Currently browsing 'blogging'

Perspective

Posted on 18 June 2009 at 12:10 am in Musings.

In an early post on The Pinakes I featured a photo I had taken of the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. This photo also serves as the desktop image on my home computer and the backdrop for The Pinakes twitter feed.

The NYPL recently featured a blog post featuring archival photos of its iconic reading room, and I was pleased to see a photo from almost the exact same perspective as the one from my picture taken a year ago.

The original blog post, entitled “The Historical Perspective” is well worth a read and can be found here.

Moving movable type

Posted on 4 February 2009 at 5:14 pm in Coursework.

The established barriers of the modern publishing industry did not exist in the early days of printing. Nowadays, a novelist has little or no say in the jacket design or typeface — that’s left to the marketing team, who hire graphic artists, typesetters, and other subcontracters to perform the tasks. Infamously, many cover artists haven’t even read the book they are designing for, leading to some oddly innappropriate covers.

Amongst early printers, that wasn’t always the case. The workshops of the Estienne Family, a Parisian print house, were notable for the involvement of their authors.  Charles Estienne, a doctor and brother to master printer Henri, not only wrote books for publication, he personally carved the woodcut images to accompany the text. For example, he published one book on all the known fish of the world, and personally set the typeface and illustrated it:

Oronce Finé, a French astronomer and mathematician not only drew the woodcut print illustrations that accompanied his books (among them the influential work De Mundi Sphaera), he also designed the typeface.

Now, it’s certainly the case that with ready-made blogger, WordPress and LiveJournal templates anyone who “can type a sentence…can probably use a blog” (Farkas, pg. 12). But in many ways we find ourselves back in Estienne’s workshop, with the opportunity to tinker with the typography ourselves. A dedicated blogger isn’t merely a writer; they need to develop an eye for graphic design, choose a look from amongst a slew of templates, tweak the designs to their liking, or develop their own. They need to pay attention to things like column width, consider links, directories, archives, trackbacks, etc. It goes well beyond writing. While many contemporary published authors are no doubt relieved to leave such technical details in the hands of professionals, the amateur blogger has more leeway — and there is a certain democratizing beauty to that.

The Elements of a Successful Blog

What is success? How can it be defined?

Meredith Farkas’ book, Social Software in Libraries, makes the point that the term “blog” is used to describe completely different uses. For example, the Becker-Posner Blog (the joint project of a federal judge and award winning economist) and a “blog written by a teenage girl about her personal life” both qualify (Farkas, pgs. 11-12). The goal of one and the other are vastly different; the number of readers, the nature of comments (or if comments are even allowed), the content provided. So when we talk about blogging, we’re really talking about a set of technology tools, not a style of writing.

Farkas describes a number of the usual elements: archives of past posts by date or category; dated, timestamped entries; permalinks to individual posts; reverse-chronological postings (the most recent post at the top); and a two- or three-column format. Some blogs encourage comments, provide search features, or trackbacks to allow the administrator to find links to his or her post (Farkas, 11-13). A number of these features are included as standard options on popular services like blogger, Wordpress or LiveJournal.

Farkas divides blogs into three categories: filters, personal journals, and knowledge logs, but I believe just three categories is inadequate for the range of what can be found — even just within the “biblioblogosphere”. But for now, let’s accept this definition of a blog and move on to the question at hand: success.

Measuring Success

When my wife and I created our baby blog, our goal was to post periodic updates on her pregnancy and childbirth and the life of our daughter. We wanted our immediate friends and family to know how we were doing as a family, and create a chronicle of her life in the process. Two and a half years on, we don’t have more than 20-30 readers per week. Each post generally garners between 2-5 comments. But for us, that is success! We look back on old posts to reminisce. Family members will mention in conversation things they saw on our blog, or save some of the photos we post. That blog has achieved its goals.

Any blogger starting out should contemplate their goals and vision for their blog: are they trying to relay information, develop a community, make a profit, or write a memoir? How many readers make it successful? Is it for friends and family, or do you hope to shape a professional field? Only with these answers in hand can you set about meeting your goals.

Achieving Success

There are plenty of sites that will tell you what to do or not do with your blog. Raj Dash’s post “41 Reasons Your Blog Probably Sucks” is focused on blogging for profit and suggests you stay away from the overly personal*. In contrast, Write to Done’s “12 Essential Blogging Tips” kicks off with “write from the heart”, telling the writer to use personal examples in their writing. What to make of this?

*As an aside, I found Dash’s blog, Performancing, a marvel of poor visual design that breaks at least several of his 41 rules. Well, I guess design is a subjective thing.

Here are my own subjective suggestions, culled from their lists and from others:

  • Keep it interesting by using a thematic connection (even as format and subject varies).
  • Make it personal — without navel-gazing.
  • Post regularly.
  • Provide links to useful or interesting sites or information.
  • If you want a wide audience, promote, promote, promote.

Reference: Farkas, M.G. (2007). Social software in libraries. Medford: Information Today, Inc.

Printing Press 2.0

Posted on 3 February 2009 at 9:44 pm in Coursework.

