Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Art of Blogging - George Siemens' Version

(All credits of this article should be addressed to George Simens at Elearnspace

Innovations build on existing perceptions and structures - at least until the new ideas are fully manifested. Then, the innovation discards the shackles of the old model and stands on its own merits and strengths. The development of video is often used to support this phenomenon. Video was initially used only to tape existing live stage performances - a new concept built on the perceptional structure of the existing. True innovation in this medium did not occur until someone recognized the uniqueness of video, and the limitations of live stage shows. Through utilizing the characteristics of the new media, new approaches to entertainment and communication were realized. One dimensional stage presentations were replaced with rich multi-angle, close up, edited, polished video enhanced through the use of special effects.

The Internet is still in the embryonic stages of standing on its own characteristics. Communication and content presentation strategies still mirror existing models, particularly newspaper and magazine publishing. Email, for example, is merely an extension of existing mail systems. As such, it is about bending a new medium to an existing process. 

Blogging is using a new medium for what it is good for - connecting and interacting. Blogging is a first generation tool built on, and taking advantage of, the unique attributes of the Internet. It has been dismissed as a self-centered passing fad...and as the new model of interactive journalism, communication, and learning. This article explores the the uses, benefits, implications, and art of blogging.

What is blogging?
Blogging, as with any new (or in transition) concept, is difficult to define - it has not yet fully become what it will be. Here are some attempts to define blogging:

  • "If we look beneath the content of weblogs, we can observe the common ground all bloggers share -- the format. The weblog format provides a framework for our universal blog experiences, enabling the social interactions we associate with blogging...These tools spit out our varied content in the same format -- archives, permalinks, time stamps, and date headers." (Meg Hourihan)
  • Dave Winer defines weblogs as being: personal, on the web, published, and part of communities.
  • Halley Suitt details multiple characteristics, including: last place on earth to tell the truth, watching brains at work, a love letter, a diary, an open head - for the reader's convenience.
  • "But what bloggers do is completely new - and cannot be replicated on any other medium. It's somewhere in between writing a column and talk radio. It's genuinely new. And it harnesses the web's real genius - its ability to empower anyone to do what only a few in the past could genuinely pull off. In that sense, blogging is the first journalistic model that actually harnesses rather than merely exploits the true democratic nature of the web. It's a new medium finally finding a unique voice." (Andrew Sullivan)
  • "The best description I’ve read regarding blogging is that “it’s somewhere between writing a column and talk radio.”" (Cass McNutt)
  • "A blog is defined as a Website with dated entries, usually by a single author, often accompanied by links to other blogs that the site’s editor visits on a regular basis. Think of a blog as one person’s public diary or suggestion list. Early blogs were started by Web enthusiasts who would post links to cool stuff that they found on the Internet. They added commentary. They began posting daily. They read one another’s blogs. A community culture took hold." (Jay Cross)
Blogging, as detailed above, is a format constant (archives, links, time stamps, chronological listing of thoughts and links), personalized, community-linked, social, interactive, democratic, new model innovation built on the unique attributes of the Internet.

Uses for blogging
As an emerging tool, blogging uses have still not been completely explored. Some current uses:

Most common uses for blogging are personal and, considering its origins as a personal web publishing forum, this makes sense. Emerging uses promise opportunities in corporations and education. Further application will also be realized as existing uses (communication, learning, knowledge management, interactive journalism, etc.) are adopted by various industries - notably entertainment, health care, government.

Benefits of blogging are numerous (which explains its rapid growth!). An overriding benefit is the democratization of information. In classic models, knowledge flow was "stopped" and administered by news sources (paper, magazines, TV). Ideas in keeping with current zeitgeist or political agendas received top billing, while unpopular (though necessary for innovation and social transformation) ideas were ignored. Many of the benefits of blogging are listed above in "Uses for Blogging"...other benefits include:

