Blogging: What I’ve Learned So Far

I started this blog in part to familiarize myself with the phenomenon, which over the past year has been moving from the fringe to the mainstream of my professional universe.  Here’s what I (think I) have learned.  This article is for the friends and acquaintances I’ve mentioned this to who have asked for more complete explanations. It’s also for my further education to the extent others are kind enough to comment helpfully — I’ve checked some but not all of what’s here.


“What is a blog? (And for that matter, what is a wiki, and what is RSS?)”


Blog is short for weblog.  A weblog is a journal published online, generally readable by anyone, though there are private ones (such as for corporate knowledge management and communications).  A big idea is to make journal entries commentable by readers, so the blog can be openly questioned, debated, critiqued, extended, etc. not just with the author but reader-to-reader as well.


Wiki is a Hawaiian word that means quick.  Wiki as far as I can tell is a form of relatively simple (hence quick) content management software (software for publishing websites) that can be used to publish blogs and certain other kinds of websites, like intranets where people can exchange ideas. Here’s a better definition


RSS is the really important, revolutionary aspect of blogging, as it is the key to efficient syndication and aggregation of content. RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication”.  There’s a more complicated definition but this one conveys the point best.


(Brief digression for non-technical folks here: 


We all know about HTML, or HyperText Markup Language.  HTML “tags” tell a browser like Internet Explorer how to render, or display, the content of a web page.  For example, to render a word in a bold font style, the valid HTML would be <b>word</b>.  The World Wide Web Consortium is the keeper of a standard for which HTML tags mean or do certain different things.



HTML is a specific form of XML.  XML allows users to define tag sets that describe content in ways machines can use to exchange it among themselves.  RSS is a specific XML tag set that tells machines exchanging content described by RSS what is what;  for example, “OK, in this page I’m sending you, this part is the title, this is the author’s name, this is the abstract of the article, here’s the body, here’s the publication date, etc.”. 


When I add an entry to my blog, a parallel XML/RSS version of that entry is also published by the software.  Others who have subscribed to my blog using another piece of software called an aggregator or reader (which can run on a server or a client pc), use that software to automatically “poll” my blog site to see if the content has been updated.  They do this by looking at the “date/time” tags in the XML/RSS version of my blog site.  If the date/time is more recent than the  last time they checked my site, they update their list of articles subscribed to by adding the title, and maybe an abstract, of my latest post.


How do people subscribe?  On every page of a blog (or wiki) site is a little “XML” graphic/ picture, or some similar link to the XML for that site.  Click on this link, and the parallel XML/RSS document for that page is displayed.  Copy the url for that XML file into the address bar of your aggregator (I use the open-source http://sharpreader.net) , and then click on the “subscribe” button.  Now you can follow that blog and many others from your aggregator.)


“Why should I care?  Why should I write? (And for whom?)”


You may not want to blog yourself, but following some blogs is a good idea.  My experience so far is that some blogs are much closer to the action I care about than the general press (like Mary Jo Foley’s Microsoft Watch newsletter, which isn’t really a blog in style but has an RSS feed).  Also, this is a much more efficient way to keep up with the news — using Sharpreader, I can whizz through stuff in 15 minutes that used to take 90 minutes, which meant I was less informed because I rarely had that kind of time.


As for writing, the software makes it really easy to publish on the web. This lowers the effort bar for expressing yourself, but simultaneously raises the stakes for saying something intelligent, or not saying anything at all.  (When publishing is easy, what’s your excuse for not doing it?  Bu then, what’s the saying — “Better to keep your mouth shut and be suspected a fool than open your mouth and confirm it”?) 


Really the biggest question is, “Who’s the audience?”  Very simplistically, it seems to break down into three buckets:  blogging for friends, blogging for work (promoting yourself or your firm/cause/organization), blogging to express yourself (un-self-consciously) as a citizen, specifically on some theme or generally on whatever crosses your mind.    Personally, I find blogs that try to talk to all three audiences at once less useful, but understand that for many people the audiences overlap somewhat — especially among the digerati, for example.  In those circles, mixing screeds on the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and pictures of your kids you took with your new Nikon Coolpix is de rigueur, and that’s fine — it’s a big world.


So I suppose as with anything, the best thing is to write good stuff (not just alerts of posts elsewhere) on a specific topic for a tightly defined audience that will appreciate it, then let people self-select into your audience.


“How do I do this?”


Some options for publishing include http://www.userland.com/, http://typepad.com/, http://new.blogger.com/.  Typepad seems in vogue right now, among people I’ve talked with.  They’re all very cheap, and blogging is free here (so far) for Harvard alums and wannabes — e.g., Philip Greenspun 😉 —  thanks to the generosity of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.


OpenACS/ .LRN now has a blogging module, so you can publish a blog that is fully integrated with other modules in this very powerful framework for online communities and e-learning.


I imagine it can’t be long before Microsoft has a blogging web part for Sharepoint, that you’d author for from your Word client.


“Where is this headed?”


I am not a digeratus.  (I have friends who are though, and they are proud of me for trying this.)  But here goes anyway.


Blogging will move further into the mainstream to the degree it becomes more efficient and effective than the current ways people do one-to-many publishing, like email newsletters.  To a certain extent these two techniques are overlapped: my site sends email alerts of my latest posts to people who register to receive them.  But, blogging has the advantage of showing not just current content, but also recent content the recipient might have missed.  And then there’s commentability, which can help to extend content if it’s asked for and moderated appropriately.


The bigger deal is RSS.  Ray Ozzie (the father of Lotus Notes) recently blogged to ask why someone had not yet defined an RSS “item type” for calendar events — a really cool idea.  Imagine if I could aggregate events from an infinite variety of organizations in a single view.  I might not miss any more school events, or be confused when Little League practice times change.  People inside companies using Microsoft Exchange Server with networked calendaring already do this, but it’s limited to events in their company as far as I know.


Pretty soon, when we hand out business cards we’ll scribble our personal RSS feed on the back, so when we change jobs friends and acquaintances can keep track of us automatically.  Just as they host personal mail accounts and web pages, ISP’s or portals like Yahoo and Hotmail will host this RSS feed.  The URL for the feed will be included in the signature file we append to our messages.  The web-based address books these services provide will be updated automatically through these feeds.  When we sync our PIMs and Outlook clients with them, we’ll get fully updated records!



In theory this spells bad news for contact updating services (you may have received a system-generated invitation from one of your friends asking you to update your contact information through one of these services).  But how soon all this happens depends on how quickly and effectively the standard gets extended to support this, and how fast it’s adopted generally.  There’s another, emerging standard for this called Friend of a Friend (FOAF).  Whether that standard succeeds independently or gets rolled into, or eclipsed by something like RSS remains to be seen.  But it’s worth noting that FOAF has already spawned helpful tools like the FOAF-a-Matic (generates FOAF file you can add to your website), and even a FOAF-based search engine.


I suppose there are privacy issues that might complicate the development and promulgation of the standard, but the reality is most of us are already “in the book”, or a Google-search away from being found.  This development would just make keeping up with friends and acquaintances a bit more efficient.


The people with the most to lose are the people who make and sell lists.  Anything that makes it easier to find and get to the right person will undermine that industry. 


What will really become valuable, as where to find someone becomes transparent, will be through whom to get to them…


 


 


 

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