Focus on Blogs

When setting up this festival I had an idea that we would get nominations, shortlist and give ‘awards’ for Best of the Blogs. It didn’t happen. Why?

Was I asking the wrong question? Was it a wrong way to look at blogs?

What happened was that the responses I got were generally from people either nominating their own or a close friend’s blog rather than as I’d hoped for, a sharing of some of the more wide-ranging and ‘out there’ blogs I come across fairly regularly. But then I realised. The thing about blogs is: they are personal. So I got personal recommendations. People tend to use them for personal purposes.

Or do they? Time to look deeper into phenomenon BLOG.

I googled definitions of the word and came up with an array of answers:

 (n.) Short for Web log, a blog is a Web page that serves as a publicly accessible personal journal for an individual. Typically updated daily, blogs often reflect the personality of the author.

noun1.a Web site containing the writer’s or group of writers’ own experiences, observations, opinions, etc., and often having images and links to other Web sites.

Noun. a personal website or web page on which an individual records opinions, links to other sites, etc. on a regular basis.

The only real point of agreement then is that it’s a noun (though it can also be a verb!)

Sadly, Wikipedia (not my research resource of first choice) comes up with the most detailed and perhaps most useful of explanations and I quote from them here  (to save you a click)  Unlike ( I believe) a generation of people who feel no need to attribute such a source!)

A blog (a portmanteau of the term web log)[1] is a discussion or information site published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first. Until 2009 blogs were usually the work of a single individual, occasionally of a small group, and often were themed on a single subject. More recently “multi-author blogs” (MABs) have developed, with posts written by large numbers of authors and professionally edited. MABs from newspapers, other media outlets, universities, think tanks, interest groups and similar institutions account for an increasing proportion of blog traffic. The rise of Twitter and other “microblogging” systems helps integrate MABs and single-author blogs into societal newstreams. Blog can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog.

The emergence and growth of blogs in the late 1990s coincided with the advent of web publishing tools that facilitated the posting of content by non-technical users. (Previously, a knowledge of such technologies as HTML and FTP had been required to publish content on the Web.)

Although not a must, most good quality blogs are interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments and even message each other via GUI widgets on the blogs, and it is this interactivity that distinguishes them from other static websites.[2] In that sense, blogging can be seen as a form of social networking. Indeed, bloggers do not only produce content to post on their blogs but also build social relations with their readers and other bloggers.[3]

Many blogs provide commentary on a particular subject; others function as more personal online diaries; yet still others function more as online brand advertising of a particular individual or company. In education blogs can be used as instructional resources. These blogs are referred to as an Edublog. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, Web pages, and other media related to its topic. The ability of readers to leave comments in an interactive format is an important part of many blogs. Most blogs are primarily textual, although some focus on art (art blogs), photographs (photoblogs), videos (video blogs or “vlogs”), music (MP3 blogs), and audio (podcasts). Microblogging is another type of blogging, featuring very short posts.

As of 16 February 2011, there were over 156 million public blogs in existence.[4]

So – what does this tell us? What I find interesting are the following observations:

Blogs are discussion or information sites published on the Web consisting of discrete entries

Blogs can be individual or MAB authored.

Blogs typically include Interactivity – comments and messaging lead to function as social networking tool.

Blogs can be of the style: Commentary, personal diary, brand advertising.

There are considerably more than 156 million of the things out there now!

Which is interesting because I’d more or less come to the same classification myself when thinking about the matter. I’m not sure whether it’s nice to know I agree with Wikipedia or not.  But it’s a start point.

Now we’ve looked at what a blog is/can be and it’s time to think about: When is a Blog not a Blog?

Whereas when they started it seems that blogs were primarily a personal space and place to comment on the world, the rise of the MAB and the Branded Blog has created a kind of hybrid where Blog and Website co-exist.  As I always understood it a Web site was likely to be more static and a blog more dynamic. Yet I come across blogs that are basically websites and websites (so called) that are effectively blogs.  What’s in a name? Does it matter? Should we just use the technology for whatever purpose suits us and not worry so much about nomenclature?

