It's called "blogging," short for "web logging," and as a mass phenomenon, it may become one of the most enduring legacies of the goofy dot-com era.
The recipe: Surf the net, compile links to the most interesting stuff you find, leaven with a bit of punditry and personality, and post to a Web page in the form of a dated online diary.
You can now go toe-to-toe with any media outlet. The world may or may not beat a path to your URL.
The formula, which Internet columnist Matt Drudge didn't invent but made famous, is as simple and traditional as white bread. What's changed, in recent years, is the advent of Blogger.com, a fairly trivial Net-based application that proves all the good ideas haven't been taken. With a few clicks, Blogger lets you publish instantly on the Net, along with links to the relevant articles you're discussing. No fuss, no muss, no FTP, no path errors. In the wake of 9/11, as obsession with Web-based news exploded, so did blogging.
"Give me a minute, I'll tell you how many people we have registered," says Evan Williams as he clicks away at his keyboard. "I haven't looked in a while." The 29-year-old Williams, who moved from Nebraska to Silicon Valley a few years back, is the president, CEO and sole full-time employee at Blogger. He's having a hard time believing the results. "Wow, 390,000 ... that can't be right. There aren't that many active users ... maybe 40 or 50 thousand of those are very active."
Whether 390,000 or 50,000, users include some pros such as author and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com) and futurist Virginia Postrel (www.dyna mist.com). But Blogger has also served as journalistic showcase for lesser-knowns such as Glenn Reynolds (www.instapundit.com), who came out of nowhere but is attracting something like 20,000 unique visitors per day. "I expected to have a couple hundred a day. I always wonder if some mischievous hacker has loaded some bot to make me think someone besides my mother is reading my page." Not surprisingly, in Blog Space, as it's called, one good blog links to scads of others, so new talent surfaces rather quickly.
But the legion of Sullivan-Postrel wannabes have spread the graphics bug that directs the viewer to the company's home page beyond the pundit community. Now, Williams says, about a third of the users aren't doing journalism, and are instead using the technology in other ways. "A lot of people use it as a bookmark list, as a family bulletin board or for taking notes."
In a way, the non-journalistic uses aren't surprising: Pyra, the original company that created Blogger, was developing so-called vertical-market groupware that would run on the Internet. Blogger itself came about by accident. It was a far simpler hack that wasn't particularly relevant to the real purpose of the company, which at its peak number had a half-dozen programmer/partners and raised a pile of venture capital funds.
"We launched Blogger in August of 1999," Williams recalls. "We all had our own Web logs, and had hand-rolled our own systems for publishing. Being Web developers, we wrote Blogger to help us, and then we decided to put it out there. Eventually, it took off and took over our company." When the dot.com phenomenon went south, the rest of his partners went elsewhere.
But the departures do allow Williams to make a few bucks off the hot Web phenomenon. He sells a modest number of ads on free pages, and also offers a premium hosting service, with no ads, for a mere $12 per year. He's just introduced a premium service for professional users at $35 per year, with such niceties as more bandwidth, a spell checker and a blog search engine.
Profits remain elusive for the bloggers themselves. Most link to Paypal and/or the Amazon Honor System, which allow fans to point and click to make donations. Sullivan is experimenting with book and appliance sales via links to vendor sites; he gets a cut of the sales from traffic he brings in. With Reynolds "Blogging for me is a lousy use of my time if I want to make money, but it pays for itself as a hobby."
The mechanics of setting up a Web page with Blogger are fairly simple. Option one, you use Blogger's own Web site, and they donate the space in exchange for having your page carry some ads. You sign up, pick a password and choose what you want your page to look like from a menu of predrawn page styles. Once you set up the account and page, you download a mini-application that installs an item labeled "blog this" on the right-click button of your browser. If you want to comment and link to a page, sim ply right-click and choose the blog option. Then a little window pops up with the HTML link, and you type your commentary. Click "Post" and the contents of the windows are placed into the page template. Since all the software is Web-based, Blogger can be used from any handy computer that's equipped with a browser.
Option two is tad bit more complicated. Proceed as per above, but direct the file to your own web directory, which involves digging into Blogger's guts to embed account names, passwords, site addresses and directories. Some folks even build custom pages, with one or more Blogger diaries included. However complicated the setup, Blogger diary updates remain trivially simple.
"I'm a total tech idiot; but even I can figure out Blogger," says Sullivan. Like Reynolds and Williams, he feels that the key to Blogger's success is ease of use. Pre-Blogger, there were plenty ways to post diaries to the web with PC-based programs, including Netscape Communicator or even Microsoft Word, but they were all too geeky and unreliable for the kind of stream-of-consciousness postings that mark the most successful web logs.
Rather, Sullivan likens Blogger to Napster: Pre-Napster, a lot of people were maintaining Web sites and various other mechanisms for sharing music files, most of which were too complicated for mere mortals. Napster - and Blogger - simplified the process and created a community around the idea.
Will blogging change the world? Bloggers such as Sullivan wax cosmic about how, like the Internet, blogging lowers distribution barriers for writers. "It's a very simple idea, which is that all editors and publishers are now defunct and that direct contact between you and your readers is what counts. It's hard to explain how different it is just writing for yourself and your readers, but the more you do it, the more liberating it feels."
Next week, we'll get into the nuts and bolts of setting up a Web log with Blogger. Meanwhile, yours truly has been bitten by the blogging bug, and you can see the results at www.dolinar.com/blogger.html.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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