I'm currently reading Scott Rosenberg's Say Everything, his new history of blogging that digs deeply into the origins of the medium and why it has become so successful. Rosenberg, a founder of Salon.Com and an online acquaintance of mine for many years, has written a fascinating book that begins with chapters on early web diarists and bloggers such as Justin Hall, Jorn Barger and Joshua Marshall.
The introduction to Rosenberg's book centers on how bloggers covered the 9/11 attacks, an important moment in the early history of the medium. He mentions that one of the first blogs to break the news was MetaFilter:
At 8:58 a.m., Metafilter, a popular group blog, posted a link to a one-line news bulletin on the front page of the CNN web site, but CNN did not yet have a full story posted.
I was reading MetaFilter when TV networks reported that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, so I made one of three front-page posts that appeared on MetaFilter within two minutes of AP's first news alert. In my haste, I posted that a plane had struck the World Trade Center in Chicago. MetaFilter publisher Matt Haughey removed my post quickly and saved me from considerable shame, but you can still see a comment that documents my egregious mistake: "Just as an FYI, it's New York City, not Chicago."
So let the history books show that I was there for a pivotal moment in the history of blogging -- spreading false information.
On the next page, Rosenberg mentions a story New York Times reporter Amy Harmon wrote that day about how people were using the web during the attacks. Harmon quoted me about a mailing list I started that morning:
"This unfathomable tragedy reminds me of the original reason the Internet was invented in 1969 -- to serve as a decentralized network that couldn't be brought down by a military attack," said Rogers Cadenhead, who said he set up the WTCattack list because most of the Web sites reporting news had ground to a halt. "Amateur news reporters on weblogs are functioning as their own decentralized media today, and it's one of the only heartening things about this stomach-turning day."
The mailing list is still archived on Yahoo, but I've never gone back and reread the early messages. The attacks brought a bunch of new bloggers into the medium who covered terrorism and Islamic extremism and favored an aggressive pre-emptive U.S. military response to the attacks. They soon were dubbed warbloggers, and among the most prominent were Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs and Andrew Sullivan.
Blogger Simon Owens is tracking the traffic of the 20 largest liberal and conservative blogs to see how they've fared since the election. The blogs have collectively dropped 109 million unique visitors from October 2008 to May 2009:
Right of center blogs weathered the post-election season a little better, falling only 37%, while blogs that were left-of-center fell by 64%.
Some blogs did better than others. Instapundit, for instance, was the only blog to show a slight increase in page views between the two months. Hot Air and Ann Althouse also saw a much less significant drop compared to all other blogs. Out of all the blogs surveyed, MyDD saw the most significant drop, with a decrease of 80% in pageviews.
There's always a slump after a presidential election as people who have been consumed with politics rediscover the rest of their lives, but Owens has found a dramatic difference in how liberal and conservative blogs have fared since the election. Partisan media tends to do better when its side is out of power, because that fuels more activism and passion than being in charge. Readership of The Nation doubled after the election of President Bush in 2000.
The Drudge Retort has dropped from 2.8 million unique visitors last October to 1.8 million last month. I was surprised to learn that the Retort has lost less of its audience than any other liberal blog tracked by Owens. The Retort's 36% drop is close to the average drop of conservative blogs.
I'm not sure why the Retort has suffered less of a post-election slump than Daily Kos, Washington Monthly and other liberal-leaning sites. One possible reason is that the Retort actively encourages conservatives and libertarians to contribute dissenting views, so some of those folks have stuck around to express opposition to President Obama and the Democratic-led Congress. I get bored with echo chambers, so I've tried to cultivate a more ideologically diverse audience than most political blogs.
Mel Cooley: "I didn't come here to be insulted!"
Buddy Sorrell: "Oh, where do you usually go to be insulted?"
Last month I called out Dave Winer for selling a paid placement in Radio UserLand that was never disclosed to his users. This sparked a tempest in a TechMeme in which Mike Arrington dropped the hammer on Winer, declaring that his credibility was permanently shot by the secret deal. I am now obligated, under enemy of my enemy is my friend rules, to extend to Arrington my warm hand of friendship. If we ever share a room at an overbooked Web 3.0 conference and the power goes out during a blizzard caused by climate change and the conservation of body heat becomes a necessity, I am not entirely hostile to spooning.