There are few analogies more overplayed than the “internet-is-the-new-printing-press” metaphor. But there is a reason for its popularity.

A slim recap of the history: the advent of the printing press is widely credited as one of the most profound shifts in all history, not just the history of information.  Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, developed a movable type press that within a generation or two had largely replaced the centuries old tradition of hand-scribed codices.

The earliest books, or incunabula, were designed to look like handwritten books: typefaces resembled the calligraphic curves of monks and scriveners, and featured large, hand-colored “rubricated” letters to signal paragraph shifts. In time printers began to shift away from the traditions of hand-written books — traditions simply uneccessary in printed books — and started to develop simpler, easier to read typefaces and layouts. This made printing less expensive, more replicable, and soon presses existed in every major European city. In addition to German printers, the Venetian and Parisian press had substantial influences (the term italic is derived from an obvious source … Italy).

Books and other printed materials exploded in production and popularity, and literacy began to rise as a result. The course of history, faith (the press played a major role in the Reformation) and industry all changed, and centuries later the notions of the free press and pamphleteers would be essential to the birth of democracy. A direct line can be drawn.

It is quite obvious — more now than ever — that the internet is not merely a medium for words or even just information. It is a mechanism for communication, for commerce, distribution — there is at least some form of every intellectual human activity represented in online technology. Just as the domino effect of the printing press altered world history, so to has the internet.

Self-publishing

We each have a Johannes Gutenberg waiting at the tips of our fingers. Anyone can create a blog or simple webpage using free, online tools with little to no knowledge or undertstanding of HTML or programming language. Because of cloud computing, a computerless person can sign-up for a blog at an internet terminal in the San Francisco Public Library, then post and publish from a beachside internet café while traveling in Koh Lanta. A password is all they would need to pack.

For the initiate blogger, there are a few competing services that offer one-click publishing. Here are three of the most popular:

  • Google’s blogger — free and easy-to-use, blogger offers a couple dozen templates (although html savvy users can design their own or tweak the basic models). Anyone with a google account (such as gmail) already has a blogger login.
  • San Francisco-based LiveJournal operates on a platform called “Movable Type” (a tip of the cap, of course, to Herr Gutenberg and his movable type printing press). LiveJournal stands out for its excellent friends or “flist”  feature that promotes community blogging. A user can cultivate a group of friends, and by clicking on their “friends” button, read an automated RSS feed of all of their friends’ blogs from within their own blog’s template.
  • WordPress differs from these two competitors in that, like the Firefox internet browser, it is developed with Open Source, not proprietary, software. The WordPress user has two options: using WordPress.com to host their blog and accept some limitations on the software and usage, or go to WordPress.org and download the software and host it via a third party. The differences are explained here.

The Pinakes is part of an educational project and therefore hosted by the San José State’s School of Library and Information Science. It was designed using WordPress.org technology.

Using the downloadable WordPress service confers some definite advantages over the WordPress.com offerings: hundreds more highly customizable templates, plugins and extensions that allow for a more powerful, robust website or blog. For instance, The Pinakes makes use of the Sun City theme, not available on WordPress.com.

I chose Sun City because the distinctive header echoes the transitional arc of civilization I hope to invoke in the blog — discussing “papyrus to pdf”. I also appreciate the dark contrasting colors and bold design.  Hundreds of templates are free to browse at WordPress.org’s theme directory. Once a theme is downloaded from WordPress and uploaded to your server, you can switch one in and another out with a few simple clicks — though some themes support features that others don’t, so be wary if you’re trying this yourself.

Take a look at what The Pinakes might look like under different skins: Less is Less, Random Background, or WordPress Classic.

Buzz

Publishing? Via blogger, LiveJournal or Wordpress it is relatively easy. Gutenberg’s ghost is satisfied. The true challenge in blogging is dissemination. Sure — anyone can look at your blog, but will they? Amidst the clutter and noise of five million blogs (Farkas, pg. 11) and assorted websites, who will read your offerings? The majority of search engine queries are one word long. Is there any one word that will lead a reader to your blog off of a search engine? Unlikely.

So the real trick isn’t getting “published”. It’s getting noticed. Every blog has its own target audience — not everyone is angling for thousands of readers — but even then your niché can be hard to find. If search engines aren’t the answer, promotion is. A push. Developing buzz. To experiment with the “buzz” tools of the day, I’ve installed the Sociable Plugin. This is a tool that creates a set of buttons at the bottom of each post’s page that allows a reader to import that post or page into facebook, delicious or other networking websites seamlessly (for instance, anything I post on facebook is immediately exposed to 209 other people.  What happens if 2-3 of them post it as well?). The so-called “viral marketing” that can result from an endless chain of individuals forwarding a link (at no cost to the original source) is the holy grail of online promotions.

To install Sociable, I downloaded the plugin from the WordPress site and, much like the templates, uploaded it through SJSU’s Senna server. Now my task is to write posts that inspire you to share them.

Reference: Farkas, M.G. (2007). Social software in libraries. Medford: Information Today, Inc.

Top