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Monday, April 21, 2008

BLOG READING 101

"The influence of blogging is overall a very positive force in the media."
-Garrett M. Graff

For most readers this will be at least largely old news, but there are always new people coming to blogs that haven't seen one or read very many and there might be something new you haven't seen here.

WHAT IS A BLOG?
The word blog comes from a corruption of the words "Web Log" which is simply an internet version of a diary or something like the "Captain's Log" on Star Trek. Blogs are a series of personal thoughts, reflections, links, and recommendations by the writer or writers of the site. No matter how big or obscure the blog, they all follow the same basic pattern. A blog is much like a diary or a series of essays and reviews by someone, a sequence of short (or, in some cases full length) opinion articles on events of the day such as news, what happened at work, and so on. Some blogs have a single writer such as Word Around the Net where I do all the work, some have dozens of writers who all contribute.

Blogging has become very popular because they represent a useful way for people with opinions to reach out to others as well as a manner of gathering information and analysis on events that is more varied, often more related to your perspective. Christians can find blogs with a Christian worldview and analysis, atheists can find theirs, liberals can find theirs, and so on. This is not, for most, a question of reinforcing their viewpoints, but of finding information and thoughts on events that share their perspective and add new thoughts and analysis. Blogs will cover news and events that the legacy (old, outdated) news sources such as newspapers and television broadcasts either do not have the time or do not have the inclination to discuss.

In 2004 blogs became semi famous for exposing a fraud on a major network news show. Dan Rather anchored a spin off of 60 minutes in which a memo alleging that President Bush in the early 70s was AWOL from the Texas National Air Guard, with complaints by his commanding officer. Blogs such as Little Green Footballs and Power Line pointed out problems with the memo until it became clear that it was a forgery, a poorly-crafted fake that CBS to this day insists was essentially true. The blogs were so good at what they did, pulling in expert opinion and quality analysis that even the legacy media began to report on the memo and the story fell apart.

It was at this point that blogs truly began to take off; they were popular before, they exploded in number and popularity from that point on. All major news sites have blogs now, several more popular bloggers have won full time mainstream news work (such as the Wonkette), and the Daily Kos (the biggest left wing blog on the internet) has a yearly convention that attracts presidential candidates, congressmen, and celebrities.

Yet for someone reading a blog for the first time, some of the standard features and idioms may be a bit confusing. So here is my guide on how to read blogs and what to look for on a site.

WHERE AM I?
This is the easiest part: the address window on your browser tells you the part of the internet you've gone to, above it will be the title of the page such as Word Around the Net
in this case, and the top of the blog will tend to have a large and ostentatious banner declaring the name of the blog, such as my picture of the world at night and all the little flags. These banners and the blog layout are trying to help you remember and like what you see, so that you will return.

THE POST
For most readers, this is the most important part: the blog entries. This is why you might have arrived at Word Around the Net; to read an article you found linked in a search engine, or saw a link to elsewhere, or were sent in an email. Each blog will have several of these on the front page. I try to write 3-6 articles a day with a quote to start things off, some blogs have more, many have fewer.

The top article of the website is usually the most recent, and will typically have the date on it. The articles below that one are in descending order going back in time when they were posted. As I usually start with a quote of the day, that is the lower most article written on a given day. My blog is set up to display three days of articles at most. Others will have differing amounts, but most try to limit the amount that is displayed at a time in order to speed loading time.

Here is an image of an article from Word Around the Net: if you have tabs in your browser, you might want to open it in a tab so you can see the full size picture (if you aren't sure, click on the image with the middle button on your mouse that's like a wheel, push down on it, if you have one. That will open the picture up in a tab on your browser if it can, so you can jump between the picture and this article).

Sample Page
There are ten elements on this article I'd like to point out so you can be an expert blog reader, lettered A through J.

A is the title of the piece, like a headline for a newspaper. This is the easiest way to search for a given article on a blog and largely determines the way the article is stored on the internet (it affects the address with all that http and slashes up at the top of your browser). For some blogs, if you click on the title, you get a page with only that article - that is the permalink of the blog entry; the way to get to that article alone every time rather than the whole blog. If you want to copy off the address to send or link, the permalink is how you do it. On Blogger, which hosts Word Around the Net, the title is just a title. For some reason I started doing all my articles in all CAPITAL LETTERS and it has become a habit.

B is a tagline. Few blogs do this, but I like it: this is just a quote or line from a song that gives a feel for and an introduction to the article as a whole.

C is an update. Not very many entries will have this feature, it can be a lot of different thngs. Often, the update represents a mistake the author made (such as spelling someone's name wrong, a fact that was in error, an attribution that was a mistake, and so on). Blogs are good at this, updating sometimes within minutes of being posted to clarify and point out a correction. It keeps the writer honest and the readers informed. In this case, the update is an additional bit of information written after the article was done. I found out that writer Mark Steyn had linked to my site and thus I wanted to welcome readers and suggest they check out the rest of Word Around the Net.

