Notes from the Technology Trenches - A Closer Look at WeblogsBy Cindy Curling, Published on October 15, 2001
Curling is the Electronic Resources
Librarian at Fried
Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in
Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law
Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C.,
and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus
Cindy Curling is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.
Weblog Structure Blog Flavors Recommended Reading Finding Blogs Weblog Building and Hosting Tools Thoughts on Blogging
The trenches have been filling up lately with references to some new, useful technologies. Weblogs in particular have been getting lots of attention. I do my best to keep up with technological advancements, especially when I think they’ll save me time at my job, but I totally missed the front end of this trend. I thought we all might benefit from a closer look.
Weblogs (blogs for short) have been around for about five years. They are used mainly to create rolling pages of frequently updated, chronologically listed links and commentary. Sometimes they are also used for “collaborative editing”. Groups of people working on the same project, for instance, can add materials to a hub site and discuss their work as it develops. The first Weblog I really paid any attention to was the Virtual Acquisition Shelf and News Desk (VASND) by Gary Price. Price has been compiling useful resources on his Web sites for some time, but VASND is a relatively new development for him. He started promoting it in March of this year. When I first took a look, I thought the content was great, but I wasn’t sure I liked the format.
VASND’s format is typical of most blogs. It’s essentially a list of resources with annotations. Price adds new content every day and entries are relatively short – the classic “long enough to cover the essentials, short enough to be interesting”. Each item includes the date added along with basic information about the referenced resource, including links. Price, like most bloggers, makes his links transparent. That is, his text is linked, but you don’t actually see the link addresses. That’s one of the things that bothers me a little about blogs. When I use them, I’m usually looking for new resources to pass along to my users, so it’s helpful to have the actual URLs.On the one hand, I understand this convention – blogs are writing tools as much as anything else. The line between them and personal journals is pretty fuzzy, though blogs tend to be more focused on resources. Originally, they were used more as personal reminders to their authors of interesting sites or articles. If a visitor happened to benefit from the information, well, that was just icing on the cake. Dropping URLs into text makes it choppy and less personal, and blogs are very personal. Good blogs not only share useful information, but also give you a taste of the author’s personality. These are not plain vanilla annotations; they are an ongoing commentary imbued with the author’s voice and bias. On the other hand, when I’m using a resource for work, I don’t want to have to spend much time sifting through someone else’s personal opinions to find the information I need. Since Price is an information specialist whose opinions I trust, and VASND is among the most serious, resource-based blogs I’ve seen, in his case it’s actually helpful to read the descriptions. It isn’t that much trouble to find the addresses - one has only to follow a link to the page or look at the properties of the link (right click on the link, pick properties from the menu, see the address – ta, da! – and it works for e-mail links too), but it’s nice when it’s right there with the description.
Another restriction of the format is that as new items are added at the top of the list, older items at the bottom drop off. Most bloggers offer an archive, but these are generally organized only by date. There are ways to get around this (use your Google toolbar to search the site, for instance), but it would be nice if more authors would provide a site search of their own and/or add a site index by topic. The pure log format doesn’t lend itself to that kind of organization, but I expect it will become more common to see enhancements like these in the future.
The content of Weblogs is now as varied as the content of the Internet itself. While initially there were only a few1 blogs, once they were gathered together and published as a list on Cameron Barrett’s Camworld site, it was easier to read them. People did, and blogs started to catch on as a publishing format. At that time, you really had to know some HTML in order to publish a blog, but hundreds of people knew enough to give it a shot. The big jump in popularity came along when the first free tool for Weblog publishing, Pitas, became available in mid-1999. With its advent, pretty much anyone, Web developer or not, could build a blog on her own. These days blog authors have a variety of options for blog creation (see Weblog Building and Hosting Tools below). Happily, the ease of blogging has encouraged lots of folks who are experts in their fields to share their expertise, noting useful resources, commenting on the accuracy of news articles, and pointing to other good blogs. Blogs have begun to be the place to go to see the very latest information, “pre-surfed” for you by an expert. Of course, as with the rest of the Internet, there’s a whole lotta trash out there along with the treasures.
There seem to be four main flavors to blogs right now: the researcher’s list of annotated resources, the extremely succinct pointer site, the more personal, annotated journal, and the personal diary. The “me” pages are not generally as useful. I don’t want to sell them short - some are obviously excellent examples of creative writing - they just aren’t the Weblogs I’d use at work. The other types, though, have something more to offer. Here are a few examples of those useful flavors:
Researchers' List of Annotated Resources
These are the kinds of sites that I find most useful. They describe general Web resources, usually very new items, with enough detail that I know whether a site visit is in order. Entries are dated, and usually only a few are added on any given day, so it’s pretty easy to keep up.
