May 01, 2004

Blog’s the word.

A little history


In the beginning was the home page. And heaven knows how much corny clip art, inspirational poetry and other such atrocities have been inflicted on the unsuspecting world in the name of one’s very own personal web space.


Disclosure: This writer has had many personal home pages on many free sites and has even, once upon a time, when he was young and didn’t know better, put his own poetry up on them.


But then, in the last few years of the last century (i’ve been wanting to slip that phrase into print under my name for the longest time), a strange new phenomenon began to take root.


A few home page owners who wandered far and wide on the still comparatively new world wide web began to gather links to the wondrous sites they saw, and share them with their friends. Rather than just email those links to their friends, some of them began keeping virtual log books of their journeys around the net, pages of links that they posted on their personal web sites, laced with generous helpings of personal commentary. Most of them were run by people who were either web professionals or self-taught amateur enthusiasts. Indeed they needed to be, because this was before the existence of software and/or web sites that made web publishing the type-and-send affair it is today.


That changed in July 1999, with the launch of Pitas, the first blogging tool. Like Hotmail, which had given email its growth surge, it was an online tool, and the price was right – it was free – and suddenly people who wouldn’t know a comment tag from their navels were able to release the fruit of their meditation to the entire world. Or at least the 83 close friends they emailed about it. Again like Hotmail, other providers quickly jumped on the bandwagon – notably Pyra with Blogger – and Blogging was on its way to becoming the Next Big Thing.


In 1998 there were just a handful of sites of the type that are now identified as weblogs (so named by Jorn Barger in December 1997). Jesse James Garrett, editor of Infosift, began compiling a list of “other sites like his” as he found them in his travels around the web. Cameron Barrett. ... published the list on Camworld, and others maintaining similar sites began sending their URLs to him for inclusion on the list. Jesse’s ‘page of only weblogs’ lists the 23 known to be in existence at the beginning of 1999.
Suddenly a community sprang up. It was easy to read all of the weblogs on Cameron’s list, and most interested people did. Peter Merholz announced in early 1999 that he was going to pronounce it ‘wee-blog’ and inevitably this was shortened to ‘blog’ with the weblog editor referred to as a ‘blogger.’
At this point, the bandwagon jumping began. More and more people began publishing their own weblogs. ... Cameron’s list grew so large that he began including only weblogs he actually followed himself. In early 1999 Brigitte Eaton compiled a list of every weblog she knew about and created the Eatonweb Portal. Brig evaluated all submissions by a simple criterion: that the site consist of dated entries. Webloggers debated what was and what was not a weblog, but since the Eatonweb Portal was the most complete listing of weblogs available, Brig’s inclusive definition prevailed.’
- Excerpted, with permission, from weblogs: a history and perspective, © Rebecca Blood)

How do i blog thee? Let me count the ways...


Right then. There endeth the history lesson. Now, what’s the blogging scene like today? In one word, bubbling. Thousands (that is probably a conservative estimate) of new blogs launch each day.


Blogs themselves have changed from those early halcyon days. The masses have taken over, and now easily outnumber the early pioneers and adopters. And, as with email, chat, instant messaging, and indeed the web itself, they have morphed it into something its trailblazers wouldn’t recognise. Or wouldn’t want to. “The bastardisation of the blogging ideal” is one phrase i saw as i was trawling the net researching this article, but, for better or worse, things will never quite be the same again.


The original blog style – let’s call it the Filter Blog – still exists. Heck, i have one myself. My blog is a generalist blog, a reflection of my mind, my interests, with regular sets of links, short introductions to each of them, maybe little ’taster’ snippets from the sites they link to, to whet the reader’s appetite, the stuff i used to email to my friends once upon a time. There are others far more specific in their focus – literary, political, journalistic, sports-related, fan blogs, you name it, again reflecting the minds of their owners, and their passions. In an ironical twist, there are blogs that hark back to blogging’s pre-web ancestors and inspirations – Travel Blogs, journals with maps and pictures and destinations. And incestuously, there are many, many, many blogs about, well, blogging.


