This time several years ago, I was stuck in an internet rut. I had a fairly fixed number of websites which I would visit daily, but, through habit, rarely step outside of that loop. I had a personal website, which I first created in 1996, but I rarely had any interest in it from the outside world – it was a personal excercise to learn new technologies. Like my web browsing, it too stagnated. I changed the look of it because I was bored, or keen to try out a new design, but the content rarely grew to more than a list of links. I would certainly never try to write something like this on it – for starters it was unlikely that anyone would find it to read it.
Static sites, stagnant sites
In the year 2000, when I begain my masters degree in archaeological computing (and coupled with a connection to SuperJaNET – the high speed academic network), I began to experiment a little more with web publishing, and found that the projects I was working on were worthy of a mention on the net. I revamped my website yet again, and began to put 3D renders of some work on there, and a few descriptions of what I was up to and some of the techniques I was working on. But I had no traffic. Manual search engine submission didn’t seem to work, links from some friends (equally obscure) websites, didn’t bring many visitors. It made me wonder what the point of it was, especially as I was hand coding everything, and was a considerable time investment.
I began to hear about ‘web logs’ at about that time, and had come across some ‘diary’ websites offering free accounts. I didn’t really take much notice of them as it didn’t seem like a system that could be used for much else than, well, a diary. Being fairly technically minded, I also looked down on them as being very limited systems, with uniform looks. I think that I actually closed my mind to them, and didn’t really watch what was going to happen to them.
Evolution and XML
In about 2002, I began to take notice of ‘web logs’ again – in that the name had now evolved to “blog” in the net-savvy mainstream (I’m certain it had been known as this much much before then, in certain circles). RSS and blogs appeared hand-in-hand, as a way of aggregating multiple sites together. I could see it going places. I bookmarked several blogs, and while I couldn’t find a decent RSS reader back then, I read them regularly in a browser, whenever I remembered. Some blogs went for ages without any posts, so I checked them less often, and forgot about some of them after my computer died.
Over the edge
After the death of my computer, which pushed me over the edge into the world of Apple computers (quite possibly the best computing decision I have ever made), I decided that it was time to pull myself together and get a ‘proper’ website. But how would I do that? How would I create a site where I could, once and for all, concentrate on the content, rather than mess about with Dreamweaver of hand-coding every time I wanted to put something online?
My mind drifted back to the blogs I had read, and back to the diary websites of the 1990s. Blogger.com was up and running with already large numbers of blogs (in 2003), and hadn’t (I think) at that point been bought by Google. Something interesting was happening to the web.
Democratisation of the web
It dawned on me that anyone could now set up their own website. Not in the Geocities ‘site builder’ sense, but powerful websites, blogs, that allowed interaction. Suddenly (relatively speaking), anyone could write about anything, and have their say about what someone else says, whilst linking the two together (pingbacks/trackbacks). Complete strangers could leave comments. The democratisation of the web was happening.
The power of blogging
I’m writing this entry using WordPress, a superb open source blogging platform. I only discovered WordPress last year, when it was at version 1.2. I was astounded by the community that used and supported it, so much so that when researching its use, I decided to leap in at the deep end and just give it a go. Admittedly, installing it, whilst very simple for me, is still a long way from being easy for everyone. But I have been extremely impressed with its reliability, support, and functionality that has really woken me up to the power of blogging.
Many of the people reading this will know this already, but it is quite exciting when you consider where these technologies are going. The combination of XML/RSS and blogging was a natural one – a blog is a way of sharing information, of easy and quick web publishing, and RSS is a way of facilitating information in a simple manner. Through RSS, and using NetNewsWire (an RSS reader for the Mac), on a daily basis I check about 70 websites for things I might be interested in. I can do this in a very short time, since all it takes is scanning through headlines (just like I had been doing for years with Usenet, and even email lists). Such a simple idea, but so effective.
But it gets better. Through the use of ‘update services’ such as Ping-O-Matic and Technorati each time a post is made, of your blogging platform supports it (and most do), your content is spidered and indexed within minutes of it going live, and is available on their search engines for people to find and read. There is no guessing game as to when Google will come along and find it, and put your posting at result number 1.56 million of 2 billion – it could be spotted and read straight away.
I have a Technorati account, and through that, I have signed up to monitor a number of keywords. They give me a personalised RSS feed for that tag. If someone ‘tags’ a blog posting with one of the keywords I am interested in, when my RSS reader updates the feed for that keyword, I will know that something I am potentially directly interested in has been published, can then read, and comment if I wish. That simple concept is a very important one, in the days when a Google search often yields millions of results (many of them being faked by website spammers).
