As easy as falling off a blog

Personal online journals are a dream come true for exhibitionists and computer geeks. But just how useful are weblogs? And how do you set up your own? Andy Goldberg joins the world of blogging
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The Independent Online

The technology editor's assignment seemed easy for a veteran tech hack like me: explore the much-hyped world of the weblog, set up my own blog and report back the findings. Seemed easy - but wasn't.

The technology editor's assignment seemed easy for a veteran tech hack like me: explore the much-hyped world of the weblog, set up my own blog and report back the findings. Seemed easy - but wasn't.

The concept of personal publishing goes back to the very start of the internet, when everyone who wanted to be anyone had their own home pages. But using web graphics tools to set up a site that looked even half decent, had a fair amount of features and was easily updateable, you needed dollops of geek expertise and a willingness to spend long hours typing in HTML code.

Now, software packages from Radio Userland, Movable Type, Blogger.com and others have made web logging almost as easy as web browsing. With that confident thought in mind, I set out to create my own blog.

A quick Google search of the word "blog" was all I needed to get started. I found dozens of browser-based programs that promised to get me posting my pithy commentaries within a couple of minutes. I fiddled with several, but found that for sheer convenience of getting started it was hard to beat Blogger.com (bought by Google in February). All you do is sign up, choose a name and a template design and you're ready to go. Blogger recently upgraded its "free" service to match those of its paid-for service. Whichever blogging package you choose, it's worth paying the subscription fees to Blogger Pro, Moveable Type, Grey Matter, Livejournal or Userland - but only after you're sure you will keep it going.

But what is a weblog? What should you write?

There are weblogs (or blogs as they are fashionably known) popping up every day in virtually every corner of cyberspace. Blogs can be and often are about absolutely anything that interests the writer - from what happens when you hide a pile of meat and maggots in a neighbour's garden (http://www.thespark.com/science/ stinkymeat/) to blow-by-blow accounts of such little known geek fests as Gnomedex. (http://www.gnomedex. com/) or even the self-proclaimed dullest weblog in the world (http:// www.wibsite.com/wiblog/dull/) which is probably a parody of the entire genre,

but you just can't be sure.

A couple of good places to start reading are Daypop (www.daypop. com) which collates the "hottest" topics (based on which sites bloggers are linking to), and similarly blogdex (http://blogdex.net), technorati (www.technorati.com) and popdex (www.popdex.com).

There you'll find thousands of different blogs where writers dig deep into the news, providing analysis and links to other material, functioning as an open-source media army weaving content from wherever they find it. There are politicians' blogs, celebrity blogs, fashion blogs and football blogs. All are online journals, instantly updateable personal postings that put the newest items on top of the page so that you read them in reverse chronological order.

They invariably include links to other sites and usually revolve around a theme, subject or person. They often contain a "blogroll" - a sidebar with links to other recommended sites. Some have a place to leave comments and chat. Some have photos; some even have MP3 audio blogs that can be posted by phone.

But most blogs are, it must be said, badly written and poorly presented - the kind of drivel that gets read only reluctantly even by the authors' closest friends and family. Even so there are an awfully lot of good blogs - interesting, provocative, and passionate; direct, opinionated and informative. The best ones all have a unique approach or view that sets them apart, and engineer a sense of community among readers. They can be a great way of finding information too often ignored by the mainstream media.

Best of all, if you find a writer you like it, one who speaks your language, shares your interests and is not overly verbose, it can be like having your own assistant to dig up the stories, sites and views that fascinate you.

"It may not be journalism in the traditional sense, but it is in the original sense of the word," says fellow Independent writer Chris Gulker, who's been keeping his blog current since 1995.

Already blogging has had a major impact on traditional news. Matt Drudge showed with his coverage of Monicagate and The New York Times scandal that you don't have to be a journalist to report the news. Elsewhere, Salaam Pax recently provided the best source of coverage from inside wartime Baghdad. And every story of any importance is cross-examined from every angle by an army of interlinked news junkies who are only too happy to point out the inconsistencies of the professionals. Businesses and politicians are also cottoning on to the ways that blogs allow them to communicate informally, both internally and externally, without the restricting format of press releases. In the US the previously little-known former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, has become a leading Democratic candidate for President partly because of his use of blogs and other internet-based communications.

Since the birth of the internet there have been millions of blogs. Anil Dash, who works for leading "blogware" (software to write and edit blogs) outfit Moveable Type, and who has been a blogger for five years, estimates that five million blogs have been set up in recent years, and that between one and two million remain active.

That's a lot fallen by the wayside (perhaps we could call them "deadlogs"). For the truth is that the technical challenge of creating a weblog is a doddle compared with that of keeping one up. My blogging career, if you can call it that, started out like all do: with the best of intentions and the highest of motivations.

The original plan was to create a weird-but-true site that would show a side of the States you don't often see on the news. It would contain not only stories I write but many of the stories that I come across as I keep my foreign correspondent's finger on the quirky pulse of everyday America.

But I soon discovered that such an undertaking takes a lot of work to do properly - and I already had a job. There certainly was no way I could realistically envisage my blog becoming a money-making concern.

Perhaps five of the world's bloggers make a living from it. And doing it as a hobby? No thanks - I spend most of my working day at the computer and in my spare time I prefer the hammering and sawing of my home-building project or coaching my daughter's football team.

To paraphrase the noted technology writer Clay Shirky, blogging is for those who seek "fame vs fortune" - for people more interested in reaching a wide audience by using cheap nano-publishing tools than in being rewarded financially for what they write.

My aversion was not just to the extra workload and the thousands of more tiny decisions to make every day. I can work with the intensity of a whirling dervish if something excites me. But I'm a fairly private person, and the thought of putting myself in the window of cyberspace and exposing my life for all to see just gave me the creeps.

But that's just me. There are plenty of people who crave attention or who genuinely are excited about using new technology to express views and inform other people. Good luck to 'em, but this blog revolution is taking place without me.

The remains of Andy Goldberg's blog are at http://www.goldballs.blogspot.com/

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