But I digress.
Winer has posted a public apology for not disclosing the paid placement:
About a month ago, Mike Arrington ran an article at TechCrunch about a deal we did at UserLand in 2002 with Adam Curry, to include his RSS feed in the set of default feeds for Radio 8.0.
Mike, who used to be my friend and my lawyer, and who believe it or not I still feel affection for, said about me: "Credibility = Shot. Permanently."
When I read that I felt like Mike was aiming an ethical bullet at my head. Luckily I was wearing my bullet-proof helmet that day. ;->
I wanted to let the accusations settle in before responding in detail. This really was between me and the users of my product, and possibly people who read my blog. After giving it some thought, I believe we should have disclosed that Adam paid us for inclusion in the OPML file, and we didn't. I apologize for that.
I explained further in a post on FriendFeed, earlier today.
The apology's the proper thing to do, so I'm passing it along. I find it curious that among all the responses on Scripting News and FriendFeed, there isn't a single person who thinks Winer has anything to be sorry for, while on TechCrunch the general consensus is that Winer's back-room shenanigans with a veejay bring shame upon his family for several generations.
If my blog ever became a place where I was universally admired, that would suck all the fun right out of it. Unlike Mel Cooley, I do come here to be insulted.
Warning: In order to find this blog entry exciting, you must have been on the web for at least 81 Internet years (nine in human reckoning).
A decade ago this July, the New York Times published a profile of Heather Anne Halpert, a charmingly offbeat writer sharing her stray thoughts and experiences on a blog. But nobody called them blogs back then, so reporter Katie Hafner had trouble explaining Halpert's site, which she described as an "intellectual layer cake." (If that name had caught on, we'd all be called cakers.) From Hafner's piece:
Once in a great while a Web site appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and casts a spell. Such is the case with Lemonyellow.com, an on-line intellectual diary that makes the reader want to dig deeper and deeper.
Ms. Halpert began the site, at www.lemonyellow.com, last April as a repository "for all of the ideas and ephemera that would otherwise pop off the top of my head and float away," she said.
Every evening, she writes down whatever may have crossed her mind or happened in the course of her day: a book she once read, like The Names of Things, by Susan Brind Morrow, or wants to reread, like Feminism and Deconstructio non, by Diane Elam; the surrealist poet and artist Georges Hugnet; her encounter with a scrap metal dealer, a design project she is working on. Whatever she writes that seems to lend itself to a hyperlink gets one.
Halpert's cake disappeared in April 2001 -- the domain's now a graphic design company in Miami -- but you can find some slices on the Internet Archive and an amusing piece quoted by the early blog Alamut:
It makes me howl when people assume this is me -- laid bare. I once had someone tell me, to prove a point, that she'd gone back through the archives and mapped my writing to specific personal events. It was hard not to laugh... Naturally. This is the extent of me. Exposed. You can turn me over and prod my soft spots, stick your fingers into my orifices and smell me. Each bit of what you think is my soul corresponds to a point on or in my body defined by three coordinates. Click here to browse them.
For years, I've wondered what became of Halpert, who renounced blogging so thoroughly she never turned up in Google searches. So I was pleasantly surprised today to discover that she's back, sharing her thoughts in a medium even more lightweight than blogs, Twitter, as BlurryYellow.
Roasted a big fat expensive homeschooled cloth diapered pastured market chicken only to realize I forgot to salt the privileged beast. Bleh. 1:35 PM Mar 24th from web
Today's babysitting blind date went well. Could a fiend in human form disguise herself as a sweet girl with a daffy duck notebook? Maybe. 4:45 PM Feb 19th from web
Interviewing a new babysitter in a few minutes. Sigh. Like a blind date, but in Spanish (her) and potato shaped house shoes (me). 1:35 PM Feb 18th from web
Google thinks I have ringworm. 3:34 PM Feb 16th from web
While on a trip to Washington D.C. last weekend I made my first visit to the Newseum, the museum of journalism that moved to Pennsylvania Avenue in 2008 after an extensive $450 million upgrade. The museum's $20 ticket is a lot when you can walk across the street to visit the Smithsonian for free, but as a J-school grad I spent around five hours engrossed in the six-story facility. Highlights include an emotional Pulitzer Prize photography exhibit, an exhibit on the Berlin Wall that features several sections of the wall alongside an actual East German sniper tower, and a 9/11 exhibit that includes the crumpled World Trade Center antenna. I didn't realize that it had survived the collapse.
