a constructive and positive contributor and other bloggers won’t object if you leave a little self-promotion while you’re at it.
  5. Be patient. It takes time to build up a readership.
  6. Add a signature to your outgoing e-mails that contains a link to your blog.
  7. Be good-humoured and thick-skinned. Expect occasional insults and tactless criticism, and respond good-naturedly. Respond to your critics in a way that shows how much better than them you are, but don’t get involved in petty insult-wars.
  8. Read lots of other blogs. This helps you find new ideas, new things to write about, and increases potential for network-building.
  9. If you’re in business, don’t blog about how good your own products are. People come to blogs for originality and honesty, not thinly-disguised advertising.
  10. Don’t be obsessed with getting lots of hits. Blogging is about developing quality relationships and mutual learning. Just enjoy blogging for what it is. Have fun, and success will often take care of itself.

Some Interesting New Zealand Blogs