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an introduction to weblogs


During the last Dublin webloggers' meeting I was asked the question, "How do I start a weblog?" I began answering, somehow under the impression that it would be a simple answer. But it wasn't. As I went into more detail I realized that I was giving out more information that anyone in their right mind could digest easily. I then decided to write up this short intro so that I could use it in the future. A big part of this for me is an excercise in writing down things that might seem obvious to me (and others) but not so much to those that aren't involved in weblogs yet.

For this short intro I will assume very little: that you use the Internet regularly and that you might check news sites now and then, such as CNN or the New York Times. And that's it!

And of course, any corrections, additions and comments are most welcome. A note: this deals only with weblogs, not with newsfeeds, RSS. newsreaders, and such. Hopefully I'll get around to writing another similar introduction sometime in the near future, or to add to this one soon. :)

Update: I have posted part two of this guide here.

So, here it goes...

Intro to the intro

Before we begin...

...some terminology: there are words that you will see often with weblogs: client, server, host (or hosting). Some of these words might be familiar or not (and probably they're obvious to everyone!), but just to be 100% sure, here go some definitions as I'll use them trying to avoid taking too much liberty with their actual technical definition

  • weblog: the subject of this piece. :-) Seriously though, weblogs are often also called blogs, and some publications refer to them as "web logs"(note the space between the words). There are all sorts of blog-related terms, such as blogsphere, blogosphere, blogland, etc. 
  • content: basically, information. Content is anything that can be either produced or consumed. Web pages (HTML), images, photos, videos, are all types of content. The most common type of content in weblogs today is text and links, with images growing in popularity and audio in a slightly more experimental phase. Videos are not common, but it's possible to find examples.
  • client: a PC, or a mobile device such as a Palm or a cellphone. Clients, or client devices, allow you to create content (text, images, etc) and then move them to a serverat your leisure.
  • server:a machine that resides somewhere on the Internet that has (nearly) 100% connectivity. Servers are where the content for a weblog is published, that is, made available to the world. (We'll get later to how to or whether you even need to choose a server, in most cases this choice depends on the software used). Servers are also commonly called hosts, and the "action" of leaving information on a server is usually referred to as hosting.
  • URL: or "Uniform Resource Locator," the text that (usually) identifies a webpage and (generally) begins with "http://...". Sample URLs are: http://www.cnn.com, http://www.nytimes.com, and so on.
  • link: a hyperlink, essentially a URL embedded within a webpage. Hyperlinks are those (usually blue) pieces of text that take you to another page. Links are a crucial component of the web, but more so (if that's at all possible) with weblogs. Links are what bind weblogs together, so to speak. Through links I can discover new content, follow a discussion, and make my viewpoint on something known in an unobtrusive manner (more on this later).
  • client/server: the basic model through which weblogs are published today, and the model around which the Internet itself is largely based (This is not technically 100% true, since the original Internet was peer to peer (P2P), and we are all using P2P applications such as Kazaa these days, but let's overlook that for the purposes of this document). Clients create the content and then send (publish) it to a server. The server then makes the content available.
  • post: or posting, or entry, a single element of one or more types of content.
  • referrer: another crucial component of weblogs, referrers are automatically embedded by your web browser when you click on a link. (See more about referrers in the subsection on 'community' near the end of this page.)
  • public weblog and private weblog, are two terms I'll use to separate the two main types of weblogs that exist. Public weblogs are published on the Internet without password or any other type of "protection", available for the world to see. Private weblogs are either published on the Internet but protected (e.g., by a password) or within a company's network. Most of what I'll discuss here applies to both public and private weblogs.
  • permalink: a permalink is a "permanent link", a way to reference a certain post "forever". "Forever" here means until a) the person that created the post changes their weblogging software, or b) until their server goes down for whatever reason. If you read news sites, you'll notice that news stories generally have long, convoluted URLs, this is because every single news article ever published is uniquely identified by their URL. If you copy the name of a URL and save it in a file, and then use it again six months or six years later, it should still work. All weblog software automatically and transparently generates a permalink for each post you create, and the way in which weblogs reference each other is by using the permalink of the posts or entries.

Getting started

First of all, what is a weblog?

There are many good descriptions of what weblogs are (and aren't) scattered through the web. Meg's article what we're doing when we blog is a good starting point. One of the oldest descriptions around is Dave's history of weblogs page, and he went further in his recent essay what makes a weblog a weblog. Others interesting essays are Rebecca's weblogs: a history and perspective, and Andrew's  deep thinking about weblogs.

