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Sunday, April 1, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Internet

Been 'blogging'? Web discourse hits higher level

Special to The Seattle Times

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Links beget links: This is a tenet of the Internet.

Every time Net users discover a resource or site of interest, they link to it. Over time, links aggregate and accumulate, and the most linked-to sites become the most popular.

An interesting side effect of this kind of laser-beam pointing has grown into a mature phenomenon in the past year: Web logging, known as "blogging."

Blogging is the art of turning one's own filter on news and the world into something others might want to read, link to, and write about themselves.

[Blog, blogging or blogger: Take the phrase "Web log" and apply the linguistic behavior known as false splitting - move a letter from one word to another (as "a napron" turned into "an apron") - and you get the phrase, "We blog." Coining generally attributed to Peter Merholz, www.peterme.com.]

Web logs comprise short or long comments about links to articles, sites, press releases, and discussions. Typically, they're time-bounded and date-stamped, with older entries scrolling off the bottom into chronological archives.

Tens of thousands of users have Web logs, and many update them daily, or even many times a day, with new snippets or writings. Some blogs are closer to public diaries; others, the idiosyncratic or authoritative musings of experts and cranks.

Most online sources point to 1999 as the beginning of widespread blogging, as free online software tools eased the process of creating daily logs without specialized Web knowledge. Blogger (www.blogger.com), Pitas (www.pitas.com), and Userland Software's Manilasites (www.manilasites.com, www.weblogs.com, or www.editthispage.com) offer a variety of blogging options, all characterized by a simple Web form to add and edit items.

Submitting the form adds or updates the entry to the online site, whether hosted on your own Web site or via a blog-hosting service, such as Manilasites. Page templates can be customized, or left at their minimal defaults. You don't need to know HTML, the coding language of the Web, or even have an understanding of any underpinnings to use these services.

Items in a Web log might be drawn from traditional news sources, techie discussion sites like Slashdot (www.slashdot.org), and even other blogs - a practice known as blogrolling. A blog's popularity derives in part from the fingers pointing from other bloggers.

[Blogrolling: Derived from logrolling, a habit of trading favors or praise among artists, critics, or academics. Noted blogger Doc Searls, at doc.weblogs.com, claims credit for spreading the meme; several other bloggers agree.]

Paul Andrews, who recently opted for early retirement as a Seattle Times reporter and columnist, is now a freelance technology journalist and regular blogger (paulandrews.manilasites.com).

"There's a referential and kind of feedback mechanism that's important in blogging," he said. Print journalists, such as the San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor (weblog.mercurycenter.com/ejournal/), have leapt into the fray, often without compensation, practicing an art in public usually reserved for private contemplation or with editors.

Journalists' participation in this medium has sparked articles, including Newsweek columnist Deborah Branscum's recent take on its significance. In the navel-gazing nature of blogging, her column provoked much public, blogged gnashing of teeth.

Dave Winer, a software developer and head of Userland Software, which offers free Web log hosting, is generally credited as the first regular and well-read blogger, starting a blog in 1997 (www.scripting.com). His commentary is popular enough to have spawned an evil twin: a nasty daily deconstruction of his remarks, ironically hosted on his own company's Web log service.

Blogging in action

I started blogging in November 2000 (glennf.weblogs.com) and quickly developed blogorrhea, a condition that can be cured only by more of the disease, and the imposition of a kind of external discipline on a writer that depends on the growth of actual readers of one's blog.

[Blogorrhea: a tendency for creativity-strapped bloggers to write meaningless prose in an attempt to keep their blog active.]

One experience I had recently illustrates how a blog works. Doc Searls recently posted musings (doc.weblogs.com/2001/03/27) about whether Google's (www.google.com) hiring Eric Schmidt as chairman might result in the purchase of the search engine by Sun Microsystems, a company Schmidt helped found. I sent Searls some pithy comments and a number of others did the same. Searls posted an update the next day with our responses (doc.weblogs.com/2001/03/28). He also linked to an online-only column by Branscum at Fortune magazine's site about Google's success working with online advertisers.

This kind of mild dust-up happens all the time, with a mix of journalists, ordinary readers, and subject experts responding to their colleagues with no intermediation, and little compunction. These responses are incorporated into blogs, resulting in more cross-links and a richer vein of detail.

When I write for a mass-market publication, I have no idea how many people actually read the article. When I blog, I can see statistics. My words in print are just a few out of tens of thousands, and as ephemeral as newsprint or glossy paper. Andrews explained, "As a newspaper writer, you know you're reaching a broad audience, but you don't get the feedback effect."

In the blog, however, not only is my blog entirely my own, but my words persist in simple archives, which typically are better indexed by search engines than the databases that print publications maintain online. In some cases, older writing becomes more popular than newer writing.

More than musings

Perhaps this is one reason why blogging rose so quickly. It's one thing to push words out on random pages. It's another to be able to archive, sort, and respond to brief snippets and longer essays. The structure enables readers to have a more direct relationship with the writer that builds over time.

Gillmor, speaking at Buzz 2001, looks to his blogging to make his writing for print even more informed by a broader array of opinion. Gillmor writes his blog as part of his staff position at the Mercury News, and turns out columns based on this work."Repurposing from print to online is the wrong direction," he said, adding, "I want people to basically have a conversation with me." He asserted that results in better journalism.

The immediate future brings a higher potential of turning bloggers into the equivalent of syndicated writers with Userland Software's release in March of Radio Userland (radio.userland.com). The software allows a user to "tune" into blogs using features that Microsoft is using as the basis of its .NET initiative; it also features a simple blog tool for posting entries.

A user can subscribe via Radio to blogs and conventional news sources that provide the feed in the right format. Radio schedules regular updates, with a default of one hour, providing a constantly refreshed custom "newspaper" with your own personal columnists and sources.

Journalists have yet to figure out how to make money from this medium. Gillmor and Jim Romenesko (www.poynter.org/medianews) are two of the only writers paid to write blogs. "Eventually, there will be some new kinds of economic models emerging from the Web" that will make it possible to get revenue from this kind of pure writing, Andrews said.

But, for now, we blog because we can, and because we must.

Glenn Fleishmann, a freelance technology journalist in Seattle, contributes frequently to The Seattle Times.

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