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From time to time, I’m going to try to give an overview of one broad new-media topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and hopefully consider participating in some way — even if it’s all new to you. The first topic is the one I’m asked about most: blogging.

What Is a Blog?

Many people have heard of blogs but don’t know exactly what they are. And if you ask Google to define blog, you get a lot of different answers.

But let’s keep it as simple as possible: “Blog” is short for weblog or web log, which is a frequently updated online journal that shows entries in reverse chronological order. I particularly like the very casual definition of a blog given by Blogger, the blog software service owned by Google:

A blog is a personal diary. A daily pulpit. A collaborative space. A political soapbox. A breaking-news outlet. A collection of links. Your own private thoughts. Memos to the world. Your blog is whatever you want it to be. There are millions of them, in all shapes and sizes, and there are no real rules.

In simple terms, a blog is a website, where you write stuff on an ongoing basis. New stuff shows up at the top, so your visitors can read what’s new. Then they comment on it or link to it or email you. Or not.

Used in a typically self-referential sentence: The blogger blogged about her blog.

So what’s the big whoop about blogs? Aren’t they just like personal home pages? Yes, blogs live on websites, and technically, blogs are just another format for showcasing writing, photography (photoblogs), video (videoblogs or vlogs) or content captured from a mobile phone (moblogs).

But blogs have become a cultural phenomenon because they offer a simple, cheap way for anyone with an Internet connection to start their own global publication. The result is that the spheres of journalism, politics and business — to name a few — have been changed inexorably by the rise of expert bloggers who offer alternative voices that hadn’t been heard previously.

Howard Kurtz, dean of the media critics who writes for the Washington Post (and its website), recently summed up the allure of blogs vs. traditional journalism.

“Why are the best blogs sometimes more compelling than the ‘Senator Jones said yesterday’ style of too much newswriting?” Kurtz asked. “Because the bloggers have a voice and emotions and are speaking directly to you. Because they’re up front about their biases. Newspaper stories often seem like straitjackets, incremental, dulled-down, written in a sort of insider’s code. Plus, blogs are faster, which is part of the reason that Washingtonpost.com and a number of other newspaper sites have either hired outsiders to write columns or put staffers in touch with their inner blogger.”

Common Elements of a Blog

There have been quite a few online shouting matches over what elements every blog should have to be considered a blog. Let’s just say that the following are common elements of a blog (though they don’t show up on every blog, including this very one):

Headline: Each post has a headline or title to tell you what it’s about.

Blog post: The main text or the article, sometimes with photos or videos.

Permalink: A web address that will bring you to that particular blog post. Short for “permanent link.”

Comments: A forum that runs below each blog post, allowing readers to give their own opinion on the post. Bloggers can turn comments on or off, or can filter them to keep out abusive commentary or spam. (I lay out some possible ways to moderate online forums here.)

Trackback: A way to show other blogs that have linked to a particular blog post.

RSS feed: A news feed that allows you to subscribe to a blog, thereby getting headlines or full text from the blog in your RSS news reader or personalized news page such as My Yahoo or Google Homepage. You can learn more about RSS here.

Blogroll: This is a kind of shout-out to other blogs that the blogger likes or recommends. It’s a simple list of links to other blogs that runs in the sidebar of a blog.

Bio or About page: Explanatory page that explains who the blogger is, what the blog is about, and how to contact the blogger.

Becoming a Blogger

So you want to join the blogosphere? Fair warning: You will have to do a lot of writing (or photography or videography), and keep at it. The vast majority of blogs that are created are abandoned after a few months — likely because the people who started them didn’t realize how much time and effort it takes to maintain a blog.

On the plus side, you could gain a following of readers, who will interact with you and make you a more knowledgeable person on your subject matter of choice. If you get enough readers, you might even make some money with advertising such as Google AdSense. (Note that MediaShift and other PBS sites just started serving up Google AdSense ads.)