Not surprisingly (as you might have noticed from reading the articles/essays linked above), people are have slightly different takes about what exactly constitutes a weblog, but there is a general acceptance that the format in which content is published matters, as well as the style in which the content is created. Additionally weblogs are usually defined by what they generally are, rather than trying to provide an overarching definition.

Here's my own attempt at a short list of common characteristics of weblogs. Weblogs:

  • generally present content (posts) in reverse chronological order.
  • are usually informal, and generally personal
  • are updated regularly
  • don't involve professional editors in the process (that is, someone who is getting paid explicitly to review the content)
Beyond that, format, style and content varies greatly. I think that this is because weblogs, being as they are generally personal, that is, by or about a person, have and will have as many styles as personal styles there are.

What's the difference between weblogs and "classic" homepages? Technically, there isn't a lot of difference. The main difference is in terms of how current they are, how frequently they are updated, and the navigation format in which they are presented (weblogs have a strong component of dates attached to entries). I'd say that homepages are a subset of weblogs. You could easily create a weblog that looked like a homepage (by never updating it!) but not the other way around.

Sometimes weblogs have been billed as "the death of journalism," which I think isn't true. If there are any doubts, you can check out weblogs written by journalists, and compare that to the articles they write. They are qualitatively different. I think there will always be some room for people that make a living reporting, searching for stories, editors that correct what they write, etc. The role of news organization and journalism might change because of weblogs a bit, maybe it will become more clear and focused, but that doesn't mean it will disappear. Weblogs are a different kind of expression, period, and as such they are complementary to everything else that's already out there.

However, the best way to see what weblogs are like is to read them (as opposed to reading about them), and then try one yourself. As I've mentioned, weblogs come in different shapes and sizes. Some people tend to post long essays, some people just write short posts. Some talk about their work, or about their personal life. There are an untold number of weblogs that are simply ways for small groups to share information efficiently within their company's network, to create a "knowledge store" for projects. Some people post links that they find interesting. Some add commentary. Others only comment on other's weblog entries. Some weblogs are deeply personal. Some talk only about politics, or sports. Quite a number of them talk about technology. Some weblogs have huge number of readers. Others only a few dozen. Even others are completely personal and are only read by the person who writes them. Some public weblogs (relatively few) are anonymous, most identify the person. Some are updated many times a day, others once a day, others a few times a week.

You get the idea. :-)

So, some good examples of well-known weblogs (at least within their communities) to read and get an idea of what they're about. Check them out, read them and about the people that create them (alphabetically). Anil, Atrios, Betsy, Burningbird, Dan, Dave, Doc, Esther, Erik, Evan, Glenn,Gnome-Girl, Jason, Jon, Joi, Karlin, Halley, Mark, Meg, Rageboy, Russ. All of these weblogs are, in my opinion, great examples of weblogging in general. You may or may not agree with what they say, you may or may not care, but they are all a good starting point to show what weblogs are and what they make possible.

Those that are more embedded in the weblogging community that might object to presenting such a small list to represent anything, or might put forward different names, so I just want to say: Yes, I agree. But to show different styles of weblogging, and provide some initial pointers, we have to start somewhere. I'll go further on the subject of discovering weblogs below, in the subsection about community.

This all sounds intriguing, but will I like it?

That's a difficult question. :) I guess my answer would be "try it to see if it fits". As mentioned below, weblog software is invariably free to try (at least) and so there is no cost in getting started. My opinion is that some people are more attuned to the concept than others, because they are already sort of weblogging even if they don't describe it as such. For example, if you like to rant about anything, if you keep pestering your friends, family and coworkers about different things that you've seen or read or thought about, or if you regularly launch into diatribes about all and any kinds of topics (e.g. "The emerging threat to African Anthills and their effect on the landscape") then you might be a Natural Born Blogger. :-)

So, again, just try it out. If it doesn't work out, no harm done. It's certainly not for everyone. But you just might discover a cool way of expression and create a new channel to communicate with the people you know, and a way to find new friends and for other people to find about you.

Okay, I'm sold. How do I get started?

First step in starting a weblog is choosing the software you will use. There are many products available.

But before going into them, there are two main categories of software to choose. I'd ask: how much do you know about software, or how much do you want to know? Do you run or maintain your own server? Are you interested in running a private, rather than public, weblog, for say your workgroup, and you don't want to worry (too much) about passwords and such, and can handle yourself technically?