I’ve already mentioned Price’s Virtual Acquisition Shelf and News Desk. Price focuses on newly available full text-materials on the Web, invisible Web resources, and news about Internet searching tools, companies and technologies. He updates the site everyday, and provides brief but informative annotations. On my last visit, recent items touched on: an update to the Online Netskills Interactive Course; an article on using bulletin boards, chat and Usenet to mine for competitive intelligence; OCLC’s enhancements to its ArticleFirst and ContentsFirst databases; comments on an article regarding recent improvements to Yahoo’s search feature and results display, etc.
The Knickknack Drawer
Tara Calishain’s Knickknack Drawer is a recent addition to her incredibly useful ResearchBuzz site. Calishain’s site is all about research on the Web, in all kinds of resources using all kinds of tools. Even so, as it says on the blog page,
Sometimes we find stuff that doesn't quite fit in the main part of ResearchBuzz. It may be too specific, not categorized enough, too small, too commercial, articles we wanted to comment on, or just not quite on the beam with the goals of the main site. These sites aren't worse or inferior to those we cover on ResearchBuzz -- they're just different.
So what falls in that category? Recent additions include references to an article on the use of the Internet to hunt up recipes, a project chronicling the life of former President Clinton and an update of her 911 page. Sites in the knickknack drawer are well reviewed, generally include the link address, and are always dated. More miscellaneous resources without much annotation are set aside in the “Lint Pile”. Today’s goodies: a game site update, and MST3K’s “Master Ninja Theme Song”.
Extremely Succinct Pointer Sites
While this flavor is interesting to read, I find the extensive annotations of the sites above more helpful. Sometimes referred to as “microcontent” sites, the idea here is that an author tells you the least he can to get the point across and then gives you a link. The reader gets to see more links, the writer doesn’t have to spend much time, and so long as you don’t need to see extensive detail, it makes for a very speedy review of new items.
This eclectic blog has been around since the early days, and starts with a section called “Today’s public bookmarks", an excellent example of microcontent. It is not as resource-oriented as the researchers’ pages above. Instead, and this is more typical of blogs, it’s more news-focused. When I visited, references ran the gamut from political issues, to Web statistics to an old commentary on blog burnout - it's easy to get addicted to blogging, evidently. To give you a feel for the pointers from this section, take a look at this sample:
Doug Kaye's blog page.
Thomas L. Friedman's Saudi Royals and Reality. Also his Bush to bin Laden.
ESR's open source business models from The Magic Cauldron.
Dave on men.
Nielsen/NetRatings' screwy TV-modeled Web statistic.
Tom on Gonzo Marketing.
Cliff Havener and Margaret Thorpe on The Route Causes of Conflict and the Resolution of It. Also: Solving the Communications Problem
JY on my phen375 fatblog diet.
A Camworld oldie on blog burnout.
As you can see, the brief commentary and choices for inclusion give you an idea of the personality behind the blog. Most Webloggers, however, have more to say, and Searls is no exception. His blog continues on with more extensive commentary, like the next flavor listed below.
Then there are the sites that fall somewhere between the two annotation extremes. This flavor really lets you hear the author’s voice, and not just through the choices he makes about what to include.
Lasica is a “free-lance online journalist and former new media director” who writes about the Web for a variety of publications. His blog strikes a nice balance between being a personal journal and font of information on the worlds of news reporting and Internet technology. His opinions are clearly just that, not disguised as reporting, but valuable for their insight to the process. From a recent entry on the politics of journalism:
I find it outrageous that the Bush administration is warning all the television networks not to broadcast videotaped statements by Osama Bin Laden. Does anyone really buy their rationalization that there may be secret coded messages to terrorists hidden in the message? What they're really worried about is flagging public opinion if Bin Laden is still making videos and eluding capture by U.S. forces months from now.
This entry goes on, pointing to several items examining the war coverage, with a little commentary on each that clearly reflects his journalistic background. Of course, that’s the point of having your own blog - you get to say your piece.
A blog’s usefulness is in the eye, or in my case mainly the job, of the beholder. Whether you are a law librarian, a business researcher or are just interested in information technology, there are a ton of good resources to be culled from the blog trend. The problem is, how do you find them? Personal recommendations are a good starting point. In addition to the above, here are a few of mine on library and technology topics:
Liblog A technology-oriented Weblog of “Web sites and stories dealing with the interface between technology and libraries.” This is a little different from most of the rest of the blogs I’ve discussed. It’s posted not by an individual, but by the Redwood City Public Library. Even so, it has a very personal feel, plus the benefit of being very business-oriented. On the day I visited, it touched on topics from Excite@Home’s failure, to an article about how the Internet has influenced programming languages.