D represents a portion of the main article. This section introduces a news source and gives a link to the original article. (In case you're really new to the internet, a link is a section of text or an image that you can select with your mouse and click with the left button to go to that web page. They are a different color than the rest of the text, often underlined and usually blue). Think of links as footnotes or endnotes in a book: they are reference sources you should check if you want to know the whole story and usually are worthy of reading separately.

E is a block quote. This is a method of setting apart text, usually a quotation, so that it is distinct from the rest of the text. In this case, the quote is from the news story I linked. On some blogs this has a different background color or even a special graphic like a post-it note or a torn piece of newspaper. Block Quotes let you know that you're usually reading something written by someone other than the blog author or something special they wanted to highlight.

F is a feature that some blogs have which can be missed or ignored. The READ MORE in this case (it varies by blogs) is like a newspaper that says "continued on A-24" or a magazine that directs you to another page to finish the article, or perhaps like a newspaper that has the article completed under the fold. It indicates that there's more coming (usually a lot more) if you click here. Clicking on this link opens up the full article to reveal the rest of the story without going to a separate page. This article has just such a feature below, try it:

At this point we get to the footer of the article, a bundle of information at the bottom.

G indicates the writer, most blogs have something like this, but some are completely anonymous. Everything on Word Around the Net (WATN) has been written by me so far, but some blogs as I mentioned above have many writers. This is like the "dateline" of a newspaper article.

H is the timestamp (in the writer's local time) for when the article was finished, which on the internet acts as a sort of copyright. For Blogger and other blogs, this is the permalink mentioned above in A. Click on this and you get just the article. Most of my work is done before noon my time, in Oregon.

I is the comments link. this is one of the most important parts of a blog, and one that is largely ignored or missed. Not all blogs have comments, some have few (such as WATN), some have dozens or hundreds on each post. The comments are feedback by readers, a discussion by people like you about the topic of the article, the news of the day, and so on. At its best, comments are an invaluable resource, adding more information, expert analysis, local tips from the event, and intelligent, insightful opinion on the original blog article. This kind of commentary is often better than the original article. I encourage you to read comments to any blog article you liked, and especially to add your own: bloggers love to hear from their readers (unless they are obnoxious and offensive), and other readers are interested in what you have to say. Don't miss this part of the blogging experience.

J is the final aspect, links to the blog. This indicates what other sites linked to this article, often with a short excerpt of the linking blog entry. This enables readers to see what other writers and bloggers had to say about the same story, and can create a chain of reading, jumping from site to site to get more thought, analysis, information, and opinion on a news story or event. Blogger is a bit limited how it can gather links unfortunately (that is its one major weakness) but it's free, so what can I say?

Now we come to the rest of the blog. Most blogs, such as WATN, have sidebars with additional information and areas of interest in them. In descending order on my blog, here are the main elements:

PERSONAL INFORMATION
InformationThis section is on most blogs, sometimes given as ABOUT ME or something similar. This gives some information about the writer or writers of the blog, and clicking on it will give more data in most cases. Usually there is a picture of some sort (I picked one of me at 10 years old so I'd seem more harmless and harder to hate).

WATNFAQThe WATN FAQ is just below the personal information. This is not on all blogs, but it is a useful section that explains certain aspects of the blog. FAQ stands for "frequently asked questions" which is a stretch in my case, few people asked the questions, but the term has become standard for any list of explanation. If you have any other questions or thoughts about this blog specifically, thats where to look.

This section is the Archives of a blog, there is another section further down with the older archives (listed by month and year). This tells you the most recent posts that have been put on the blog, and the older archives have every post that has been on a given blog. Some blogs are so old they have the archives in a separate location and some have the archives only in searchable form, so you can find a given article but cannot simply look by dates.

EssaysMany blogs will have a "best of" section in which they put their most popular, most-linked, and the work they consider their best effort in an easy to find section such as on a side bar. For me, this is the Weekend Essays section which is largely made up of special long-form posts that I do on Saturdays, although more infrequently as of late. This section allows you to look at the greatest hits of a blog in a glance, and if you like what you've read in a blog I recommend looking at other articles that writer has available and considers their best.

blogrollsFinally, there are the blogrolls. These aren't a tasty baked good, they are lists of other sites that this blog considers worth reading or favorites they like to check out. Often these come in the form of organized rolls such as the 101st Fighting Keyboardists, the American Flag League, and the Moronosphere, all of which which I'm part of. These are groups of like-minded or similarly-themed blogs that are combined under a single heading. Some of these can be quite long, and usually by clicking on the picture you can access a list of the related blogs and what their theme is.

At WATN, I list the 12 last blogs I've linked to in a continually updating, rolling list. Some day I plan on compiling all of these blogs, which number in the hundreds, but that's for another day. This simply is another nod to the sites I linked to so that people can look at them specifically.

That's a blog, in a nutshell. Next time you read a blog, if you've gone over this and it made any sense, you should be able to enjoy the content much more and not miss anything that you should see. Happy blogging!

For the 201 class (Advanced Blog Reading) check out Jeff Goldstein's thoughts on Blog Grammar at Protein Wisdom.
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