If the answer to any of the questions above is yes, skip this next item and go directly to 'Self-managed weblog software' below. Otherwise, you'll probably be better off with 'End-user software'.

End-user weblog software

Here are some of the most popular products (in alphabetical order). All of them have been around for several years and have been important drivers of the weblog phenomenon (except for TypePad, that launched in mid-2003 but is based on MovableType, which is another popular tool "from the old days"--see below).

  • Blogger. A fully hosted service, Blogger lets you post and manage your weblog completely from within your web browser. Blogger is now part of Google (yes, the search engine). A good starting point for blogger use is blogger's own help page.
  • LiveJournal. A hosted service, like blogger, with a long-time emphasis on community features. For help on live journal, check out LiveJournal's FAQ page.
  • Radio Userland. Radio runs a client as well as a server in your PC and lets you look at your content locally through your web browser. To publish information, Radio sends the content to Userland's public servers. Radio's homepage contains a good amount of information and links to get started, and a more step-by-step introduction to Radio can be found in this article.
  • TypePad. Fully hosted service. An end-user version of MovableType (see below) with more capabilities (in some cases) and some nice community features. To get started, check out the TypePad FAQ.
So, which one of these should I choose?

Short answer: it depends.

Long answer: it depends. :) That is, it depends on which model you prefer. Blogger is free, LiveJournal has a free and a paid version. Radio and TypePad are not free but offer trial versions. Blogger, LiveJournal and TypePad are fully hosted, while Radio keeps a copy of your content on your PC as well as hosting your content on a public server. All of them are free to try, so looking around for which one you find best is not a bad idea. :)

Self-managed weblog software

Here are some of the most popular products (again, in alphabetical order)

All of these products involve some sort of setup and, at a minimum, some knowledge of Internet servers and such. (All the links from the list contain information on installation and setup). If you have set up anything Internet-related at all in the past (say, Apache or IIS), you should be able to install and configure these products without too much of a problem. (If you don't know what IIS or Apache is you should probably be looking at the previous section, 'end-user software').

Beyond the first post

Are there any rules to posting?

Generally, weblogs being what they are, the answer is no. But there are some things that I personally consider good practice that I could mention:

  • Links are good for you. Always link back to whatever it is you're talking about, if possible. A hugely important component of weblogs is the context in which something is said, and links provide a big part of that context.
  • The back button rules: Never repost a full entry from another person without their permission. "Reposting" implies to take someone's text and include it in your own entry. Usually this is done to comment on it, but I think it's better to send people to whatever it is you're talking about, with quotes when necessary to add specific comments, rather than reposting everything. All web browsers have "back" buttons; once someone's read what you're talking about they can always go back and continue reading your take.
  • Quote thy quotes: Quotes of another person's (or organization's) content should always be clearly marked.
  • Thou shalt not steal. Never, ever, ever, repost a full entry that someone else wrote without at the very minimum providing proper reference to the person who wrote it. Even then, try to get permission from the author. See 'the back button rules' above.
There is another question that usually starts up discussion in the weblogging community, the subject of editing. As I mentioned above, weblogs in general are self-edited, but even if they are, how much self-editing is appropriate? Again, it depends on your personal style. Some bloggers don't edit at all and just post whatever comes to their mind. Some write, post, and then edit what they posted. Others do self-editing before posting and publish something only when they're happy with it. You should choose the style you're comfortable with.

What about comments to my posts? And what's this 'Trackback' I keep hearing about?

Weblog software usually allows you to activate (or comes by default with) the ability for readers to leave comments to your posts. This is generally useful but you might not want to do it. As usual, it's up to you.

Trackback is something that allows someone who has linked to you to announce explicitly that they have done so, thus avoiding you (and others) having to wade through referrers to find out who is linking to you, and providing more context for the conversation. Some weblogging systems (e.g., TypePad, Radio, MovableType, Manila) support Trackback, but some don't (e.g., Blogger, LiveJournal). Once you have become familiar with weblogs, Trackback is definitely something that you should take a look at to see if you might be interested in using it. Here's a beginner's guide to Trackback from Six Apart, the company behind MovableType and TypePad (that created the Trackback protocol), as well as a good page that explains in detail how Trackback works.

These mechanisms are useful more for the community aspects of weblogs than anything else, and usage of them varies widely from weblog to weblog.

And what about all this 'community' stuff?

