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The art of the blog

Anyone can create a weblog, but how many are any good?

A year ago, you probably never heard the word blog. Today, you’re practically sick of it.

A blog is, of course, a weblog–an online journal featuring instant updates and reader comments. If you like to surf, you probably visit places like Andrew Sullivan, Romenesko’s Media News, or Doc Searls. There are, at last count, more than 100,000 of them. For a list of weblogs that have been amended in the last 30 minutes, go to a whole site devoted to them–there were 640 when I looked.

Blogging was founded on two principles: that every person has something to say, and that free Internet software like Blogspot and Movable Type (and commercial packages like Radio Userland) can make anyone into an online commentator in about two minutes.

I used to think I was two times a blogger, because: 1. I posted my articles and columns on my Web site and 2. I e-mailed select items using a free Listserver provided by Topica.

But neither of those things are blogging, quite. A weblog is neither a scrapbook nor an e-mailed newsletter. A proper weblog is about something, presents current Web-based information with every post, and is readable from a single URL.

It is more than “Hey, look at me.” It must include: “Hey, look what I found,” with links to items of interest. And it must be easy both to write and to read.

Eventually I started an real blog. No one much visits it, but it’s still been a terrific playpen in which to entertain ideas. It’s like keeping a diary in public. The eyes of the world–all one dozen of them in my case–are just enough to push me to do clean work.

Blogging can be about anything, from the latest action movies to Yugo repair to Polish poetry in translation. Too often, however, it is about nothing at all, or playing footsie with one’s own psyche.

So is blogging a good thing? I would compare it to the advent of instant photography in the ’70s. Suddenly, everyone and his Aunt Elmer were snapping group portraits and baked hams, then standing around for five minutes waiting for the picture to form. Excellent for the Polaroid Co. (R.I.P.), but generally not a flowering of great art.

Well, you can create a blog in less time than it takes for a Polaroid to develop. Simply craft an opening message using a program like Blogger or Xanga, hit Submit, and your blog goes up in a second or two–and unlike analog snapshots, it is eminently editable. In fact, it will make you a better editor overnight.

My friend Max insists that blogging is still in its infancy, that it has the potential to be much more than a personal diary, that you could make money doing one. How? By marrying a personal approach with a topic people are deeply invested in. His example is Romenesko’s Media News, a journalist’s hangout attached online to the Poynter Institute’s Web site.

Now, I happen to know that Romenesko, a former colleague, isn’t getting rich from his daily log, which he must rise at 4 a.m. each morning to compile. But Poynter, which puts on classes in advanced journalism studies, benefits greatly from the traffic Romenesko generates. Match a well-heeled cause with an energetic ringmaster like Romenesko, and you’ll really have something.

I see that online news organizations have recently turned not to “yet-another-columnist” for provocative comments but to bloggers whose personalities and passions are natural eyeballs attractants: Eric Alterman at MSNBC, Joe Conason at Salon, and Mickey Kaus at Slate.

Beyond the news business, successful weblogs in the future will be those that generate traffic and street credibility for institutions in need of some. Webloggers who want to find a place for themselves need to find partners whose market needs mesh with their entrepreneurialism.

It’s not a tough exercise: Identify organizations whose work might benefit from the presence of an engaged, engaging, independent personality. The recording industry. The local library. Linux. The Department of Homeland Security.

I’m thinking that’s what Ralph Nader’s many public interest organizations could use–an ombudsman-by-blog. Someone fiery, funny, and impossible to ignore. Probably not Ralph himself.

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