Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Some Blogging Basics

Or, "What I've learned about blogging in my first 45 days." If you're a serious blogger or blog reader, you can/probably should skip this one. If you're just starting a blog of your own, this will be somewhat useful. If you're here because I invited you, and you've never made a habit of visiting blogs and aren't sure what the whole Blogosphere is all about, then this post is really for you.

Because some weeks ago I sent out invitations to friends and family that I thought might be indulgent enough to care what I have to say about random topics, most of whom I know not to be blog addicts, I thought a little Blog 101 might be in order. Especially since I went looking for something like this a month ago, and didn't really find it already out there--no doubt a result of my just not putting the right search parameters in Google, as the long list of links at the end of this post attests. But most of those links at the bottom of this post are for budding authors, not readers, and the few that attempt to do both are not quite basic enough. I hope this will fill that gap, at least for the folks I blindfolded, shoved into the back seat, drove around for an hour, and then dropped off on this digital corner. Here goes.

Why read a blog or blogs? First, that's two questions really. Why read a blog is an easy question, simply because only the reader can answer it. The person who reads just one blog religiously, does so because there is something special there for them. The topic or the author have some special attraction for the reader that makes them return every day. It's like a favorite comic strip. Here's an example: I have friends, geographically separated from family, that keep a family journal as a blog. Their parents and siblings read it. I don't know that they read a single other blog out there, but they read that one. Similarly, I have a family blog of my own. My parents gave away their last computer two years ago and my wife's parents have yet to log onto that blog. So it goes. I write anyway.

I didn't start reading multiple blogs until I started my own. At first, it was curiosity. What were other people doing. Like the two-minute rule in a conversation. (It doesn't apply on the web, btw. You can just jump right in there. But I have a real faux pas phobia, so I spent some time listening/reading to see what the rules were. Bottom line: there aren't many. But there are some conventions that are useful to know as a blogger or reader, thus this post.) So, you end up reading multiple blogs, if you get to that point, because of multiple attractions. In my own case, my reason for reading and my reason for writing are much the same: I enjoy intelligent conversation, and blogs, in general, are two-way streets. (See the paragraph on comments below.)

So, how do you find interesting blogs? Well, if you find one, through invitation or through serendipity, you'll find others. Blogs take advantage of just about everything web publishing has to offer, from their instantaneous publication to their persistence (provided the host site survives) to that thing that makes the internet an internet--the hyperlink. While every blog has a homepage where the newest posts appear, each post is likely to have multiple links, leading, well, God only knows where until you at least mouse-over them, and then make a decision as to whether you want to go deeper. You can get lost like that, but you will never suffer from a deficit of information. Additionally, the homepage for most blogs will be set up so that the most prominent elements are the newest and earlier posts, but there will be sidebars along the left or right margin. In some blogs, these sidebars will be crowded with ads. In others, the ads will be few. But either way, you can expect to find some or all of the following:

  • A "BlogRoll": Whatever name the author chooses to give this list (BlogRoll, The Water Cooler, or any variety of cute titles specifically appropriate to the blog itself) what this consist of is a list of other blogs. The list is composed according to the whim of the originating blog's author. Maybe these are sites the author finds interesting and visits him or herself with some frequency (my particular schema), or maybe they're sites that link back to the author's blog. Some are short; some get long enough to sprout categories and classes (see Chapomatic's right margin for an example of this). (If you're brimming with curiosity, see the second Dean's World post or the Electric Venom post below for more about blog rolls than you probably care to know at this point.)
  • An Archive: that should be pretty self explanatory, but I mention it here lest you think that the posts you see on a blog's homepage are all there are. One of the parameters an author must set in his or her blogging software is how many posts to show on the opening page. Obviously, a blog that has been around a long time can't display all of its posts there. So, depending on how long-winded the author is in each individual post, he or she will set the blog to display a limited number of posts or a limited number of days. Older posts remain accessible though, through the archive.
  • About Me: if this requires explanation, you need more help than I can provide.
  • Recent Comments: Whether or not a blog's sidebar carries this feature is partially the choice of the author and partially driven by the software used to publish the blog. I have one, and I like blogs that do have them, because they enable you to see at a glance whether or not a particular post has spawned an ongoing conversation. Clearly, this would be impractical for a blog like Instapundit (the godfather of all "linker" blogs), but it can be a wonderful tool for the "thinker" variety (again, see Electric Venom below for a good explanation of the difference if you're new to blogs). Many of us aspire to be thinkers, but resort to creative linking on those days when nothing really inspires us.

