When is a recent phenomenon not a phenomenon? When it's not so recent. You've probably heard the terms blog and blogging, and you might even know that people who maintain blogs are called bloggers. But you might not realize two facts about the blogging craze. First, blogging isn't new technology—it's just a better way to do something we've been doing for a long time. Second, blogging is a much more versatile publishing medium than you've been led to believe.
In case you're unfamiliar with these terms, let's start with the basics. A blog is simply a Web site that's maintained by an individual or group of people. The term blog is a simplification of Web log, and these types of sites are so-named because many of them are literally Web-based journals or at least take the form of journals. Most blog updates are marked by the date and time they're posted, and blogs typically display updates in reverse chronological order, with the most recent update at the top of the site's home page.
At a basic level, little separates blogs from the Web sites we've been viewing for more than a decade. Under the covers, however, blogs use technologies that make them more sophisticated than standard Web pages.
What Sets Blogs Apart
Most blogs are created with software or Web services that perform two useful services. The first is to maintain a database that contains all your blog updates, called posts (or postings). The second is to provide a front end through which you can create posts. These front ends typically provide nice formatting tools, making blog software and services particularly well suited for beginners. In the past, only people who knew how to craft HTML code could create Web sites. And you used to need an intimate understanding of network and Internet technology to understand how to publish those sites on the Web. Blogging software and services make both those requirements obsolete.
Blogs take these well-known personal publishing capabilities to the next level by also providing a way for people to subscribe to your content. Using software tools such as Web browsers or news aggregators, people who are interested in what you have to say can subscribe to your blog and get automatic updates each time you make a post. The technology that makes this possible is known as syndication, and the most common content-syndication technology is called Real Simple Syndication (RSS). As with the aforementioned HTML and Web publishing technologies, blog software and services handle content syndication automatically. In most cases, you simply enable the feature, and visitors to your blog will be able to subscribe to your so-called RSS feed.
Today, most bloggers are people who create diary-type sites, technology news sites, political discussions, and similar blogs. Even the mainstream media are catching on, offering blogs by prominent reporters and RSS-feed versions of their news articles. That's all well and good, but if you think back to the basics of blogging, you'll recall that blogs are just Web sites. Therefore, you can use blogging software and services to create virtually any kind of Web site. You could create a personal Web site for your family, for example, that provides up-to-date pictures of recent family events, vacations, and milestones and short essays about the progress your kids have made. If you're into cooking, collecting, certain TV shows, or any other topic, you could easily create a blog about those subjects.
Most blogging software and services also enable a feature that really brings this technology full circle: You can let site visitors publish comments to your posts, setting up a potential community of people who share similar interests. After you make a post and people have commented on it, you can jump in and respond to the comments, setting up a dialog with your readers and, potentially, creating new relationships.
Two Free Blogging Services
The number and types of blogging services that are available today are vast. Two services I recommend tackle blogging from completely different perspectives, yet both are excellent in their own ways. Best of all, both services are free. The first, Blogger, is part of the Google family of Web services. Blogger is probably the best choice for more competent computer users. It lets you post text and photos, post content from mobile phones, and choose from a wide range of site templates (or create your own design). I've been using Blogger for my own technology blog, the Internet Nexus, for about 4 years, and it almost completely meets my needs. (One feature that's lacking: There's no way to assign topics to posts, which would be a handy for filtering them.)
The other interesting new blog service is called MSN Spaces, which I previously reviewed on the SuperSite for Windows. Like Blogger, MSN Spaces lets you create your own Web site, but it couldn't be more different from Blogger if it tried. First, MSN Spaces excels at two things: It's a fantastic choice if your primary goal is to share photos online, offering 30MB of storage and a simple photo-upload tool. Second, MSN Spaces lets you easily create lists, something that's currently hard to do with RSS (and, thus, with other blogging tools). So, for example, you can easily create and maintain a list of your top 10 favorite songs and link each song to MSN Music so visitors can buy those songs if they'd like. Or you can create any kind of custom list. It's up to you.
Busy entrepreneurs are working on the future of blogging, which will move personal publishing into new mediums. One such advance is called Podcasting, which is perhaps the most poorly named technology ever. Podcasting is basically audio blogging that's designed for users of portable MP3 players. And, despite the name, you don't need to own an Apple iPod, and there's no actual broadcasting involved. Instead, content creators—who, again, thanks to simple software, can be individuals—record audio broadcasts and distribute them to users via RSS. Users who subscribe to Podcasts can then download them to their PCs and copy them to a portable audio player, such as an iPod.
As with blogs, the best Podcasting software is free. Apple's iTunes was recently updated to version 4.9, which offers access to thousands of Podcasts—some professional, some not—that you can subscribe to. If you aren't an iPod user, you have other Podcasting options. Adam Curry's iPodder software (again, despite the name) works with Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, and after you download the content you want, you can copy it to virtually any portable device.
The other logical extension of blogging is video blogging (sometimes called vlogging). With many homes in the United States, Europe, and Japan now using broadband connections, video blogs are becoming viable. The problem is that video is notoriously difficult to work with. Because we're still at the nascent stage of this market, I can't really recommend any software, but you might want to check out Freevlog or Vlogdir for some getting-started tips and vlog listings, respectively.