Library News Daily is authored by Peter Scott, also known for Hytelnet, LibDex and The Complete Guide to Weblogs. It covers news on database software, reference sources, conferences and more for librarians. In fact, the print and online publications referenced in New Media Librarian (see below) were passed on from this site. That’s another common feature of blogs - they’re very communal in that people pick up each other’s references and pass them along.
The Library TechLog from Matthew Eberle is a wonderful resource for news on technical issues from RSS news feeds, to scripting, to Web tips.
New Breed Librarian from Colleen Bell and Juanita Benedicto is aimed at newer librarians, but will be helpful to most of the rest of us too. Today’s items covered ad-blocking Web technology, IKEA as an example of information architecture, recommendations of print and online publications, a quote on the fear of technology and more.
Librarians are evidently pretty active bloggers as a group. Two lists of library related logs are Library Logs and LibDex. In the course of researching this article, I also looked for law, finance, and business research blogs with very little luck. I found plenty of news logs covering those topics, but they were mainly commercial and lacked that personal Weblog touch. The only true blog on law I found was Accessible Info, Legal Drafting and Plain Language, Anne Vespry’s site focused on accessibility law, with links to Web tools, grammar and writing resources. I suspect there are more out there simply not covered by the sites which index blog content. If you have a law, finance or business blog, I’d be interested in hearing about it. Of course, it may also be that even at five years old, blogs are too new to have become so specialized.
There are many, many blogs that are more strictly technology oriented, and selecting which among those would be best suited to your interests is a little more difficult. Rather than list any recommendations, let’s look at the options available for finding Weblogs on your own:
The Nosey Neighbor Technique
People who write blogs tend to think of themselves as a community, and within that community there are neighborhoods of people with common interests. These neighbors keep in close touch, and spend time showing each other their best new information. If the neighborhood where you grew up was like mine, there were a few houses where all the kids gravitated because those folks had the swing set, the wading pool, the popcorn, and got the new Atari games first. Weblogs work in a similar way. If you are looking for a regular read rather than something specific, the best way to find a blog is probably to see what Weblogs are being read by other people - the ones where all the other kids go. Start with any of the blogs listed above, or reach one using one of the methods below. Then take a look at the blogs listed on that site. The best hosts, who have a real talent for entertaining, get the most listings on other people’s pages.
BlogFinder - Search engine for finding blogs by keyword.
Bloghop - 7000+ rated blogs by topic and alphabetically. This is a very informal sliding scale rating system running from “Loved It” to “Hated It”, rated by the folks who use them, so viewer beware. Also, many of these blogs seem to be personal journals of the “me” variety.
Eatonweb Portal lists blogs by topic and alphabetically, and also lists non-English language blogs.
GBlogs is a UK based blog directory.
The Page Only of Weblogs, has an eclectic categorized list.
Weblog Madness - Blogs and Weblog resources.
Xenoblogs lists Weblogs outside the U.S.
Note that some of the above list metablogs (blogs about blogs) as a separate topic.
Blogdex offers a URL search that lets you find a keyword like “legal” within the address of a blog in its index.
Blog Search - is a search tool for the Blogger.com Weblogs.
BlogHop - Those informally rated sites mentioned above, keyword searched.
Daypop - The press loves Daypop, and it’s easy to see why. While it doesn’t search only blogs, Dan Chan has included a select list of Weblogs and news sites (5000 sources together) to create a current awareness search engine. Chan is at the head of a trend that takes advantage of the up-to-the-minute character of blogs.
Eatonweb Portal One of the oldest directories of blogs is searchable too.
Blogs By Popularity
Weblogs Hot List - The100 sites most-linked-to by the pages housed at Weblogs.com.
Blogdex - The researchers at the MIT Media Lab set up this site that tracks the popularity of links cited in selected Weblogs.
Carmen's Headline Viewer - A Windows application that lets you view recent headlines from sources you select from a list of news pages and Weblogs.
LinkWatcher - Scans indexed Weblogs once each hour, listing them as “Fresh Blogs”.
MetaWatcher - Once this Windows program is installed, it can notify you when blogs you’ve selected have changed.
My.UserLand - Reviews RSS and specially formatted (<scriptingNews>) XML files, often used on news sites, but also on Weblogs, then provides a list of those links each hour. Previous hour’s links for the current day are also available.
Weblogs are still early enough in their development that there are many different people with good ideas coming up with complementary and competing services to help make blogging easier. The two getting the most press are the user-friendly blog building tools Blogger and Weblogger.