  • Fostering the fringe - ideas are evaluated based on merit - not on source of origin.
  • Filtering - ideas with merit are filtered through various blogs. Significant thoughts or posts receive multiple-links and spread viral-like across the blogosphere.
  • Multiple perspectives - one-sided perspectives of newspapers are replaced by passionate debates exploring virtually every facet of an idea or concept.
  • Barrier elimination - society is about barriers - actual or unspoken. For example, I don't run in the same circle as Bill Gates - a socio-economic barrier (at the absolute minimum!). In society, this generally means that I do not have the benefit of Mr. Gates' wisdom...blogging, however changes that. Opportunities now exist to hear regular thoughts from people like Ray Ozzie, Mitch Kapor, and Larry Lesig.
  • Free flow - any idea can be expressed...and accessed by any one. The process of blogging separates good ideas from poor ideas. The process itself has built in quality control - try that in traditional media!
  • Real time - discussions and interactions happen right NOW. Waiting for tomorrow's newspaper or radio program seems like an eternity compared to real time blogging.
  • Links and connections - the complexity of an information heavy society requires specialization. Yet specialization is futile if a process is not created to link specialties. Blogging serves this purpose extremely well. Disparate fields of interest and thought are brought together (and dissected) in the machinations of bloggers.
As a disruptive technology, blogging is altering (or perhaps responding to?) many aspects of information/content creation and use. These changes are not without impact. What are some of the implications of a tool that functions at the same speed as the medium it serves? Here's a few:

  • Content creation and consumption on the Internet has finally caught up with the Internet itself. Traditional suppliers of content (publishers, media, news organizations) will face substantial pressures to respond appropriately, or cease being relevant.
  • Decentralization of content and distribution. This is a trend well underway on the Internet as a whole. Napster capitalized on it...and blogging is the "canary in a mine" reacting to (and reflecting) it.
  • The user is in control. The end user (or audience) of a service or product has acquired a central (rather than previous fringe) role. Disagree with a blogger? Tell him/her via "comments links", and initiate a dialogue with not only the author, but other readers as well. Disagree with a newspaper columnist? Throw out the newspaper...
  • Conversation vs. lecture...I have a mind...I have an opinion. It counts. Just like yours.
  • The pipe is more important than the content. By various estimates, bloggers number between 750,000 and 1 million. The ecosystem of blogging is more important than the content being generated. The content has a life (i.e. new technology becomes obsolete)...but the process for content acquisition (blogging) stays continually fresh.
  • Shared meaning and understandings. Knowledge is acquired and shaped as a social process - resulting in spiraling: I say something, you comment on it, I evaluate it, comment and present a new perspective, you take it to the next level...and the process repeats until a concept has been thoroughly explored.
  • Ideas are presented as the starting point for dialogue, not the ending point.

Getting Started
The best way to learn to blog is to blog. Fortunately, getting started is fairly simple. Three main options exist: hosted, remote server, and desktop. 

A hosted service is the easiest and quickest way to start. Services like Blogger allow new users to set up an account (for free or a premium version for $35 per year) and begin posting literally in a matter of minutes. Blogger can host the blog, or the user can post to his/her own site.

A remotely installed blog is perhaps the most involved to setup. Movabletype allows users to install on a server (free for non-commercial, $150 for commercial). Some technical skills are required to configure the blog and database. Documentation, however, is excellent for Movabletype. Installation is also offered for a fee.
Desktop blog programs are installed on a user's computer, and posts are then uploaded to a host. Radio Userland is a desktop program for $35.95, which includes hosting and upgrades for a year. Start up process for desktop blogs is almost as simple as hosted services like Blogger.

Blogger, Movabletype, and Radio Userland are only a sampling of available blog programs. Webcrimson, greymatter, Drupal, and Tinderbox are also available. For a complete listing of blog resources, visit Blogroots.
Once your blog has been setup, you're ready to start blogging! Getting your blog noticed takes some time...but linking to other bloggers, posting comments on their sites, engaging in dialogue, and "pinging" (an option available on most blogs) sites like Weblogs help to increase recognition. How to Publicize Your Blog offers some great concepts for increasing readership. Interesting, provocative writing, however, is the best way to get noticed.

Reading other blogs is an excellent way to learn - not only about the content being blogged, but about the process of blogging. Selecting a variety of blogs and writing styles affords a broad perspective of how to use the medium. Some bloggers of note:

This sampling of blogs reveals an important issue: blogs are used as a tool (replacement?) for virtually every type of traditional media, communication, and interaction. Blogs have infiltrated broad areas of the Internet and appear to be poised for significant, "overnight" success and adoption. Where the Internet is about availability of information, blogging is about making information creation available to anyone.

