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This week's topic is blogging.

What does that word mean, anyway?

The term "blogging" started out as a slang term for "Web Logging", the practice of keeping a public log of comments about interesting websites. It started back in the early days of the Web, before search engines were widely available. The first web logs were just web pages created by hand, like all other pages back in that era; but as the web took off in the late 1990's, software tools appeared to let non-technical people create and maintain web logs of their own. Around the turn of the millennium, references to web logs started showing up in other media, and the term "blogging", which began as slang, became the standard word. Someone who maintains a blog is called a "blogger" and the collection of all blogs is commonly known as "the blogosphere".

Blogging is about a lot more than just commenting on websites now, isn't it?

That's right. Blogs are now used for all sorts of things, most commonly personal online journals, technical newsletters, or political discussions. Often they do include links to other websites, and comments about them, but this is no longer required. Blog entries are just as likely to refer to items in the news, or developments in the technical world, or events in the blogger's life, or whatever else the blogger feels like writing about.

Why would I want to know about blogs now?

Blogs are an important means of communication these days. For years now the Web has been too vast for any one person to find everything they are interested in, but blogs can be useful "filters" that help people find sites they would not have otherwise known about. Despite the claims of some, blogs have not yet rendered traditional media obsolete, but they still provide a lot of useful information and commentary on things the more traditional media might miss, or provide a place for different opinions to be expressed freely.

More to the point, WOU is in the process of setting up a blog server of our own, using the Movable Type system. Any member of the WOU community will be able to set up a blog, free of charge. The specifics will be covered in a later FAQ. If you have anything you want to talk about, a blog is easier to set up than a personal web page. Also, blogs can be very useful in a classroom setting, facilitating communication and discussion. See below for more on this.

So what makes a blog a blog?

The exact definition of "blog" is open for debate. Most people agree that the key feature of a blog is that it has dated entries, like a diary or journal. The most recent entry is visible first and previous entries are available lower on the page or in archives; any entry can be bookmarked or linked to individually. Virtually all blogs include a sidebar of links to other sites (mainly other blogs.) Most blogging software also allows readers to post comments on blog entries, and several programs also have a "trackback" feature that allows readers to see what other blogs have linked to the entry they are currently reading. Some make a distinction between a "weblog" in which every entry contains a link, and a "journal" which is more free-form, though for most people, the term "blog" covers both.

What are some common types of blogs?

As already mentioned, the three most common types of blogs are personal, technical, and political. Many blogs cross these boundaries, of course, but the three categories remain fairly distinct, with common features shared among blogs of the same type.

Another way to categorize blogs is by the contributors. Most blogs are run by a single individual, who may or may not allow other users to comment; examples might be a class blog run by a professor, or a personal online journal, or a blog dedicated to political commentary by one person. Many blogs are are run by groups of people, sharing the responsibility for keeping the blog updated. Others, known as community blogs, are open to anyone, sometimes for a fee. Still others are official publications of companies or other organizations.

What's the difference between a blog and a forum?

The main difference between a blog and a forum is that most blogs maintain a distinction between the blogger and the readers, while in a forum, anyone who is a member may post. Forums are also designed to maintain many different discussions at once, while blogs are more linear, in that they are date-based. The distinction blurs a bit when a blog allows readers to comment, or when a forum only allows a few people to post but many people to read. Of course there are also many technical differences, but I won't get into that here.

Why has there been so much in the news lately about bloggers and blogging?

Political blogs have been very much in the news in the last year or so. Blogs of several different biases have spread news that was at first ignored by the mainstream media, and in some cases this led to embarrassment and retirement of public figures. Since many people on different sides have a low opinion of the mainstream media these days, many have turned to blogs for their news. Also, the mainstream media has begun picking up stories from blogs for their own use.

How much should I trust what I read in a blog?

Good question! Since blogs are most often written by individuals, they are subject to the mistakes and biases of those people. As with any web page (or any piece of information at all, really,) you need to consider the source. If the blogger is someone you know, such as a friend or one of your professors, trust is easy to judge. Most bloggers will not be known to you, of course; in general, they do mean well, though they are of course still human, and fallible. A few bloggers actually tell outright lies or intentionally distort their sources to fit some agenda. Even if someone is trying to be honest, they still might fall prey to false information; it is easy for a rumor to start somewhere in the blogosphere and spread like wildfire with little or no fact checking. Naturally this is not unique to blogs or even the Internet, since gossip has been with us for thousands of years; blogs just allow it to spread faster. On the other hand, blogs can also spread truths that other sources have missed or ignored.

With all this, it isn't easy to know how much to trust anything in a blog. The best way I've found is to read a wide variety of blogs, as well as other news sources, and compare them. If a story only appears on blogs of a certain bias, take it with a larger grain of salt than normal. It's also crucial to consider the track record of the people involved. Have they exaggerated before? How much and what kind of documentation do they provide? Just like anything you hear from anywhere else, you have to weigh different factors before deciding how much to trust something on a blog, and whether it is worth passing along.

What are some examples of blogs?

For legal reasons I will not link to or recommend any political blogs here, though there are a vast number of them. I'm also not going to point people at anyone's personal online journal (Well, I'd point you to mine but it's horribly out of date!) That still leaves a lot of the blogging world to be explored, though. Here are just a few blogs to take a look at:

http://www.metafilter.com/ - a good example of a community blog; anyone can buy a membership for a small fee and post about anything they please. Metafilter is a weblog in the strict sense, in that every entry has to contain at least one link. The result is a widely mixed bag, with often fascinating and obscure links appealing to all sorts of different interests.

http://www.boingboing.net/ - a widely-read multiple-contributor blog covering technology and modern culture. It is generally considered to be reputable, despite its often irreverent tone.

http://www.slashdot.org/ - probably the most popular general technical blog in existence. It has so many readers that when it links to another site, that site sees such a massive traffic increase that its server sometimes crashes. This has become known as "getting slashdotted". Slashdot's motto is "news for nerds, stuff that matters", though if you aren't interested in technical stuff, their news might not matter so much to you.

http://www.robotwisdom.com/ - one of the oldest popular blogs. It purposely maintains an old-school look and feel, and might not be the easiest to use, but still has a lot of good stuff. It's an interesting example of what most blogs were once like.

http://www.orblogs.com/ - not a blog in itself, but a directory of blogs written by Oregonians. If you start a blog on WOU's server, you can be listed here.

I'm a professor. What if I want to start a blog for my class?

Dr. Shaun Huston of the Geography department recently gave a presentation on effective use of blogs in a classroom setting. If you missed it, you can contact him at hustons@wou.edu. Dr. Huston has also written a paper (co-authored by Anne-Marie Deitering of OSU) on the use of blogs for teaching and learning; you may view it on the Web at " http://www.rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/5mar2879z4.htm.

Where can I go for more information?

The links below are all, appropriately enough, either blog entries or articles by bloggers.

Introduction to weblog terms - " http://www.gyford.com/phil/writing/2003/01/05/an_introduction_.php. This covers some basic terminology you'll run into if you start reading blogs. It is also a good example of a blog entry, with comments from readers.

A History of Weblogs - " http://newhome.weblogs.com/historyOfWeblogs. This is a fairly brief history of blogging from the earliest days.

Weblogs: a history and perspective - " http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html This more in-depth history and discussion article is widely referred to by other blogs.

That's all for this week. Next we'll cover more about WOU's blog server, and answer any blogging questions that come up between now and then. Feel free to send those questions to me at faq@wou.edu.

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