I’m a writer — at least I’d like to think so. I write about a variety of topics, and like any other writer, the more interested I am in the topic, the easier the words flow. I’m always searching for the right word or the appropriate sentence structure. I write because I have something to say, a story to tell.
Writers love attention in one form or another. We choose an audience and cater our words to it. Sometimes it’s a small crowd, and other times we try to impress the entire world. Traditionally writers write, and readers read. In the past few years, though, that trend has changed with the growing use of blogs.
A blog, a combination of the words “Web” and “log,” is essentially an Internet site where the content is a series of journal-like entries organized in chronological order with the most recent entry appearing at the top of the page. Blogs are part of the fundamental shift – often called “Web 2.0” – in the use of the Internet. The Web has gone from a one-way information source (i.e. someone else posts content, you view it) to a forum of content based on human connections (i.e. someone else posts content, you view it and post more content). In essence, the Internet gets better, and more complex, with more users.
The Internet is now dominated by user-driven sites. Prime examples include social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace; media-sharing sites such as Flickr and YouTube; and, of course, blogging sites such as Blogger and LiveJournal. The common thread between all of these sites is the users create and maintain the content. That user-driven structure, not the content of the blog itself, creates the essence of a blog.
“Blogs vary from extremely professionally done media sites written by professional journalists to Grandma Edna telling about what her cat did this weekend,” said Ethan Watrall, a telecommunication, information studies and media professor who has integrated blogs into the classes he teaches. “There are as many kinds of blogs out there as there are people blogging. The hallmark of blogs is that they can be very personal to one individual, or they can be very corporate.”
Web logs, which Watrall said began in the late ‘90s, used to be just what they sounded like: a log of people’s Web activity. They would be lists of sites – along with commentary about them – that people found interesting. Blogs have become prominent as more opportunities for people to voice their opinions, often about current issues with link to other blogs. Technorati, which keeps tabs on nearly 72 million blogs, tracks these links and monitors the ever-changing trends of Internet activity through the interconnections of bloggers.
In Technorati’s most recent State of the Blogosphere report, Dave Sifry, founder and CEO of the site, summarized the trends of the blogosphere. He estimated that about 100,000 new blogs are created every day and that users create more than 1.3 million posts daily. The number of posts, furthermore, often spike in reaction to world events, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Israel/Hezbollah conflict. The blogosphere’s attention to current events has created a unique news source for those who live on the Web.
“There are people who use blogs as a filtering tool to highlight information that would be of interest to them on the Web, saving them time and effort of sifting through this information,” said telecommunication, information studies, and media assistant professor Nicole Ellison, who worked with Watrall to co-found Blogs for Learning, an online resource for those interested in the use of blogging in an educational setting. “In a sense, they’re finding a few blogs where the authors share their interests and using that as a gateway to the rest of the Web.”
The fickle and editorial nature of the blogs – and the Internet, in general – has always been a point for skepticism in terms of dependence on them as informational sources. With such little control and regulation of online content, the reader must be aware of what he is reading, especially as news sources.
“There’s always going to be a credibility issue with online information,” Ellison said. “But by the same token, there have cases with traditional media where there have been credibility lapses (such as The New York Times scandal involving Jason Blair). I think that people are a little more skeptical when they are assessing the information in blogs, and that’s probably a healthy thing, as opposed to traditional media, where there’s maybe an assumption that the information is credible, but that’s not always the case. In some sense, that’s an even more dangerous situation.”
The evolution of technology and the Internet have made it very easy for average people to become bloggers. In only a few minutes, someone can set up a new blog and post to his heart’s delight about any topic he chooses. Blog topics range from the typical personal diary to niche subjects such as the lowercase “l”. Blogs are not all about the writers, though. Through the use of comments, readers get a chance to react to the entries – creating a sense of community within the blogosphere.
“The reader has a voice,” Watrall said. “It creates a far more community atmosphere as opposed to a passive situation where news comes straight from the source and you just digest it. The community aspect creates a feedback and sense of community that is lacking in traditional news. With traditional media, you don’t get to speak, so a lot of people are turning to these sources.”
