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Blogs of our lives


The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

Sean Benham wants to tell you a few things about himself. Like what books are on his nightstand, what bands he's into these days, where he went on vacation. He really liked the movie "Traffic," and he misses "Twin Peaks" an awful lot.

Benham, a 32-year-old ad agency employee, has made his life an open book, an open book that he has placed on the Internet via something called a Weblog.

Imagine keeping a diary every day, but instead of locking it up and stowing it in your desk drawer, you do the exact opposite. You post it on the Web, letting the entire world — well, anyone who stumbles upon it, anyway — inside your head.

For Benham, mainly, it is a way to keep his friends in far-flung places posted on his life. They, in turn, reciprocate with Weblogs — or blogs, as they are called — of their own.

"Most of my blogger friends are far away," explained Benham, a native of Indiana who moved to Chicago after college. "When I do meet up with my friends, there is no gap since the last time I saw them physically."

Granted, people have been communicating over long distances for a long time. They would bang on drums, send smoke signals, hire a messenger with a fast horse. Letters begat phone calls. Then came e-mail.

But there has never been anything quite like a blog. Unlike with a pen-and-paper journal, you can post photographs, links to other Web sites, even music samples. Instead of simply typing in the lyrics to a beloved tune, you can add a link so folks can download an MP3 of the song. Bolster a political argument by linking to Web sites that support your point of view.

Part diary, part media digest, part scrapbook, blogs are one more way the digital revolution has enabled communication in ways few people could have predicted.

In a sense, it is also tearing down another wall between what is private and what is public, much as "reality" shows like "Cops" and "Survivor" have turned us into a nation of voyeurs.

"It is odd, but I like change," said Benham, who has no qualms about strangers viewing his blog. "I've always been bored with life if things weren't changing."

Nebraska dropout behind trend

In stereotypical Internet fashion, the man behind the blogging fad is an unassuming college dropout from Nebraska, all of 28 years old and largely self-taught in the ways of computer code.

Evan Williams didn't invent the blog, just as Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile, but you have to give Williams a lot of the credit for bringing blogs to the masses.

After moving to Silicon Valley in 1997 to get into the dot-com gold rush, Williams and a couple of partners formed Pyra Labs to develop software for businesses.

Blogs date to the beginning of the Internet, but Williams was intrigued by the possibilities they presented as a communications tool for business. He envisioned entire offices where employees used blogs to trade ideas and keep each other posted.

In the old days — the "old days" of the Web being two or three years ago — you had to know something about computer code to produce even the simplest Web page. Doing a blog, where you are adding new things on a weekly, daily or even hourly basis, could be a real headache for even the most motivated computer geeks.

Williams simplified that, writing an interface that made it possible for even the most computer-illiterate to create and update his or her personal blog. In August 1999, Pyra Labs unveiled an application, "Blogger," and began offering it free at www.blogger.com.

"It was just this little side project," said Williams, who was still determined to exploit the business end of blogging. "Initially, we wanted to use Blogger as a way to show people the other things we could do."

At first, 20 people would sign up per day, then 100. Last month, the average number of daily sign-ups was 660, bringing the total to about 115,000 Blogger blogs in all.

It has been a Pyrrhic victory. Late last year, as the dot-com bust was drying up venture capital for start-ups like Pyra Labs, Williams and his partners made the painful decision (one they detailed extensively on their personal blogs) to lay off their small staff and regroup.

Fortunately, Blogger costs very little to operate, which is why Williams can keep it going. The brush with corporate death has also changed his outlook

"I no longer am pursuing a dot-com path," said Williams, who scrapes by while he fine-tunes Blogger.

"The urgency has disappeared and the substance remains. ... It's turned into more of a passion than it was at first."

Community ties

Williams said he gets particularly excited about the communitiesbeing created via blogs. While the Web has been touted time and again as a tool to bring folks together, blogs seem to accomplish that.

Soon after discovering Blogger in late 1999, Ned Baugh enlisted several of his friends, including Benham, to join in. Now Baugh's Bloomington, Ind., computer serves as the hub for a loose collection of 18 bloggers who live in New Orleans, Indianapolis, Chicago and San Francisco.

It is a spirited group, one given to deep discussions about everything from politics to the meaning of life.