But, a newer kind of site, also updated regularly, also with dated entries, and new entries appearing at the top of the page pushing older ones down, and therefore technically a blog too, has become almost ubiquitous. i call this type the Dear Diary Blog, or Journal. While the Filter blog is, as i said, a reflection of the mind of the owner (and since writing reveals, even in what it conceals, some perhaps reveal more than the blogger intends), in the Diary type blog, the focus is very definitely the blogger. Entries can be descriptions of what s/he is going through in life, what kind of day s/he’s having, books s/he’s reading, movies s/he’s watched, what s/he ate, who s/he ate, and so on.


Of course, these are not mutually exclusive categories, and many bloggers straddle the two with aplomb, mixing links with rants, comments with confessionals, the state of their love lives with the state of humanity.


Besides that hazy, arbitrary division based on content, other types exist too.


There is, for instance, the Commentary Blog, where the writer takes a topic or a link and presents a long personal view on it. As blogging software improved, one of the bells and whistles added on was giving the reader the ability to comment on blog postings, giving rise to spirited public conversations between blogger and reader, or among the readers themselves. i call these Dialogue Blogs (and as i do so, i’m hoping no one decides to shorten that to DiaBlog – or if they do, that they’ll give me money for it). Then there are collaborations between two or more bloggers, each presenting his or her own view and links, panel discussions rather than speeches, jugalbandis rather than solo acts (i gave up on a category here – CollaBlogs? JugalBlogs? –naah). And to take that principle even further, there are Community Blogs, which crossed the blurry line from old style bulletin boards and web forums, where membership, and blogging rights, are shared between hundreds, even thousands of contributors.


Some blogs aren’t even text oriented – i have seen beautiful ArtBlogs, where the owners show their artwork as their take on the world, instead of words. And VoiceBlogs and VideoBlogs, both pretty bandwidth intensive. Or PhotoBlogs. And their inevitable descendant, made possible by cameras built into mobile phones, where pictures are sent directly from cellphone to blog, the Moblog. Which is about as hybrid a word as one can get, considering it tacks half one word onto an existing word that was originally formed by the union of two other words. Wait, i take that back. Just yesterday, i read that the newest fad doing the rounds is the Cyborglog, which has already been shortened to ‘Glog.’ A Glog is kept by bloggers who use various kinds of portable or wearable computing tools, that they habitually carry with them. They see themselves as cyborgs, or at least as close to that as one can get without actual surgery. Glogs are just about the ultimate when it comes to a life that is blogged as it is lived!


Blogs for all seasons


People enter the Blogosphere (hey, that’s what all the cool kids are calling it, mom) for all manner of reasons – expression of ideas, their message to the world, self promotion, boredom... you name it.


Speaking for myself, it’s partly exercise – daily calisthenics for my writing muscles. It doesn’t take up too much of my time – the surfing i do is about the same as i did before. The only difference is that now, when i find something interesting, i reach for the Blog This button rather than my email program. If it also results in some visibility, and perhaps more writing assignments, so much the better.


Other bloggers i’ve talked with have different reasons: to reach out; to tell people about themselves; it’s a soapbox for some; confessional for others; a way to express parts of one’s personality that don’t get an outlet in one’s normal life.


Many use blogs a professional tool: to establish a presence and credibility in their fields; to propagate their views; to test and share concepts and ideas; to communicate and collaborate with other professionals, either in the same field or complimentary areas; as a research aid. Writers find many uses for blogs too: as ‘process logs,’ as ways to test out ideas and plots; as a medium complete in itself. Blogs are also finding a use in education, in news gathering and analysis, the list goes on and on.


There have even been scams and some very successful panhandling efforts. And if you need further proof that it’s in the mainstream is that marketing types are looking beyond spam email and training their beady eyes on blogs as tools to push products.