I first personally encountered the world of blogs back in 2007.  I was undertaking a project ‘Just a Man’ (known as Project JAM), the title taken from the purported last words of Che Guevara ‘shoot you are just killing a man’ on October 9th 1967.  For the 40th anniversary of what I consider the ‘murder’ of Che I posted a daily blog (via my hosted website, it was a new feature) in which I distilled news reports from a range of countries that Che had been associated with during his life: Congo (DRC) Bolivia, China, Cuba etc.  I did it primarily for my own interest but also to show how things had/hadn’t changed in international politics and daily life for people 40 years on.  I kept daily entries for the length of time Che kept his Bolivian Diaries.   But this wasn’t enough for me. I like to ‘play’ and ‘experiment’ with new technology and so I wrote an online serialised novel Otro Mundo es Possible as a ‘blog’.  I updated it every 2 weeks for 6 months and eventually published the finished work as a paperback (first as Otro Mundo es Posible in 2007 privately, and then as Another World is Possible through YouWriteOn in 2009.  It is currently out of print while I integrate it into a forthcoming trilogy of ebooks).

So I cannot comment disparagingly on anyone using a ‘blog’ for any purpose really, can I?

Instead, I’ll try to give you my opinion on what I see of blogs and what I like and dislike about them. What do they do and what are they for? In my opinion.

It occurs to me that blogs are the first (or at least most dominant) way of unmediated publishing  in our contemporary world.  They offer the opportunity for anyone with access to a computer/internet connection and some basic knowledge, to publish their thoughts, ideas, creativity to anyone else with the same access/connections.  (I know that still excludes a vast percentage of the world)  And perhaps it’s because of this that blogs suffer the same big problem that indieWAP’s face today. Visibility.  If there are 156 million blogs in existence (and counting) then how would you find one you want to read?   Chance or personal recommendation I suppose.  Which makes personal recommendation so important and makes me think less poorly of the good folk who responded to my ‘nominations’ request with their own or friends blogsites. How else are they to get visibility?

For me though, the personal blog is just that. Personal. An ‘indie’ writer can keep it just at that.  But increasingly it seems to me that blogs are hybridising and becoming sales platforms too. That worries me. What worries me more is that I think that if not inevitable, it’s at least seen as an acceptable if not a necessary part of the blog.

I first made a website in 2001 and it was a groovy thing which was more a sort of multimedia experiment than a website. It was personal.  I spent ten years creating a range of ‘business’ websites as well.  These were not personal and their function was to inform and sometimes to sell.  However, personally (and this is as much about my life change as the world’s) I find my website more and more redundant.  Blogs are so much easier to update and keep fresh. I shouldn’t think I’m alone in feeling that these days having a website isn’t enough. My current website is the devil to update and unless I keep up with the ‘trends’ and the ‘technology’ it just looks sad compared to what’s coming out these days as websites. It’s currently primarily a shop window come historical artefact and sadly neglected both by me and customers because there are much easier ways for them to buy my work.  And much easier ways for me to tell them about it.

But for an indie writer some of the functions of a website are still important and whether you find them as blog add on’s or as part of some website deal, having a place to tell folk about your work as well as your thoughts is quite useful.

But I find keeping up an ‘interesting’ blog is quite a task.  It’s a lot easier for those who move seamlessly and comfortably around social networking between twitter/facebook and blogosphere.  For the rest of us it’s a bit more daunting.  As a writer I’ve always felt that the ‘something I have to say’ is best delivered in fiction or in thought out, authored pieces (for me a focus piece like this is as close to a blog post as I’m likely to come) and so the immediacy (and I have to say triviality) of most of what else I have to offer worries me. There are people who write funny, witty, entertaining and thought provoking blogs and I enjoy these but I’m not sure I have the commitment or the skill to do such a thing on a regular basis. It would take too much time away from my creative writing.  But it has to become PART of my creative writing doesn’t it? I’m still not sure.  Using one’s personal blog as a way to sell one’s creative skill is a neat idea – if you can pull it off. I think I still have a lot to learn in that respect.