Tagging is something which is going to grow in popularity, and undoubtedly it is going to be misused (and according to Technorati, on their “State of the Blogosphere” report, already is on a lesser scale), but finally we are getting closer to a more useable web, a step closer to Tim Berners-Lee’s ‘symantic web’ perhaps, where metadata is of vital importance, and his original idea of a “read-write web” where publishing is a two-way process.
Going a little beyond blogging, but still in the ‘global online community’ sense of mind, we have social bookmarking systems such as del.icio.us. With del.icio.us you can create a free account, and add to it website addresses that interest you, via a simple bookmark you can add to your bookmark toolbar. You visit a website, and if it’s interesting, simply click the “Remember This” bookmark, and you will be logged in to your del.icio.us account, where you can add a description to the URI, and add tags (more metadata!).
This way, your bookmarks are separate from your own computer, and you can access them from wherever you are. But there’s more, as ever! You get an RSS feed. So people can subscribe to your links if they think you’re such an interesting person (!). But, more useful perhaps, is the ability to subscribe to a particular tag via RSS. For example, I subscribe to the tag “archaeology” and I can see what archaeological websites people are visiting and bookmarking as worthy. It helps me a great deal from a personal perspective, and it helps me in a professional manner, since I run a large archaeological website myself, and it helps me to stay informed.
How many times have you visited a website where the links page has been dull, uninteresting, and unchanged (possibly for years)? I myself am guilty as charged. Some of the sites I run haven’t had their links pages updated for a very long time. When I get around to it, I can use my del.icio.us RSS feed to have a dynamic list of links, constantly changing as I add interesting links to the system. I can even categorise them through the tagged RSS feeds. Again – a very powerful and useful system.
WordPress has several plugins that allow you to integrate del.icio.us links into the sidebar, for instance, so ease of use is on its way.
RSS goes yet further – Flickr
I have recently, in my newly revitalised use of the web, signed up for a Flickr account, where I can upload and share pictures using a brilliantly designed system. I can tag photos with keywords, and do similar searches to the del.icio.us system – I can subscribe to an RSS feed of any member’s public photos, and have my RSS reader alert me when they have added new ones to their collection. I can subscribe to an RSS feed for a particular user’s tag (e.g. when Camerar/ uploads a new picture of a butterfly), or for photos tagged with a certain term (e.g. ‘butterflies‘) across everybody’s photos on Flickr.
Flickr allows me to, when logged in, click a “Blog This” button on any photo, which will, when configured, allow me to display that photo resized for my blog, along with my posting about it.
To add a further arrow to the already burgeoning quiver, blogs can now deliver audio. It’s such a simple idea – simple record some audio, export it as an mp3, and attach it an an enclosure from your blogging system. People can then subscribe using XML, and have their machine automatically download the latest shows.
Blogs now have a voice, and with the spead of computers and computer literacy, there are is a rapidly growing audience. Commonplace programs such as iTunes have a podcasting function built in to them, so if you know how to buy music from the iTunes store, or even rip a CD, you can subscribe to a podcast.
People are even attaching video to their blogs, and with the emergence of portable video players which are smaller than notebook PCs, there’s even a growing audience there.
Power of Blog?
Whilst this article hasn’t just been about blogging specifically, all of the technologies have been related to it in some way. Personally, I have found that since I have started to read blogs, I feel better connected to the world, and what is happening. I no longer rely on what large publishing companies tell me is happening – I can hear it directly from the people. I can read about issues from people with different biases, and make up my own mind. If I disagree with someone’s opinion, or agree, or want to add something, I can. I can do it on my own blog and trackback their post, or leave a comment on theirs. Some podcasters even allow you to submit an audio comment.
Tagging and update services mean that my website is actually read by people, unlike 5 years ago and beyond when it was not. Tagging allows me to find things I am interested in very efficiently, without having to wade through the encroaching tide of Google results, which is slowly being choked by fake sites.
Flickr allows me to share photos, comment on them, use them, and see what’s happening in the world from the eyes of ordinary people rather than official photographers.
The ‘power of blog’ is in fact the people behind the blogs. It is the community that is growing with it, fostering communication, free information exchange; ordinary people can influence the world, and become well connected in myriad ways.
The blogging platforms themselves help programmers to meet, for example, and find out about each others work and ideas, self-perpetuating the improvement and innovation of the systems themselves.
For good and for bad, blogging is here to stay. The need to communicate is very human, and the true ‘power of blog’ is its humanity, and the links and bonds that it is making.