Is anyone actually making money off blogs then? From what i hear, not many are. Don’t do this because you want to quit your day job. Yes, it could result in income, perhaps indirectly, perhaps through advertising if your blog pulls in readers by the million. But don’t count on it. Do it because you want to.


As The Babu (in real life, a close friend, and my personal inspiration as a blogger – see the box / companion article at the end of this one) put it to me, “Some blogs make money. Some blogs get you jobs. Some blogs introduce you to new friends, new partners, new catsitters. None of this may happen; usually, it won’t. Do not expect to get rich, employed or laid. It might happen, and if it does, well, that’s a bonus. Blogging is a second job. Blogging is a social disease. Blogging is a virus. It can take over your life if you don’t watch out, and it will even if you do. Two words: have fun. That’s about the only reason to get out there, take your pants off in public, and ask a world of people you don’t even know by name to come over and have a look.”


Getting on the blogwagon


Now you, if you want to blog, how do you go about it? If you’re the cautious type, you could try my way: read a lot of blogs, figure out what you like, what makes them tick, then attempt to replicate it. Soon, you’ll find your own voice. Or you could just jump in, feet first, and swim. Either way, remember that its going to take up a regular chunk of your time, and you had better be doing it because you enjoy it.


Blogging services? If you’re HTML savvy, you don’t need any, but even if you are a web guru, there are services out there that take all the pain out of blogging. Things like automatic placement of new posts, archiving and the like. Services to try out: MovableType comes highly recommended if you already have your own domain and server space, and is free for non-commercial personal use. Among the sites which offer both interface and hosting: Blogger is still the best known, and pretty good for beginners, with some limitations; LiveJournal works well if you’re planning a diary-style blog; Rediff’s service has quickly acquired a large Indian following. Just fire up your favourite search engine and you’ll get lots more. Play around, experiment, network with other bloggers, and you’ll soon find one that best suits your needs.


Don’t underestimate the networking bit, especially if you hanker for an audience. Bloggers are arguably the biggest readers of other blogs. And by and large, a helpful bunch. They are also clannish, and link to one another, wearing their affiliations, friendships, peer groups, the groups they desire to be seen as part of, as proud badges, traditionally displayed in a row of links to other blogs (a 'blogroll’) on a sidebar. Trading links is a very effective way to get readers of your own. As is reading other blogs, commenting on them and entering dialogues with their owners.


So, if you need advice, pointers to resources, links to interesting articles, or just a reader for your blog, come see me some time!


Peter Griffin blogs at zigzackly.blogspot.com




This section of the article wasn’t carried in the magazine - guess i lost out to my other profession, advertising.


Voices from the Blogosphere


There’s a lot more to the blogging phenomenon. What do bloggers think? Why do they blog? Who do they blog for? What do they hope to get out of it? Rather than make this just my views, i posted a few questions to some message boards, mailed random members of the bloggerati, and got some interesting answers from around the world.


Scott Allen, as befits his area of specialisation, is one of the first to write back to me. He is that rare bird, a “professional” blogger. Besides getting paid to blog at About.com, he also runs OnlineBusinessNetworking.com/blog, which he uses as “a marketing tool intended to increase visibility and establish credibility as experts on our topic.” His blogs are “about 70/30 commentary/filter.” He takes his audience very seriously, tracking numbers, encouraging feedback and acting on it. Because, as he succinctly says, “No audience = no point.” He has oodles of advice on his site, which is well worth your attention if you’re looking at using your blog even semi-professionally.


Aldon Hynes replied at greater length. He runs several blogs, for several different reasons. “My personal blogging, is to let my friends know what I’ve been up to. At aldon.blogspot.com, i test programs that I write to interact with blogspot. I started posting to my MovableType blog, initially to learn MT, but now, more and more to talk about my political activities, which has also lead me to be active in greaterdemocracy.org and numerous Howard Dean related websites.” About the kinds of blogs, Hynes says, “A blog that is primarily ones own experiences can be interesting if the person is living an interesting life and is a good writer, but many of these get boring fairly quickly. Recaps of events without any great new insights also become boring pretty quickly. In many ways, a good blog is like a good op-ed piece in the papers, tied to what is going on in the world and written in an interesting and enlightening manner.”


