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Blog bonanza

Web logs, or blogs, are the personal pages that some say will change the way we communicate. But the digital diaries can range from insightful to insipid.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002


Web logs, or blogs, are the personal pages that some say will change the way we communicate. But the digital diaries can range from insightful to insipid.

RaeAnne Thompson keeps a diary, writing down her most personal and private thoughts almost daily. Then she posts them online for the world to see.

"It's a very strange, strange thing," Thompson, 21, said. "I had a lot of issues and feelings. I think it's more a form of therapy than anything else."

Her father died in January, and a few days later her fiance broke up with her. Thompson, a University of South Florida student from Spring Hill, turned to her lifelong love of writing to share her feelings on her Web log, or blog.

A blog is a personal Web page that some say will change the way people communicate online. Maybe so, but there are as many different types of blogs as they are different books on Amazon.com. And the writing can range from inspirational to insipid.

Blogs can be personal journals, such as Thompson's. Or they can be someone's opinions on the news of the day. They can be used for business (including sharing notes from meetings written as they happen). Groups with a common interest, such as computer geeks or journalists or fans of particular TV shows, can share information through blogs.

Most have links to other blogs, and many have the authors' opinions. While blogs have been around for a few years, Sept. 11 spawned new interest and a group called war bloggers, who share information and opinions about the war on terror. One of the trademarks of the blog is that they are made up mostly of short items, easy to write and supposedly easy to read.

In short, blogs can be anything bloggers want them to be.

"Everyone truly needs a place on the Internet that they can call their home page, a place where they reside," said John Robb, president and chief operating officer of Userland, which makes blog software called Radio. "It's space controlled by the individual. No one has the ability to publish counterarguments. You won it. You own the space."

E-mail to groups of people can be cumbersome, not to mention the potential of recipients mistaking it for spam. Bloggers can choose to invite responses and to post them, but they don't have to deal with the people who disrupt newsgroups with off-topic discussions and the often-obscene attacks known as flames. "If people are interested in reading what I'm thinking, it's passive," Robb said. "They can come or not. They can read at their convenience."

Blogs also are a lot easier to set up than a personal Web page used to be, when users had to learn coding and other tricks to set up their page. Most blogs can be set up for free.

Userland's Radio software costs $40 after a 30-day trial. (See review, page XX.) At Blogger.com, people can set up a basic blog without software and at no cost, or sign up for more elaborate bells and whistles for a $50 annual subscription.

About 500,000 people have started blogging, according to most estimates. Among the better-known bloggers is Web and software developer Dave Winer, who started his tech-oriented Scripting News blog in 1997 and calls it the longest-running blog.

Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, created InstaPundit, which has been called the "Grand Central Station of Bloggerville." It made a big splash Sept. 11, when it first reported a message on the Aryan Nations Web site congratulating the World Trade Center attackers. The site has evolved into a plethora of links and commentary on the day's news and media.

And there's Jim Romenesko's Media News, a daily collection of links to news about journalists and media personalities that appears on the Web site of the Poynter Institute (which owns the St. Petersburg Times).

The power of the blog comes from the fact that anyone can do it and use it for just about any purpose. John Mudd of Pinellas Park, for example, is trying to build a public relations and marketing business, with his blog as a key mechanism.

"You can easily spread the word very quickly using blogs," Mudd, 27, said. "They're a great publicity tool."

One thing that makes blogs powerful for building a business is the way the popular Google search engine works, zeroing in on Web sites that are updated often. Because blogs are updated frequently and often contain links to other sites, Google's software picks up on the content.

"Let's say I have a client who has a product, and they want to tell the world about the product," Mudd said. "Naturally, I want to get the product in traditional media, but sometimes that's harder to do than to get it listed on virtually every blog that's out there. Sometimes just put a little blurb on your blog, and it'll end up on 50 other blogs."

Mudd declined to name any of his clients but says the business has been building since he graduated from USF last year. He had hoped to land a regular job with an marketing agency, but those prospects seem dim in the current economy.

"I'm barely surviving," he said. "But, hey, at least I'm making money. I'm doing better than I thought I would have done."

Mudd had 74 "subscribers" who received e-mail updates that have since been discontinued. But he says the site goes beyond business. He says bloggers have developed a sense of community.

"It's almost like electronic gossip," Mudd said. "Because you can tell your friend about something, then they tell their friend. All of a sudden it's on Web logs all across the world."

Thompson, the Spring Hill blogger who shares her diary, hasn't had quite that reaction. An old friend found her blog and called, but not many people have discovered her writings. Her ex-fiance did, was not amused and threatened to sue. She was undeterred.

"The issue comes up in almost every single diary" online, Thompson said. "Why am I doing this? It's because, at one point, you always tell yourself I'm doing it for me. I'm not doing it for anybody else."

She finds it fascinating to read other blogs -- "It's definitely a way of seeing what's out there" -- and to work on her writing.

"I think it's a very empowering thing," Thompson said. "For someone who wants to be a writer, just to have someone read my stuff, it's an ego boost."

Jamie Jackson of Tampa discovered blogs just by exploring the Web.

So Jamie's Crazy, Hectic Life blog was born. "It got started and it kind of blossomed," Jackson, 42, said. She wrote this about blogging:

"It's a release, isn't it? Then, maybe someone will read this and know they are not alone. That I, too, have a husband who is a workaholic, that I, too, have teenager problems, that I, too, am a nut case."

In 1997, she won an Achievement Against the Odds award from the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise for overcoming problems that included drug addiction and serving time for dealing in stolen property.

"I don't have anything worth keeping a secret," Jackson said. "When I first started (the blog), I was still drinking. I've had other problems in the past. I had some really huge problems with my drinking. I almost lost my job. I shared that on there."

She laughs easily now about her blog and the friends she has made online and knows that maybe what she has to say will help someone else.

"No matter where you live, we're all just human beings," she said. "We have the same fears, the same problems. We just help each other. And by sharing, that helps."

-- Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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