I should say a word about comments themselves. A word of caution: comments are a starter drug. One day you're commenting; the next you have your own blog, or two. Any blog author of the "thinker" variety will tell you that the posts he or she considers successful are those that generate a discussion in the comments section, maybe even spawning a few full posts on friendly (or not so friendly) other blogs. So, if you're reading a blog regularly, or even rarely, if commenting is an option, and you have something to say, jump in there. Even if you don't have anything to say, if you found a post itself interesting, be sure to pay attention to that little "comment" icon at the bottom of most posts. Most of those icons will include a number indicating how many comments have been made already. Especially on those blogs without a "Recent Comments" element in the sidebar, you may want to click on the comment icon to see what's being said. Just because you click on the comments icon doesn't mean you have to say anything. But you will have to click on it to see the conversation in progress. Sometimes it's worth it; sometimes not. But you never know until you try.

Finally, a quick word about RSS feeds and e-mail subscriptions. Basically, these are two different ways to have blog content brought to you when it's updated, saving you the trouble of visiting a blog to see what's new. Which method you prefer may depend on how web savvy you are, or on just what platform (computer, cell phone, PDA, etc) you prefer to read your favorite content. Some blogs offer neither, some both, some one or the other. On this blog, just below the "About Me" frame, you can subscribe by e-mail. Eventually, I'll add an RSS feed. Hey, I've learned a lot in the last six weeks--I'll get there.

Okay, I think that pretty well wraps up the first (and likely only) lesson of Blog 101. This post won't make you a blogger, but I hope it will at least demystify the "Blogosphere" if you're completely new to it. If, by chance, all of this hasn't made you sick of hearing about blogging, and has whetted your appetite instead, below are some useful posts of a somewhat similar nature from other bloggers out there, but directed more at blog authors than at new blog readers.

And with that, I'll bid you adieu.

For more on blogs and blogging, check out the following (listed in no particular order):

  • Simon World: "Everything You Wanted to Know about Blogging, but were Afraid to Ask"; my favorite quote from this post has to do with getting started in the blogosphere: "You know that movie where the guy built a baseball field and waited for some dead folks to turn up and play ball? Blogging's like that. Prepare to slog at putting up brilliantly crafted, accurate and to-the-point insights that will proceed to make no difference to anything at all." Yeah. Exactly like that. My second favorite has to do with what life is like for the people you live with during those initial months: "Blogging is like renovating: you find it endlessly fascinating, but no-one else gives a sh!t." :-) Overall, aside from a few language glitches that read a little like the instructions to a fountain manufactured in China, this particular post is worth reading before you start, a month later, and probably monthly after that. Same post; new eyes each time.
  • Dean's World: "Blog Traffic"; more for blog writers than readers, but interesting if you're thinking of building that baseball field and looking for ways to raise the dead.
  • Dean's World: "Asparagirl Vs. Instapundit: Peddling Cool Stuff for Free"; a great meditation on blogrolls and some provocative thoughts about the blogosphere as a "gift economy."
  • Electric Venom: "Blogging Thoughts and Philosophies"; a little bit on blogrolls, but a great piece on the types of blogs and bloggers out there--"linkers" vs "thinkers" and three useful terms: isobloggers, extra-bloggers, and intra-bloggers. Definitely worth a read!
  • WordPress: Introduction to Blogging; WordPress, like Blogger, TypePad, MoveableType, and others, is blogging software. Most have intros to blogging. I recommend this one.
  • WordPress: Glossary; a great quick reference if all you're looking for is some particular blogging term.
  • CopyBlogger: The 5 Immutable Laws of Persuasive Blogging"; a short post, aimed at a more focused blog than this one. If you're blogging for a cause, or a business, take a look. (Hat Tip: Enrevanche)
  • CopyBlogger itself, though, looks like a good place to go from time to time for hints of all sort on effective blogging. See especially the "Popular Articles" list along the right sidebar.
  • Church of the Customer: "Small Businesses and Blogging"; Thinking of starting a small business blog? Then check this post out. Thinking of starting a small business? Check out the site as a whole.
  • Adido-Solutions: All about Blogging: a fairly short article, aimed mainly at a wide audience of potential authors rather than potential readers.
  • Technorati Help: "Blogging 101": Structured like a FAQ, this is another good quick reference to blogging and blogging terms--useful for authors or readers.