Anita Bora, formerly at Rediff.com, and now an independent communications consultant in Mumbai, currently blogs at anitabora.com, and is pretty active in getting Indian bloggers to know each other, in real life as well as online.


She rebukes me for my attempts to pigeonhole the various kinds of blogs. “These categories have been created for your own convenience,” she says in her mail. “When you’re online, you tend to do diverse reading, rather than just writing in one genre. There are blogs which might or might not fall under these categories. Ultimately, it’s what appeals to you. Most bloggers browse around a lot, find blogs which strike some kind of a chord, either in their writing, choice of subject, or just their tone of voice. Communities develop around one’s blog and most pretty much stick to their own (straying once in a while), since there are only that many blogs you can read in a day. Blogging serves different purposes at different points of time. I might just want to know what readers think of a topic. Or give vent to my feelings on the state of affairs in my country. Or share a personal experience. The blog lets you ’publish’ like a magazine or a newspaper, and puts you in the editor’s seat. That’s what makes it interesting and challenging too! Audience is reasonably important. We might say we write for ourselves, but it’s going to be lonely if no one ever drops by. By and large, bloggers encourage feedback, and it is common to find groups of bloggers meeting offline and taking their relationships forward.”


Mihail Lari is the cofounder of Blogging Network, the first venue for competitive blogging that pays based on a blog’s popularity (50% of each member’s subscription fee goes towards the writers that person reads each month). His preferred blog reading is the Filter. “A good blogger who decides to serve as a filter on one subject is invaluable as we seem to have less and less time to deal with the overwhelming amounts of information coming at us.” He blogs himself, initially anonymously, but now under his own name “Because I wanted readers to know who I was, that one of the founders of the site is among them.”


He, obviously, recommends his own service “I suppose I am biased, but I really do feel that free blogging is fine for those who also want to spend time marketing their blog and finding readers. Blogging in a vacuum is hard and no fun. The reason why so many people stop blogging after a few days or months is because it is hard to find readers. New bloggers should start out on Blogging Network or some other venue where you can be sure to find readers immediately. We do the job of finding you readers so that you can focus on what you do best – write your blog!”


William Thompson is using his travelblog, Calles y Callejones, Backroads of San Miguel (there’s an accompanying photo gallery too) as a “trial balloon” for a book. The book will be “a guide to the little-known things I find. The colonial city of San Miguel de Allende is a tourist destination and I work (informally) with the local tourism office. I would probably explore these things on my own without the eventual goal of a book.” As to time spent blogging, he grins. “If you consider the time I spend researching and exploring the area, I’d have to say a lot. Actual time spent in front of the computer? Most of it is editing my photos for placement on the blog pages. Once that’s done, the blog more or less writes itself, arising out of the pictures and the things I want to say about them.” He isn’t making money off the blog directly, but has had quite a bit of success with his photographs and writing, with his work being selected for special publications from Mexico’s tourism office, and a photo essay in the BBC News Web site. “I would have to say that the blog has been a successful springboard into other things, which was one of my goals in starting it. I’m not realizing any monetary income from this as yet, although it’s obvious that I hope to eventually. One of my goals is to have travel magazines see some of my material and perhaps contact me to do articles on other locales in Mexico for them.”