Because weblogs are inherently a decentralized medium (that is, there is no single central point of control, or one around which they organize), it's much harder to account for the communities they create and to track their usage. (For example, the actual number of weblogs worldwide is estimated at the moment to be anywhere between 2 and 5 million. Not very precise!). But there are ways to find new weblogs, and here are a few of my favorites.

Update directories

There are sites like weblogs.com and blo.gs as well as others that are usually notified automatically by weblog software when a new entry is posted. Because of that they are a good way of (randomly) finding new weblogs.

Blog directories

What? This sounds a lot like "the central point" I just said didn't exist. Well, it does and it doesn't. There are directories, but they are not 100% complete because they rely on automatically finding new weblogs (for example, through weblogs.com updates and other means) or through people registering their weblogs with them, and both methods are fallible. Two examples of this are Technorati and Blogstreet. When you go to those sites you'll notice they talk about "ecosystems" to refer to weblogging communities, and that's a pretty accurate word for what they are. Those sites, as others that perform different but related functions (such as Blogshares, or BlogTree), also let you explore communities around your weblog, discover new weblogs, etc. Daypop, Blogdex and blogosphere.us focus a bit more on tracking "trends" within the weblog community (particularly Blogdex). Technorati and Blogstreet do this as well.

Search engines

A lot (and I mean a lot) of result for search engine queries these days lead to weblog entries on or related to the topic you're looking for. Chances are, those weblogs contain other stuff that you'll find interesting as well. Some good search engines are Google, Teoma, and AllTheWeb.

Targeted directory/community sites

There are sites that center around a particular topic and put together a number of weblogs that are devoted to or usually talk about that topic. For example, Javablogs is a weblog directory for weblogs that have to do with the Java programming language.

Referrers

Referrers are a mechanism that exists since the early days of the web, but that have acquired new meaning with weblogs. The mechanism is as follows: if you click on a link on a page, the server that is hosting the page you are going to will record both the "hit" on that page, as well as the source for the link. Those statistics are generally analyzed frequently (e.g., once every ten minutes, once every hour) and displayed on a page for your perusal. So if someone posts a link to your weblog and people start clicking on that link to read what you've said (and depending on the weblog software you're running) you will be able to see not only how many people are reaching you through that link, but also who has linked to you, which then helps you discover new opinions, people that have similar interests, etc. Directories like Technorati also track who is linking to your site, and so serve a similar function (but, again, as they are not 100% accurate you might not get the "full picture" just from looking at them).

Other options

There are many. :) The best additional example I can think of is some of the community features of LiveJournal and TypePad, which allow you to create groups of friends with whom you prefer to share what you write, etc.

Is blogging dangerous?

Yes. Most definitely. And addictive, too. :-)

Seriously though, while blogging might not be literally dangerous, it is most definitely not free of consequences. We sometimes have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously, or to misinterpret, or to rush to judgement (I wrote about these and other things in rethoric, semantics, and Microsoft). Some people have been fired from their jobs because of their weblogs. Others have lost friends, made enemies, and gotten into huge fights (mostly wars of words, but that nevertheless have impact on both online and offline life). On the bright side, weblogs have been at the core of a large number of positive developments in recent years, mostly technical but also other kinds, have provided comfort and even news when everything else seemed to be collapsing both in large scale (for example, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the US) and for individuals and small communities. People have made scores of new friends, gotten job offerings, and started companies through them.

The number one reason for this is that, contrary to what you might think (and unless you're writing for yourself and not publishing anything anywhere), people will read what you write. It might be a few people. It might be many. It might be your family, your friends, boss, or your company's CEO, or a customer. (Robert Scoble, who works at Microsoft, posted some thoughts on this topic today, here and here). This is easier to see with a private weblog, but I'm always surprised at how easy it is for me to forget that it happens (of course) with public weblogs, all the time.

My opinion is that in weblogs, as in life, whenever you expose part of yourself in any way, whenever you engage in a community, whenever you express yourself, these things tend to happen. :-)

Final words

You might have noticed that there are a lot of "do what you think is best" comments interespersed with the text above. This is not a coincidence. Blogs are, above all, expression. Blogs and the web in general allow us to look at many viewpoints easily, cross-reference them, etc. Check things out. Look for second, third, fourth, and n-th opinions (and this definitely includes the contents of this guide!).

You have the power!, or in other words: It's up to you.


Read more in an introduction of weblogs, part two: syndication.

Categories: art.media, soft.dev, technology
Posted by diego on October 31 2003 at 10:34 PM


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