Blogger is a free, automated Weblog publishing tool. You can either use it to send blog postings to an existing Web site, or you can create a page that Blogger will host for free at blog*spot. Either way, you don’t need to install any new software to use it. You provide Blogger with a template of your page (or pick one of the Blogger designs) so they know where new entries should appear. Then, to update your page, you fill out a form at the Blogger site, submit it, and your newly updated page will be posted automatically via FTP. More sophisticated users can include script in their entries. Any script is processed when the page update is made available.
Weblogger offers free blog building tools at Weblogs.com, but hosting at Weblogger costs $9.95 per month or from $79.95 per year. Happily, they do offer a trial month for free, so you can at least see what it’s like before you decide. File updates at Weblogs.com are browser-based. Please note: as I wrote this article, the Weblogs.com site was undergoing a transition and was unavailable.
Peter Scott, the above mentioned Internet Projects Manager for the University of Saskatchewan Libraries, is a valuable resource for information about Weblogs. He keeps a comprehensive list of hosting providers for Weblogs and personal diaries. I’ve picked a few from his list with features in addition to hosting and blogging that might be of interest:
CitizenX.com Includes chat, Webcam and guestbook.
Conversant - Basic pricing is free, but their multi-tiered pricing system includes Web-based editing, an interface for updating by e-mail, discussion forums, one newsgroup, e-mail, and support for collaborative editing, all without ads.
GeekLog - For the more advanced user looking to develop a virtual community, GeekLog offers user administration options, messaging, comments, polls, a calendar, and more. It runs on several operating systems and uses PHP4 for hypertext pre-processing and MySQL to create Web pages built dynamically from a database.
GrokSoup.com - Browser-based editing, discussion groups, news scanning tools and more.
pitas.com The first automated Weblog creation tool. Unlike most hosts that use either FTP or web-based editing, pitas gives you the option. Also offers a "yourname.pitas.com" sub-domain.
Scott also has an exhaustive page listing Weblog tools to help you short-cut the posting process, build content, enhance scripting, see who has referenced your blog and much more. If your are thinking about creating your own blog, look at his tool page first to see how the enhancements you might like will work with your host.
Now that I’ve taken a closer look at Weblogs, I don’t think I’m as far behind the curve as I believed initially. I can see they definitely have their uses, especially in a community as interested in sharing resources as ours. However, I still see some room for growth:
1. Though there are a range of tools available to make blogging easier, most authors do not take advantage of them. Blog creation has started to become automated, but the major tools really only cover the basic features of submitting new content before the complexity of managing it starts to become a little too complicated for most users. Blogs have a huge potential for more interactive, collaborative applications, but until the tools become better integrated, few users will take advantage.
2. There are not enough experts writing professional blogs, and most Weblogs are too personal to be useful to anyone other than online voyeurs. Even considering the huge growth in blogs since the automated building tools became available, there are not many blogs as compared to straight Web pages. There probably never will be, but there are many niches left to be filled.
3. Weblogs are difficult to search and still mainly dependent on the community of blog creators for word of mouth recommendations by cross-posting, though DayPop is definitely making forward progress.
I also find it interested that there is so much enthusiasm among otherwise staid individuals for a publishing format. It reminds me of the initial rush to create Websites that has left the Internet littered with pages people got bored with and failed to maintain. Yet, people are passionate about blogging, and many Weblogs seem to be as much about persuading readers that blogging is great as they are about saying anything useful.
My boss was asking me before I wrote this article whether I was going to create a blog of my own. My initial response was no; I don’t surf the Web enough to see things so quickly that referencing them would be useful to very many Web users. On further consideration, while that aspect of blogging is helpful, it’s the added value of the comments authors add to their links (thank you Tara Calishain and Gary Price) by comparing resources, noting potential improvements, and sparking inspiration, which sticks with you even when the resources are obsolete. From that perspective, I may actually have a few things to say that wouldn’t be a waste of space. If you feel the same and are considering creating a Weblog, or simply want to learn more on the topic, here are a few more resources that may help:
More Blogging Resources
Blogs Are a Natural for Librarians from Paula J. Hane in NewsLink, Issue 24, October 2001.
Breaking News: Law Librarians as Newscasters from Susannah Crego, New Jersey Law Journal, September 4, 2001.
The Complete Guide to Weblogs from Peter Scott, author of far too many other pages to list.
Weblog Tools - Good but dated resources for information on blogs from Weblogs.com.
1. Jesse Garrett, “Ye Olde Skool” section of http://www.jjg.net/portal/tpoowl.html, The Page Only of Weblogs as it appeared on 10/9/2001.