One wall of the 9/11 exhibit displays dozens of newspaper front pages covering the attack. Headline writers had a hard time capturing the enormity of the event in the few words permitted by a ginormous font. The Boston Globe declared it a "New Day of Infamy," the Indianapolis Star called it a "Day of Death," and the San Francisco Examiner offered the lamest attempt of them all, the one-word exclamation "Bastards!"
I was curious to learn how the Newseum treated the touchy subjects of blogs and Matt Drudge, neither of which were likely to get much love from a place created by pro journalists to celebrate their own awesomeness. The picture atop this post was from a survey you could take. The next question was, "Do you read a news blog every day?" After I answered in the affirmative to both questions, I think I heard USA Today publisher Al Neuharth quietly weeping in an adjoining room.
A Blogger Scoops Big Media
Bloggers became a major force in campaign 2008. Mayhill Fowler, who blogs for the Huffington Post's "citizen-powered" Off the Bus web site, broke two stories during the campaign that sent reporters scrambling to catch up. Though critics panned her unconventional methods, her stories rocketed through the mainstream media. She captured Democratic nominee Barack Obama on tape saying that some "bitter" working-class voters "cling to guns or religion." She also taped Bill Clinton crudely insulting a reporter, sparking a backlash against Hillary Clinton's campaign. "Politicians need to learn that anyone can break news, and citizens who run into you ... can post it anywhere," said blogger Mary Katherine Ham.
The Newseum misspelled Ham's name and T.S. "Elliot" when quoting him in a film. There was no exhibit honoring the work of copy editors.
Blogs also were described in a recent-event timeline:
The Internet Explodes
Web logs, a new form of personal journalism, began to cover everything from computer programming to politics. Now known as "blogs," the constantly updated sites -- with links to other sites -- bypassed the traditional news media and gave individuals direct access to millions of Internet users. This cartoon (right) reflected the Web's growing popularity.
Let me be the first to express outrage at the glaring lack of credit for Dave Winer in that paragraph. The guy invented everything in those sentences except for popularity.
As for Matt Drudge, he got some love for stealing the Monica Lewinsky scoop that Newsweek spiked in January 1998, which "helped shift the balance between 'old media' and 'new media.'" I refuse to transcribe any more because Drudge's continued importance to the contemporary history of journalism crushes my spirit.
The Newseum has a TV studio where you can report a news story and watch the video. Because it has been too long since anyone asked me to be on television -- 1,398 days, 8 hours, 22 minutes and 18 seconds as of this post -- I paid $7 to shoot a story and take home the commemorative photo.
For Newseum Network News, I broke the exclusive that D.C. United was about to start a new soccer season. You're given around six seconds to vamp at the end before sending it back to network. My story, which you can see on the web, was way better than the one produced by the 10-year-old girl in the adjacent studio. Watch closely as I remain cool under pressure even though an errant ball nearly clobbers me.
This was the first time I ever used a Teleprompter, which completely removes the need to think about the words you are saying. I now know what I want for Christmas.
I really like Typepad and though I'm giving up things like custom .htaccess redirects for old posts and my old permalink URLs, I'm gaining things like the easiest to use posting UI available and most importantly, I'll never need to update any software by hand ever again.
It's been a long, frustrating week with several days spent trying to move off Wordpress (I was tired of my weblog app chiding me for upgrades every two weeks) followed by several days trying to get MT to work followed by brief experiments with Textpattern followed by giving up and finishing here.
I made the same journey, installing several weblog publishing programs on my server before throwing in the towel because of frequent security and feature updates. I finally decided last year to buy a $299 yearly subscription to TypePad that gives me unlimited hosted blogs, each of which can be published at its own domain, use guest authors, and employ advanced templates.
