Digital Diaries - Blogging

Digital diaries: The art of blogging
If you want to offer advice or share your thoughts with the masses, set yourself up with a blog. We show you how to get involved in this growing phenomenon

Anthony Dhanendran, Computeract!ve, 30 Sep 2004

From Samuel Pepys to Adrian Mole, we are all familiar with famous diaries. Many of us keep one, either to record our thoughts or to remind ourselves of what we have been doing. But would you like to see the contents published and read by thousands of people? Several million bloggers can answer that question affirmatively: they are already doing so.

Blogs - or weblogs, to give them their full name - are a kind of online journal or diary. Those who maintain blogs, known as bloggers, do so for various reasons: some have strong opinions, some have professional advice to impart, others are simply keen to share their lives online.

The weblog began as exactly that - a log of links published on personal websites. The links, which anyone could click on and view, gave people an easy way to access these little nuggets. From this, the idea of the weblog grew as people started adding comments to the items they published, or 'posted', on the internet. Nowadays, many blogs do not follow the original definition - in fact, they do not contain links at all - and are much more like online diaries.


It's very easy to set up a blog, and most are hosted by one of the many free blogging services such as TypePad or Blogger. Blogging software takes the hard work out of web publishing and makes it simple to create and update online content.

Blogs in the limelight
Some blogs have a readership equalling that of small newspapers and magazines. There are celebrity bloggers - both the already famous, including actors, musicians, journalists and politicians, and those who have become famous through their blogging exploits. The Baghdad Blogger, also known as Salam Pax, became famous during last year's war in Iraq when he was found to be posting dispatches from the centre of the battlefield. Eventually, he was given his own column by a British newspaper.

Blogs range from highly technical explorations of physics or engineering, to discussions of politics and the media, to gossip and personal diaries. The last category makes up the majority of current blogs. Creators range from the famous - such as actress Gillian Anderson and filmmaker Michael Moore - to the millions of people who keep blogs just to communicate with friends, family and, often, total strangers.

Blogs can be used to keep track of the activities of a social or charitable project, or a school, office or local sports team. Some blogs exist to inform readers of the progress of a project, be it the construction of a building or the development of a piece of software.

Many blogs do not have a definite purpose, and are there to keep the blogger's friends and family up to date with what they are doing. Because of the open nature of the internet, and the fact that blogs are indexed by Google and other search engines, bloggers often find their words being read by complete strangers.

For some this is part of the attraction, and many bloggers have built up substantial online followings. Some of these blogs are written anonymously, out of personal preference or because they discuss the blogger's work or personal life. Some bloggers have been fired from their jobs after their employers found out and disapproved of what they had written.

A tool for free speech
Blogs can also be a powerful voice. During the Chinese Government's 1989 crackdown on student protests, the outside world first found out about the events through students on the internet. Blogs have made it easier for people to have a voice and be heard. After the 11 September attacks in the US, when major news sites were swamped with users, many people turned to bloggers in New York to find out what was happening and talk about their reactions. Even Pepys has found himself online, courtesy of modern bloggers.

Many blogs allow users to comment on what has been posted, either anonymously or after having registered themselves with the website operator. This gives bloggers proof that they are being read, and provides readers with a chance to interact and discuss what they read. One development of this is the community weblog - a site with hundreds or even thousands of users, all of whom can post links or comment on other people's posts.

Most of these sites (such as www.metafilter.com and www.slashdot.com) are free to use, although some offer enhanced services for a small fee. When you're browsing through people's blogs, do remember that the internet is a forum for free speech and it isn't censored or filtered. Forthright opinions and strong language are the order of the day, although you can report anything illegal to the appropriate hosting company and authorities.

Blogging grew out of the desire to use the internet to communicate with other human beings, and the ability to do so easily and, in most cases, free of charge. Although there is a clear distinction between blogging, journalism and other forms of writing, blogs can provide a useful and often entertaining alternative view. If you want to rant online, or you have a story to tell, a blog is the perfect outlet.