Both Ellison and Watrall have tried to bring this sense of community into their classrooms. Each of them uses blogs to facilitate and stimulate discussion about certain topics. The blogs, set up so that each student can contribute to the collective content of posts, allow a more open forum for discussion for topics that might not fit into the time allotted for class. Because of the freedom of the blogs, students can bring in outside information that would be – while interesting – less relevant and less appropriate for the classroom setting.
“Classroom blogs give the opportunity for people to contribute where they might not necessarily have been comfortable to contribute in a very large classroom,” Watrall said. “Someone can find a voice on the blog where they might not necessarily have a voice in the classroom. I gauge the successfulness of my use of blogs on the posts that students make that have nothing to do with the assignments.”
“I’ve also allowed (my students) to write about whatever interests them, as long as it has some relationship to the content of the course,” Ellison said. “That’s a really interesting way to find out about resources and information that they’ve encountered. Hopefully, students will start to dialogue with one another through the site.”
The natural evolution of blogs has made author-reader interaction more and more personal. Part of the appeal of blogs is they give readers a sense of connection to the author on a personal basis. One way blogs have aimed to increase this personal interaction over the past couple years is through video blogging, or aptly known as vlogging.
“The main difference (between traditional blogging and video blogging) is that it’s a lot more accessible,” said Justin Johnson, the site owner of Vidblogs.com where users create blogs that have video entries as their main content. “A lot more people watch TV than read. It’s a lot more immediate medium. You can immediately get a sense of a person. You see mannerisms. You see how they talk. You see their room. By virtue of that and the deeply personal (aspect), it becomes more compelling than simple type.”
Vlogging can be a more efficient way of conveying information and personal connections because the idea is much simpler than writing: sit down in front of a camera and talk. The audio/visual aspects of vlogs also opens up new entertainment opportunities that written text cannot provide, such as music content and short vignettes. Johnson started vlogging while he was in San Diego in late 2003 and found there was a community of vloggers, but there was no organization and online videos were a mess.
“A couple months later, I realized there wasn’t any real repository for all these people doing these video blogs,” said Johnson, whose site has more than 500 active vloggers. “I wanted to create a home for that community.”
The accessibility to these videos is the main difference between vlogs and video hosting sites such as YouTube and Google Video. The infrastructure of YouTube, for example, is such that the user must go out and find the content, which is often inefficient. YouTube has recently exploded in terms of popularity, especially among college students. Anybody with digital footage can upload a video and showcase it for the whole YouTube community: the content can range from weird fish to reckless activities, and the images can be grainy or shaky. In contrast, people who have found a vlogger with similar interests can depend on that person producing quality content in the same place.
“YouTube is such a mess,” Johnson said. “There’s no quality control. If someone’s doing their own videoblogging – and they’re good – you can always go right to the source. It’s an element of voyeurism: people are always going to be interested in other people. It’s a matter of finding someone and attaching to that personality. But it definitely takes talent, and to find these people with talent isn’t always the easiest thing.”
The quality of vlogging – like that of any other medium on the Internet – can vary greatly mainly because of the technical demands of vlogging. Quality video blogs are more time-consuming and labor-intensive than the written blogs of comparable authority.
“You can have a dude in his basement having an interview with his cat or something really slick and high-def, so production costs could be a concern,” Watrall said. “Also, digital video is larger in file size (than a text blog), and as a result, you require more bandwidth to distribute it…and host it. Bandwidth costs.”
Johnson believes the straightforwardness and simplicity of vlogs is the main reason for such a strong connection between the viewers and the vloggers. Maybe news companies could take a hint from them.
“The biggest benefit is more personal interaction,” he said. “It’s better than the flashy interaction (of some news outlets). Keep it simple. Keep it genuine. It will attract more views. Convey the truth in a way that isn’t too pompous or way too over the top. It might be a way for big companies to regain some credibility.”
The Internet is flooded with upstart bloggers, but the blogosphere, while an intangible entity, continues to be a strangely reliable way to keep a finger on the pulse of the world. Things in the world are always changing, and the Internet – which we control – morphs with it. We just have to find the right words and pictures to describe it.

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