I'm still publishing Workbench with software that I wrote, but all new sites that I create begin as TypePad blogs. I love being able to turn an idea into a web site in five minutes, particularly when I'm creating sites with other people. Now, when I pester somebody I know to begin a blog, I fire up TypePad and create one for them to show how easy it is.
So far, I've only run into one area where using TypePad was problematic. The service makes it easy to incorporate content from other sites on a blog using widgets, but I couldn't find a widget for adding Google AdSense or any other ads to a blog. I had to put the ad code in a TypeList and give the list an empty title containing nothing but space characters (" ").
This workaround is awkward, because you end up with a bunch of no-title TypeLists containing ad code for different blogs. Finding the code later, when changes need to be made, will be an enormous pain in the ass.
Six Apart has been extremely responsive to new developments in blogging, adding new features to TypePad as they become popular in other publishing tools. It was one of the first companies to adopt the recommendations of the RSS Profile, such as including an atom:link element to identify a feed's URL.
... most people are not jerks. They just become losers when cloaked in anonymity. They say things they'd never say if confronted with the people they flame on discussion boards, in comments sections, etc. They're probably nice people "in real life." It's just on the web that they let it all hang out, to the detriment of the web and intelligent discussion.
Take the comments to one of my recent posts. The first is led off by "h3h" who apparently has no sense of humor (completely missing my point in the post), but can't leave it at that, then going on to lob ad hominems into his "argument."
"H3h" turns out to be Brad Fults. Judging from his Flickr feed and Twitter feed, he's probably an OK guy. He happens to be wrong in the way he chose to comment on this blog, but he's probably a well-intentioned person, normally.
Asay doesn't seem to understand the concept of anonymity. Fults' comments on CNET include a link to his web site, which contains his name and is presumably how Asay found it.
If you publish on the web and accept user comments, you're going to be a punching bag for a steady procession of dillweeds. Your choices are to stop taking comments, pick them off one by one like Asay, or just keep telling yourself you're a beautiful snowflake and soldier through it.
I'm paying Six Apart $300 a year for a premium subscription to TypePad, which gives me an unlimited number of multiple-author weblogs that can be hosted on my own domains. I recently decided to move Watching the Watchers to TypePad, because I'd like the site's writers to have a more friendly user interface, but I've run into a dealbreaker -- the software doesn't import the authors of blog entries. All 1,400 articles on the site are stored in my name.
TypePad is unable to import posts from different authors. If a post was created by a different author, it will be associated with the weblog's owner instead. This would require that TypePad create the authors during the import process and this feature is currently unavailable.
I can probably work around this by making each author a category, but that's a clumsy kludge, so I'm going to bang on Six Apart first and see if they might change this policy. I've opened up a support ticket and contacted some of my homies at the company.
It's funny what people reveal about themselves online. Read my blog for any length of time and you can probably figure out my uneasy Michael Corleone-like relationship with journalism, the field I majored in and subsequently escaped. I can't decide what to think about my long absence from the profession or the fact that I don't seem to be missed.
Read online marketing guru Hugh MacLeod, the guy who plies bloggers with a South African wine in the expectation they'll sing its praises, and you discover he's got a gigantic mean streak about middle age.
He then followed with another message: "Seriously. Frank Paynter. Go ---- yourself. And your Mean Kids friends. Stupid, middle-aged Losers. Enjoy."
This was at least the third time I've read MacLeod point out somebody's age in the course of insulting them, so I did a little checking on the Google. Contempt for middle age is one of his regular themes.
An art director I know was laid off from Ogilvy's in New York about 2 years ago. He's had a very hard time. His current situation is a total disaster. He's 40 years old. Before the layoff his career had been less than spectacular.
Forget to upstream and you end up like him: middle aged and crashing on a friend's couch in The Bronx.
Apparently these MeanKids folk were taking the occasional pop at me as well. Mommy! Mommy! Come quick! A posse of middle aged, self-loathing underachievers is being mean to me Boo hoo hoo hoo...
Watching the big Madison Avenue agencies trying to get with the program is a bit like watching a middle-aged married man hitting on a co-ed in a bar.
I had it in my head that MacLeod was young, but I think this impression was based solely on snarky comments like these. As someone who turned 40 this year and gray 10 years earlier, I've cultivated an appreciation for young people who sneer at quadragenarians in their dotage. Unlike racists and sexists, agists always get what's coming to them in due time.
