Clever blogs

Clever blogs

Writing your own news. By James Robertson

During the recent Iraq War, the most credible perspective came from a lone weblog, written from the heart of Bagdad, even as the first waves of smart bombs were falling. While the author of the weblog, Salam Pax, was an unknown, the writing was compelling and reached a wide audience.

Weblogs have been gaining prominence in many other areas as well, with well-known IT companies and respected newspapers all publishing weblogs.What really made people take notice recently, however, was Google's purchase of Blogger, one of the most popular weblogging systems on the net. That made many stop and ask the question: so what is this thing called a weblog?

Anatomy of a weblog

At its most simple form, a weblog (also commonly known as a Ôblog'), is an online diary created by one or more writers. It typifies the new class of 'personal publishing' tools that some see as a 'disruptive' threat to commercial content management system (CMS) solutions.

With these systems, anyone can write for the Web, without requiring HTML knowledge, and have it published instantly. It is this breaking down of barriers that has made weblogging so popular with everyone from teenage diary-writers to professional journalists.

A weblog provides a simple interface for writing a new entry, typically via an online form. This is published to the site, with standard page layout and formatting automatically added. What the reader sees is an online diary, with the most recent posts first, and an archive of past writings.

At the bigger end of the scale, weblogs seamlessly blend into the huge community sites such as Slashdot, which are based on the same core design principles.

A whole other world

To give some idea of the scale of the weblogging world, when it was purchased by Google, Blogger boasted 1.1 million users with 200,000 active weblogs. This is the not the only service either, with users of systems such as Userland Radio and Movable Type even more numerous.

Discovering weblogs is like walking through a door, and finding out that there is a whole other world that has existed for years without you even being aware of it. That was my experience when I first encountered weblogs.

While a lot of weblogs are created by people to talk about their pets, their dates, or their opinions about world politics, they are also used for more serious purposes. As just a small sample: In the US, presidential hopeful Gary Hart now has a weblog to support his political campaign. Dr Pepper (the soft drinks company) is hoping to use weblogs as the basis for their 'viral marketing' campaign. Kevin Lynch, Chief Software Architect at Macromedia posts his thoughts on future product development on his blog. Moby (the best-selling artist) has a weblog. There are now even conferences dedicated to weblogging.Why would all these people want to spend their time posting blog entries? To answer that, we will first take a brief diversion into the world of RSS.

Syndication for the masses

Until now, the distribution of news was done via the syndication networks of the big media firms such as Reuters or AAP. While very efficient, access to the news was in the hands of a very few. Weblogging is changing all that.Most weblogs republish their content as an up-to-date news feed, in RSS format. This stands for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary, or RDF Site Summary, depending on who you ask.

Whatever it stands for, the RSS feed offers a straightforward way to access, read, syndicate and manipulate the posts of hundreds of thousands of bloggers. This is being used in some very interesting ways.

Firstly, it is bringing syndication to the desktop. For example, I keep track of over three dozen weblogs every day, on a variety of topics. If I were to open each site, and check whether it had changed, I'd never get any work done.

Instead, I use a Ônews aggregator', which is a lightweight desktop application that grabs the RSS feeds from all these sites, and provides an at-a-glance summary of the latest posts.

There are a lot of aggregation tools, and they provide a tremendously efficient way of keeping in touch with events across the globe (for a good list of software see

RSS is also being used to connect together blogs in interesting ways, to create a new global news network. This is the area where blogging is evolving most rapidly.

For example, Daypop ( provides a 'Top 40' list of current news topics, showing which ones are on the rise, and which have passed their peak. It does this by trawling the feeds of thousands of weblogs, and finding who is posting on what, and where they are linking to.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, with many other new ways of searching and linking information appearing, based on RSS and weblogs.

Blogging in business

Weblogs have a role to play both on the inside and outside of organisations. Looking outwards, blogging is a way of providing customers with access to internal experts and opinions. It is also a cheap way of setting up news pages, including RSS feeds for easy syndication.

Perhaps the most interest use, however, is on the inside of organisations. Beyond setting up company newsletters, there is a small but growing field of "knowledge logging", or "k-logging".

The proponents of this approach see k-logs as a way of breaking down barriers within the organisation, and facilitating a more efficient flow of information and knowledge. For example, key individuals, with the knowledge and respect, can use weblogs to record progress on strategic projects or issues. By building on the reputation of the writer, weblogs harness the recognised benefits of "storytelling" techniques.

Weblogs can also be used by project teams to both communicate to the wider organisation, and to keep track of who is doing what within the team. In this way, the team weblog acts as a voice for the project, and an archive of past decisions.

It's early days for k-logging, but already there have been some successes. While the future direction of this approach is unclear, it's sure to be interesting.

Blogging for reputation

I have a weblog which I've been writing for over a year now. This covers a range of topics, including content management, knowledge management, usability and information architecture.

It takes an hour every day to post entries to my blog. Why do I spend this time, and what do I hope to get out of it?

Firstly it has proved to be very popular, more than doubling the traffic to our site, and tripling the number of repeat visitors. Even more interestingly, the majority of traffic to the site now comes from the various news aggregators, ahead of the search engines like Google.

Beyond this, however, writing a blog is like creating your own newspaper. It gives you a news channel on which provide commentary, build reputation, and advertise your wares. Offer something of value, and people will keep coming back.

Every consultant or vendor should write a blog, as it's an excellent way of generating reputation. People can see what you do, how you do it, and what your thoughts are on important issues. Readers of blogs quickly start to feel like they've actually met the writer, even though they may be separated by thousands of miles.

Where to from here

Weblogs offer a cheap (or free) way of publishing content that complements existing technologies. With weblogging evolving so rapidly, it's a space that's worth watching closely, and making use of where appropriate.

At least one Australian government department is looking to use weblogs as a way of adding news to their intranet, without having to purchase an expensive content management system. Other organisations are looking to add a RSS feeds to their corporate Web sites.

I don't know what weblogs will look like in a year's time, but they are here to stay, so now is the time to jump on board, and to start writing your own news.

James Robertson is the managing director of Step Two Designs, an independent consultancy that specialises in content management systems and intranets. Contact:

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