How to blog
Writing effective blogs is similar to effective writing for traditional media. While sentence construction, basic grammar, and spelling are important, bloggers are often more concerned about communicating concepts. Writing rules are employed (and broken) to the degree that they support effective communication of a message.

However, some differences do exist. Traditional writing is audience focused. Bloggers often write primarily for themselves or for a small group - as a way of organizing thoughts, sharing information, or creating a personal resource of links (as compared to a monolithic "Favorites" folder). The Internet is also more dynamic and media-rich than traditional media. Bloggers can incorporate audio, video, animations, and pictures...hyperlinks are also used to create connections between information and ideas.
The following is a list of guidelines for beginning bloggers:
  1. Start. As stated earlier, blogging is best learned by blogging...and by reading other bloggers. So...start.
  2. Know your motivation. Why are you blogging? What do you hope to achieve?
  3. Link. The heart of blogging is linking...linking and commenting. Connecting and communicating - the purpose of the Internet.
  4. Experiment. Developing a writing style is an evolutionary process. Try different approaches and formats until you find one that fits your message, audience, and personal motivations.
  5. Use life and your experiences as your "idea generation" file.
  6. Get an opinion. Then express it.
  7. Express your personality...let your humour, your perspective on life, and your values shine in your writing.
  8. Post regularly. This is important - readers drop off/lose interest with irregular blogs (syndication and aggregators allow blog readers to stay in touch with infrequently updated blogs - more on that in the section "Extending Blogs").
  9. Keep writing clear and concise. Avoid jargon...but utilize the unique aspects of the medium (visual, links, sound). Focus on communication (function) before form.
  10. Write for a reason, not recognition. Most bloggers have small audiences. Satisfaction is derived from the writing process, not the audience response.
Additional resources: How to Write a Better Weblog and How to Blog

Tools & Resources for Blogging
As you progress in blogging, you may find increased interest in additional tools to enhance your blog. Many resources are available...and the list is expanding continually. Here's a few resources to consider:

Extending Blogs - Aggregating
A few days (or even hours!) of searching the blogosphere can overwhelm newcomers. The amount of information is incredible. How can a user keep track of various blogs? It seems impossible to stay in touch with more than a hand full of bloggers each day. Fortunately, a solution exists to simplify the process of reading large numbers of blogs: RSS (rich (or RDF) site summary).
Some articles detailing RSS/syndication and aggregators:
"RSS is a way of creating a broadcast version of a blog or news page. Anyone who has frequently updated content and is willing to let others republish it can create the RSS file. Typically called syndication, the RSS file is an XML formatted file that can be used at other sites or by other intermediary software such as news aggregators. The original incarnation was to use RSS to include several headlines on a personalized portal page. But an RSS feed can also be easily pulled into other functions, such as an aggregator." The Blog Realm: RSS, Aggregators, and Reading the Blog Fantastic
"Content developers make their RSS files available by placing them on their web server. In this way, RSS “aggregators” are able to read the RSS files and therefore to collect data about the website. These aggregators place the site information into a larger database and use this database to allow for structured searches of a large number of content providers.
Because the data is in XML, and not a display language like HTML, RSS information can be flowed into a large number of devices. In addition to being used to create news summary web pages, RSS can be fed into stand-alone news browsers or headline viewers, PDAs, cell phones, email ticklers and even voice updates.
The strength of RSS is its simplicity. It is exceptionally easy to syndicate website content using RSS. It is also very easy to use RSS headline feeds, either by viewing a news summary web page or by downloading one of many free headline viewers. Though most RSS feeds list web based resources, several feeds link to audio files, video files and other multimedia." An Introduction to RSS for Educational Designers
Portals, Blogs, & RSS: why they are your future - a thorough, link rich exploration of portals, blogs (history, software) and RSS.
Through the use of RSS, bloggers can keep up to date with a large number of blogs. The link to the RSS file can simply be added to an aggregator (for example: Amphetadesk or Aggie). The aggregator then searches the RSS files and generates a page listing posts and topics since the last visit. A user can view large amounts of news/information in a very short period of time.

The simplest innovations are often the most effective in responding to ground swells of trends and change. The potency of the blog phenomenon is two fold: perfect match for its medium and ease of use.

(All credits of this article should be addressed to George Simens at Elearnspace


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