But as it turns out, MacLeod's no spring chicken. He noted his 40th birthday in 2005 with this gloomy cartoon:
That snide young whippersnapper is one of my elders.
Tim Bray on Techmeme:
I go there and see the same stories about the RIAA and Paul Graham's latest essay and what Apple might be doing, the same stories that are on Slashdot and Ars Technica and boring old ZDnet too. Plus a smattering of whatever Scoble & Winer & Arrington & Calcanis and their posses are up to.
For all of the attention paid to the Techmeme leaderboard this week, the latest popularity contest for self-fascinated, high-traffic techbloggers, there hasn't been much scrutiny of the manner in which Gabe Rivera creates his site. Techmeme, which publishes a software-generated roundup of tech news based on links stories receive from favored sources, isn't entirely automated. Rivera begins with a "seed list" of hand-chosen sites, as he explained to Wired News earlier this year:
I do use lists of sources to help my system determine which sources to monitor. Essentially, I'm telling it to "find more sites like these." These aren't exhaustive lists, or even close to exhaustive, and therefore not "white lists." ...
The full set of sites it monitors is constructed automatically, and even changes in real time based on linking. A small "seeding" list I construct manually is used to help the system build the complete list.
Rivera's good at making it sound like an egalitarian discovery process is going on, but Techmeme isn't exactly Lewis and Clark heading off into uncharted territory with a blank piece of paper and a pencil. The site's About page breathlessly declares, "At this moment, the next big story in technology may reside on a blog you've never heard of or a news site you don't have time to scan." Or it may reside on Engadget and TechCrunch, sites discovered 42 times on Techmeme the past week alone.
The Techmeme I want is one that identifies the 100 most-linked sources in technology, then pretends they don't exist. Show me the blogosphere that would exist if Robert Scoble finished journalism school, Mike Arrington remained in the domain name trade, Jason Calacanis became a psychologist and I pursued a career in modern dance.
There's an element of democracy in Technorati rankings and Google pagerank, since they're based on incoming links and the rank of those linkers. TechMeme's leaderboard, on the other hand, is determined by the sites Rivera chooses for his seed list and the stories they link. If he published that list, I expect you'd find the same people and publications who end up on the leaderboard. What goes in one end comes out the other. If you put turkey between two slices of bread, you get a turkey sandwich.
BlogRush is viral -- your headlines appear more often based on how many hits, clicks and member referrals you attract. The site's just six days old, but the marketing gimmick's bringing the Orlando-based startup a ginormous amount of traffic. On Alexa, BlogRush has passed Slashdot and is threatening TechCrunch.
The BlogRush widget only displays the first 40 characters of a headline, including spaces, so a lot of the headlines it displays are cut off or misleading. Although the service suggests that you write headlines with this limit in mind, that's too much to ask. A better solution would be to create a BlogRush namespace for RSS, so publishers who wanted to write shorter headlines for the service could define them in their RSS feeds, like this:
<title>'Kid Nation' Contestants Rip Into President Bush</title>
<blogrush:title>'Kid Nation' Stars Rip President Bush</blogrush:title>
I've never found a widget I wanted to keep around for long, because their providers always have trouble ramping up servers fast enough to avoid slowing down the sites that belong to the networks. But some of the headlines BlogRush has found for the Drudge Retort widget have been interesting, which is either dumb luck or good context-based filtering. I'll follow up this post in a week or two with details on how much traffic BlogRush generated for my sites.
Bored with what his RSS reader has been feeding him, Kent Newsome is rebuilding his reading list from scratch using the recommendations of others. He's asked me to suggest five blogs, which is a good excuse to pimp some sites I follow that deserve a bigger audience.
Retrospectacle, a blog by neuroscience postgraduate student Shelley Batts, consistently finds great stories in science before the mainstream media. She won a blogging scholarship last year and answers questions I didn't realize I wanted to know, like why do fireflies bioluminesce?