And I am deeply worried by the clandestine way (as I see it) that one can get people liking you through your blog if what you’re really trying to do is sell them something.  It’s a question of identity. I just don’t feel comfortable selling my work by selling myself, however much I’m told this is what I ‘have to do.’  I resist commodification.  I’ll need to find another way.

One thing’s for sure, I don’t know enough about blogs. I need to know more. This is an ongoing journey. But the landscape changes as fast as I learn.  Sigh. I only mention it in case you feel in any way the same. Relax. You are not alone. There’s plenty of us out there wondering and wondering about how things are and where the cyberworld is taking us. And it’s our virtual world too, so I think we’re entitled to have our thoughts and qualms and share them.  Without being shouted down as Luddites.  I’m not so much a refusenick as a confusednick in this respect. And not ashamed to admit it.

So, then we move onto MAB blogs. These are a whole other ball game. I’m not sure I fully understand them either.  There are blogs which offer a portal into a load of information I’m interested in. And which I visit more or less regularly.  I tend to shy away from the ones that are really trying to sell me something in the guise of ‘information’ or ‘reviews’ or ‘community.’ Increasingly I steer away from the Comments sections of any of these blogs.  I find that the manners of people in comments sections tend to be less than one might desire – a lot of folk just like to SAY SOMETHING AND SAY IT LOUD AND OFTEN ignoring any real debate that might be had. And the format of the comments tends to mean that the thread remains as consistent as in a game of Chinese Whispers.  I’m sure that (dare I say ‘younger’ minds more attuned to the ‘new’ ways) people who are able to cope with the multiple strands of discussion/narrative that run through such blogposts get a lot out of them. But they must spend a lot of time there too and when I visit a MAB blog I’m looking primarily for information so that I can form my own opinion. While I’m interested in other people’s opinions I’m not interested in them SHOUTING AT ME for as long as it takes to convince me that their opinion is RIGHT when it opposes mine. That’s not debate and discussion to me. I’d rather have an email correspondence where at least I can get to put my views across and someone can read them and think about them and respond in type. And I can think about what they have to say and respond on a point by point basis.  I know I’m out of date on this but I suspect there’s a lot of people of my generation and beyond who feel the same.

So I guess, when it comes down to it, my only recommendation to you is that you try through whatever means possible to find your own ‘best’ blogs.  One tip I can give you though is – when you find one you like BOOKMARK it, because it’s so easy to lose and never find again.  This festival has thrown up lots of good writers and many of them have good and interesting blogs. Bookmark them so you don’t forget who they are. Or they’ll slip back into the 156 million and you’ll never find them again! No one’s memory is that good.

If I look at my BLOGS bookmark at the moment I have probably about 10 writer’s blogs – people who generally amuse me or make me think, a couple of ‘community’ blogs again to do with writing, a few blogs which have handy tips on how to do some technical things I’m constantly forgetting how to do and a few MAB blogs which is where I trawl ‘news’ from – because I’ve never figured out how to work RSS yet- and I try to steer clear from blogs/websites which I think are just disguised sales pitches.  You know the ones. However interesting the comments and blog articles are, they come back again and again to flogging you the same old work.  Don’t get me wrong, I want to read new work by good writers. But I don’t like constantly being ‘sold’ to.  And once I have ‘found’ a writer there are so many ways to connect that it becomes pretty difficult not to know when they have something new to sell.  I prefer having a blog/site which JUST tells me informationally that something new is out rather than one where a writer is trying so hard to convince me that they are just being my pal but really it’s just a front for their work or a sales pitch.  And all I want to achieve from a personal blog is that I don’t do that.  I like to keep me the writer/person separate from me the ‘business’.  But that’s just personal.

Blogs interest me. They also frustrate me. They can be fun and informative and they can waste a lot of time and make me very angry as well.  In conclusion I can only say I have no answers re blogs and what they are or what they can and should do. I have an opinion. I also know my opinion doesn’t matter. There’s 156 million other examples of the form and doubtless 156 million opinions to boot.  On this one I guess we all just have to find our own way.  Find what you want to find, like what you want to like, just be sure it’s really what it says on the tin.

Cally Phillips