"There's something very satisfying about writing something down and sending it out into the ether," said Amy Reese, a group member who lives in San Francisco. "Or maybe that's just my ego talking."

It's not always stream-of-consciousness stuff. Last year, one member of the group lost his father, prompting an outpouring of support and sympathy. Members posted poems and remembrances on their blogs, gestures that might have been awkward in person but were perfectly suited for this new medium.

Baugh, a computer network administrator for Indiana government, envisions much more than that for his blogging buddies.

"It has turned into an interesting discussion group," Baugh said. "I hope it becomes more than that. I'd like to see it become a way to generate interesting content."

Audience can give pause

Essays, fiction, comedy — whatever, all fueled by the collective energy and instant feedback that Blogger has made possible. And knowing that whatever you say might be viewed by many people has forced Benham, for one, to sharpen his writing skills.

"Sometimes during heavy topics, I could let a blog (entry) sit on my (computer) desktop for a few hours before I send it," said Benham, who updates his blog at least once, sometimes twice, a day.

"Last year, during the presidential election, I was struggling with expressing my political beliefs. I had to really study my words before I let others read it."

Blogs can be boring

Not all blogs are so ennobling. Williams laughed when asked about a certain breed of blog, featuring the overwrought musings of arty, misunderstood high school kids.

"I love the high school blog," Williams said. "This is providing them an outlet, even if it is just for them and their friends. It's a place to practice (self-expression) and grow."

Granted, some in the geek community particularly see Blogger as nothing more than a way for outsiders to prattle about their pets, what they had for lunch or their boring jobs.

"At one time, there were a lot of complaints from the early Weblog people that this was getting too mass (as in mass medium), too mundane," Williams said. "That's ridiculous. First of all, no one is making you read this."

At Blogger, voyeurism is not only acceptable, it is encouraged via links to blogs that Williams finds interesting.

"I like to surf around the blogs of people I don't know," said Reese, a 29-year-old legal assistant. "It's quite voyeuristic, and sometimes you discover a gem."

Evan Williams, an unassuming Nebraskan, helped bring Weblogs to the masses, enabling anyone to share their thoughts via online journals.

These sites offer free tools to help people create their own Weblog.

www.blogger.com

www.manilasites.com

www.free-conversant.com

www.groksoup.com

www.launchpoint.com

How to make your own Weblog

Dawg Paws, Proenski.com, Revolution cyclists are examples of the thousands of personal Weblogs, or blogs, that have become popular on the Net.

Weblogs

Weblogs are an easy way to maintain a personal Web site, such as a journal or diary on the Web. You'll need Internet access and the Netscape Communicator (version 4 or higher) or Microsoft Internet Explorer (version 4 or higher) Web browsers. Follow these steps to set up your own blog.

  • Register with a Weblog service. See the list of Weblog services with this article. All the services are free.

  • Choose where you want to set up, or "host," your Weblog on the Internet. With some services, such as Blogger, this is part of the registration process. You can host your Weblog anywhere you have space for Web pages. America Online and Earthlink, two national Internet service providers (ISP), provide subscribers with space for Web pages; many smaller ISPs do, too. You'll need to know the file transfer protocol (FTP) address of your Web space and the account name and password you use to access the site.

    If you don't know anything about Web space or FTP addresses, almost all the Weblog services will host your pages for you. For example, Blogger has a hosting service called Blogspot (www.blogspot.com) . Editthispage offers hosting at Weblogger (www.weblogger.com) .

  • Choose a title and description for your Weblog and decide whether you want to list it in a public directory of Weblogs. If you decide to list your Weblog, it will be included in a list of recently updated sites every time you add something new or make a change. You also can keep your Weblog private, sharing the address with friends and colleagues you choose.

  • Choose a design, called a theme, for your Weblog. Blogger offers only four themes; Editthispage has about a dozen.

  • Customize the look of your blog by adjusting the theme template. Some of these changes, such as a site's background and text type colors, can be made through menus. For more sophisticated changes, you'll need to know a bit about HTML, the language of the Web. This step is optional.

  • Post an entry to your Weblog. Just type what you want into the posting window. When you are finished, you can preview your entry.

  • Hit the "publish" button when you're finished. Your entry has been posted for everyone on the Net to browse.

     

    — Leonard Fischer

     


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