Go get 'em
You can get involved in the world of blogging by signing up with one of the many blog hosting services on the internet. They range from basic free services to paid services that offer extra features. There are hundreds of hosting companies, which you can find through a web search, but we've given a brief overview of the most popular on the next page.

Once you have registered and logged in, the first step is to pick a name and select a graphical style from the templates provided. Some companies let you create your own style or modify those provided, while with others, you must stick to the pre-defined templates. Then comes the bit we can't help you with - the writing.

The blogging software gives you options to change the font, size and colour of the text, much like any word processor. You can also use the buttons provided to add links to websites you like, or blogs written by friends, as well as indents and pictures. Add a title, click on the button to publish, and your words will appear on the web. The world is waiting.

TOP OF THE BLOGS


TypePad
www.typepad.com
One of the best-known services is TypePad, which is the one we at Computeractive use for our own blog. If you sign up with TypePad you are initially entitled to a 30-day free trial of its services, which includes up to 200MB of storage space and the allowance to post pictures. The basic service will then cost you $5 (£3) per month, which gets you 50MB of storage. Note that you will have to give your credit card details to set up an account, but you won't be charged if you cancel before the 30-day trial period is up.

Blogger
www.blogger.com
Blogger is one of the oldest and most famous blogging services, and it's completely free. Along with its web-hosting service Blogspot, it's now part of the expanding Google empire. This might lead to some interesting future developments, but for now it's fairly easy to use and reasonably powerful. However, you don't get some of the features available in the paid-for TypePad service, such as a comments system so others can respond to your published thoughts. If you use Blogger, your blog can also be hosted on Blogspot - this means adverts from Google will appear at the top, which is how the service is paid for.

20six
www.20six.co.uk
The biggest British blogging site is called 20six, and it offers a good set of features for its free service. You get a guestbook and comments system, and a similar easy-posting process to the other sites. If you find that the free service doesn't offer enough, you can upgrade to the paid-for services at either £3 or £7 per month. This gives you more blogs per user, more storage space and lots of other features.

LiveJournal
www.livejournal.com
LiveJournal is really more of an online diary service (hence the name) than a blog, but, semantics aside, it offers a similar service to the other blogging hosts here. Likewise, its posting system is easy to understand and undertake. The service includes a built-in comments system so your readers can talk back to you and give you their views on your posts.

The paid upgrade costs between $25 and $30 (£14 to £17) per year depending on how you choose to pay. With it, you get the option to customise your blog further, for example, by adding your name to the website address of the blog (yourname.livejournal.com, for example). You can also add posts by phone or email, among other services.

Radio
http://radio.userland.com
Radio, by the UserLand company, is a piece of software that you use on your home computer instead of accessing via the internet. The price - $40 (£23) per year - includes the cost of being hosted on the UserLand server and 40MB of storage.

In practice, it's very similar to the other services we have mentioned, with the familiar page templates and quick buttons for adding links and pictures. Because it's a piece of software rather than a website, you can use it to host a blog on your personal website if you prefer to use the webspace provided by your ISP. An added bonus for those on dial-up connections is that you can type in and edit your blog entry without being connected. When you log on to the internet, go to the Radio site to upload the formatted text.

The future of blogging
The humble blog has spawned a host of spin-offs. First, came the picture blog - pictures dropped into the text of a blog, or a display of images on their own. All the paid-for services and some free ones let you attach pictures to your blog. Then came the option to post entries by email and text message, giving bloggers the opportunity to make themselves heard from almost anywhere in the world.

Following on from audio blogging, where bloggers make a voice recording of themselves and post that instead of writing, the newest arrival on the scene is video blogging (or 'vogging'). This involves recording short snippets of video to add to text and pictures or to use instead of them. The point, say video bloggers, is not to try to replace TV, but to give ordinary people the opportunity to express themselves in ways in which, until now, they were not able to.

Video blogging can be as simple as using a cheap webcam or digital camera to record your message. It's then a matter of editing them if you wish and then posting the file online. The guide at http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/vog/ can give you more information on how to video blog, and point you in the direction of some interesting vogs.

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