On the down side, your readership might be sizeable, might not make you a lot of money, but will demand that you show up to write your blog regularly. Readers expect bloggers to stay on top of their blog and keep it updated at least a few times per week — unless you alert them to a vacation or blog stoppage.

But you are not easily dissuaded, you are up for the challenge, and you are ready to join the blogosphere (that’s the virtual world where blogs live). You can get up and running quickly with simple web-based blog software. Here’s a great side-by-side comparison chart of services, including Blogger, TypePad and WordPress.

There are also popular blog communities such as LiveJournal, MSN Spaces, Yahoo 360 or AOL Journals — all of which are free. Note that these communities offer more personal blog spaces, more like MySpace, than the services such as Blogger or TypePad, where more professionals self-publish.

How to Get Your Blog Noticed

So you’ve launched your blog into the world, but you’re not sure if the world is going to notice it. It ain’t easy getting noticed when you’re competing for attention with tens of millions of other bloggers. But don’t panic — there are ways of getting the word out.

You might start by sending out an email alert to friends, family and colleagues who might be interested in your topic. Tell them to read your blog, comment on it, and pass along its web address to other interested folks. Make sure to have a good number of (and good quality) posts on your blog before you start publicizing it.

While many people complain that the usual suspects such as InstaPundit, Daily Kos and BoingBoing always get the most traffic and links, those blogs and many other popular ones make a habit of linking to lesser known blogs that offer unique insight. That means that even the smallest, least known blogs have a chance to get more recognition if they’re linked from more popular blogs or perhaps mentioned in the mainstream media.

Another important way to promote your blog is to register it with various search engines. Much of the online traffic flows through search engines such as Google and Yahoo, so be sure you’ve registered with them and others so people will find your blog when they do searches on the topics you write about.

For instance, I made sure that Google knew to crawl my blog, so that MediaShift shows up when people search for certain subjects. I wrote extensively about the recent We Media conference. If you search for the term “we media” on Google, my blog comes up in the first page of results. Google searches have been the #1 way that I get traffic to my blog and represent a huge driver for blog traffic more generally.

People with the right amount of chutzpah might ask other bloggers to put them on their blogroll, or ask them to write about or review their blog in some way, thereby getting the precious desired “link love” that will send along more traffic.

How to Find Blogs

Perhaps you’re not up for starting your own blog, but you’d like to find good blogs to read. Luckily, there are quite a few blog search engines that can help you find decent blogs on subjects you want to follow. You might also examine the blogrolls of people you already respect, as that might lead to more good reading.

Here are a few good directories, “best blogs” lists and blog-award winners:

Truth Laid Bear Ecosystem of Blogs

Forbes’ Favorite Blogs in 10 Categories

CNET News.com’s Blog 100

The Guardian’s Weblog Guide

2006 Weblog Award (Bloggies) Winners

Weblog Awards for 2005

The BOBs for 2005: Best of the Blogs

Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom Blog Awards

TechWeb’s Blog-X Awards

Bloggers Blog: Meta-List of Blog Awards

(Note that if you are running a blog, and believe it’s award-worthy, you might check into getting nominated for one of above awards.)

Here are some blog search engines:

Technorati

Icerocket

Google Blog Search

Bloglines Search

Feedster

Sphere

Other Resources

If you want to learn more about the wonderful world of blogging, there are quite a few websites dedicated to the subject, as well as a boatload of books. Here’s a brief listing of some of the noteworthy books and sites to help you get some deep background on blogging.

Sites:

Rebecca Blood’s A History of Weblogs

Simon World’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Blogging But Were Afraid to Ask

Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents

Electronic Frontier Foundation’s How to Blog Safely

Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Legal Guide for Bloggers (The image above is from the EFF site.)

The Giant Blogging Terms Glossary

Books:

The Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood

We the Media by Dan Gillmor

An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds

Crashing the Gate by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga

Naked Conversations by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel

Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution is Changing Politics, Business and Culture by David Kline and Dan Burstein

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What can you add to this guide? If you’re a blogger, what advice would you give someone who is considering starting a blog? Where do you find good blogs to read or add to your news feeds?