Some bloggers prefer anonymity. Like “Nancy,” who writes Desi Bridget Jones Diary. She is a finance professional in Bangalore, but has plans to write professionally one day. i have her word for it. Because i know nothing about her (even the “her” is on trust) that she does not choose to reveal in her blog, which aside from the occasional link, usually to entries on other blogs in her online circle of friends, or extracts from articles or news reports which she comments on, is largely a personal journal. “I blog anonymously” she tells me, “Simply because it allows me to be more honest.” Nancy is one of those people who revels in the ease of use of blogging sites: she confesses to being decidedly technically challenged. “Audience is important to me, but I don’t track numbers. Simply because I don’t know how to! But I read all comments, even if I’m not able to personally respond to them. The fact that there are visitors makes me more diligent about regular posting – heck, i got customers!”


“Hurree Chunder Mookerjee,” a.k.a. “The Babu” also conceals his real identity, though his blog isn’t a personal diary. Kitabkhana is filter with a touch of commentary, and focusses on the world of books, writers, writing and publishing. “I like playing with alter egos, and thought creating the Babu might be an interesting experiment. He’s far more outspoken than his creator, and has more swash and buckle, though these days I need the ’screen’ less and less. Initially, it dismayed me when people discovered his identity: Now that I’m more relaxed with the blog, it doesn’t matter all that much, though I’d prefer the blog’s creator to remain as anonymous as possible for as long as possible.” The Babu, whose site attracts thousand of readers from all over the world, didn’t start out searching for an audience. “Kitabkhana began out of enlightened self-interest: I kept coming across articles that I wanted to save for future reading and then forgetting where I’d seen them. It made sense to start a blog that collected those links. The blog dragged me willy-nilly into a community of book buffs whose views and opinions I found fascinating. Geography is unimportant on the web; the community is far-flung, but we all know each other and share a sense of creating something new, perhaps even an alternative literary culture.” On making money off the blog, he says, “Directly, no. Indirectly, yes, an indecent amount of work has come my way thanks to the Babu’s profile. Never expected it, so it’s icing on the cake. More than work or money, what the blog has done in a peculiar way is to change the way people in my field see me. The real me is fairly prissy; the Babu is more flamboyant. I get people doing a double take, which is not always comfortable, but it is interesting as a social experiment.”


These links weren't intended to be part of the article, merely my own research. You may find them interesting if you're interested in the subject.


Useful Links


A tale of one man and his blog


Blog Fiction by Tim Wright, on trAce


(Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything... (September 03, 2003)


Making a Good Blog for Dummies


weblogs: a history and perspective by Rebecca Blood


History


Archived copy of the first blog (TBL’s cern site, http://info.cern.ch/)


1st mention of “blog?” Eatonweb’s proprietor Brigitte Eaton credits it to Peter Merholz.
http://blogbib.blogspot.com/


http://www.userland.com/theHistoryOfWeblogs


http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A43254-2003Nov14?language=printer


http://www.economist.com/business/displayStory.cfm?story_id=1218702


http://www.perseus.com/blogsurvey/thebloggingiceberg.html


http://cyberatlas.internet.com/big_picture/applications/article/0,,1301_2238831,00.htm


http://dijest.com/bc/


http://www.blogcensus.net/weblog/


http://doc.weblogs.com/2003/11/16#celebratingConditionalCelebrity


http://www.shirky.com/writings/powerlaw_weblog.html


http://www.microcontentnews.com/articles/googleblogs.htm


http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html


http://www.microcontentnews.com/articles/


http://news.scotsman.com/features.cfm?id=68052004


http://johnporcaro.typepad.com/blog/2003/12/business_is_per.html


http://andrewblog.weblogs.us/archives/009203.html


http://www.shirky.com/writings/weblogs_publishing.html


How to blog


http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/hw/blog/creative/


http://www.periodicfable.com/


Making money blogging:


http://www.rightwingnews.com/archives/week_2003_04_27.PHP#000905


http://www.onlinebusinessnetworking.com/blog/2003/12/29/how-to-become-an-a-list-blogger


http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/ten_tips.html


http://radio.weblogs.com/0117128/blogpaper/blogging_the_market.html


http://www.commoncraft.com/archives/000443.html


Published in It’s a Guy Thing (GT, for short) the Times of India Group’s Men’s magazine.



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