Sharkbitten is Todd Smith's blog on Americana music, a genre of earthy, blues-inspired rock that claims Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Todd Snider and Tom Waits, along with Smith's own Doc Wheat. As someone who doesn't turn on the radio any more for fear I might hear music, I appreciate Smith's search for life beyond the monotonous same-song dreck on FM. He's also a fellow Jacksonville local whose wife is the Tiger Woods of kindergarten teachers.
James Robertson's Smalltalk Tidbits, Industry Rants has become one of my favorite tech blogs. Though he writes a lot about Smalltalk as part of his job as product manager for Cincom Smalltalk, and I no speaka the language, Robertson's an incisive observer of the tech industry who finds interesting nuggets on other sites without obsessing over every tiny tempest that gets the Underoos of other techbloggers all bunched up.
Self Made Minds by Al Carlton and Scott Jones covers how to make money publishing web sites. The subject matter is baldly mercantile, but it's not shady get-rich-quick stuff. There's a brisk business these days in buying fixer-upper web sites, improving them and selling them. If you'd like to figure out what your own sites might be worth and whether you're missing revenue opportunities, this is a good place to start.
Jeff Rients writes the best blog on the planet about roleplaying games and comics. Some people might shudder at that recommendation, but I spent every weekend during my teen years as a dungeon master -- and not the cool kind. Rients digs up obscure, bizarre and unspeakably horrible old games and comics, obsessing over things like the origin of the bulette and one panel of ROM SpaceKnight issue 24.
I could go on, because I've been engaging in my own effort to look outside the usual suspects for infotainment. But these five bloggers are a good start. To steal a favorite saying from Rients, everything they touch turns to awesome.
One of the best-known techbloggers was embarrassed Monday when he sent the following private e-mail and it was published by the recipient:
From what I gather so far (and info is incomplete), most of the cell phones in use by students at Virginia Tech, and the system they used as well (much more feature-rich than phones provided by big carriers, and user-programmable to boot) were provided by a company in New York run by my friend ... . I think what they're doing is critically important: helping the users help themselves and each other. And using this tragedy to create the phone systems we want, rather than what the carriers are willing to give us.
Though he backed away from this sentiment, for reasons that should be obvious, he can't deny thinking that the massacre might be a useful lever to get better phone services.
Not long ago, another prominent techblogger proclaimed that a new computer chip was more important than cancer, using a news story about an actual teen with cancer as his example:
... having cancer is important to that one person. Intel chips change the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Yesterday, a third techblogger's first take on Cho Seung-Hui's release of a multimedia manifesto was to claim him as a vlogger, a person who publishes video updates of his life as a blog.
The Virginia Tech shooter sent a package of video and pictures to NBC.
In other words, vlogging comes to mass murder, in ways no one anticipated (or no one I know).
It makes perfect sense, in a perfectly senseless way.
I've been a techblogger for a long time, hyping stuff that excites me about web publishing, programming and affiliated forms of geekery. But there ought to be subjects that are larger than their ability to sell cutting-edge technology, and I'm pretty sure that mass murder and childhood cancer are two of them.
Frank Paynter's getting his groove back after the Internet's long tail knocked him around like a stegosaurus. For all of the talk about how bad it is to be the focus of an angry mob, an angry Internet mob gums its prey rather than biting. Once you get used to the slobber it's not so bad.
Now that the horde's moved on to Tim O'Reilly and his stinking badges, Paynter's mocking the outrage brigade by quoting Karl Marx:
All this chorus of calumny, which the party of order never fail, in their orgies of blood, to raise against their victims, only proves that the bourgeois of our days considers himself the legitimate successor to the baron of old, who thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted in itself a crime.
The reaction of some of the Big-Fishes who owned these group blogs became defensive, arguing that they were being unfairly indicted for hate speech, which they weren't particularly accused of authoring. And that was when the story really got under my skin. All these Big-Fishes standing in line to say they wouldn't apologize for what they hadn't said, to decry Sierra's story as a black mark on their careers? Backing these Big-Fish, folks like Nick Denton and Rogers Cadenhead? I really would have hoped not.
I defended them because the mob was 99 and 44/100ths percent wrong. Once people had a compelling story -- mean web publishers drive female blogger into hiding with misogynistic death threats -- they never let go of it, because the facts were more complicated and less entertaining.