What makes blogging cool, and what is the ultimate expression of that concept? In short, what defines "blogging heaven"? This blog post is the first in a series aimed at that question. Along the way, the idea is to rope in concepts of "knowledge sharing" and "collaboration" and see how they interplay with blogging.
In this inaugural edition of the "Cool Tools and Technologies for
Developers" blog, we'll start start off with a meta-blog?a blog
What Makes Blogging Cool
Blogging definitely qualifies as a cool tool. It's a way to get thoughts
and ideas out to the web quickly, but that's not it's major advantage.
After all, I can send thoughts out to a mailing list, too.
Because a blog creates web pages, they're more nicely formatted
than the average email message. The big advantage here is speed of
content creation. (More on that subject later.)
Unlike an email message, you can correct those egregious
misspellings that make you look like an idiot. ("meta" once came
out as "meat"?not good.)
Like email, a blog makes it possible to collect responses. A blog
is a lot better than a web page, in that respect. In effect,
multiple people put their heads together, creating a thread that
collects information from multiple sources. (The one thing missing is a nice hierarchical display for the contributions, but
that's a subject for a future post).
Wiki pages also let multiple people contribute information, but
the contributions are nither separated or acknowledged. In a
blog, each person's contribution is automatically attributed.
That's helpful, both to separate the original author's ideas from
the counter arguments, and to motivate contribution by enhancing
one's reputation in the community.
The first step to "blogging heaven", then, is the ability to produce content
at near stream-of-consciousness speeds, but produce easily readable,
well-formatted HTML pages in the process.
While I can write quickly in mail, the result is something less than easily
readable, nicely formatted output (mostly because spammers make it
necessary to filter out all but plain text messages).
[Note to self: Write about spammers in a future blog.
Try not to foam. Death threats are illegal.]
What Makes Blogging Less Than Cool
However, online blogs have a couple of disadvantages, as well:
While web pages are great, people have to go looking for them.
And vice versa. I have to go looking for other people's pages
when I want to find something. (Unless they have an "RSS" feed.)
That's great when I'm looking for something new. But it's a pain
when I'm trying to stay up on some topic that's covered on 25
different web sites. The day is too short to spend it clicking around
to see what's new.
On the other hand, my inbox could be flooded with "page added"
messages, if I got them one a time. (Or if I added myself to the
RSS feed for every blog I come across that held an interesting
Artima solves the problem nicely, by sending a weekly announcement
summarizing the posts?and that's the primary reason I'm blogging here.
The other major drawback to online blogging is that the authoring
process typically involves filling in a form on a web page. That's
a pretty awful interface, for two major reasons:
Pressing the save is a button is a practice that has become a religion
with me. Any app that doesn't have Ctrl+S prewired to save what
I'm working doesn't have a prayer of making the cut in my tool kit.
In my book, that makes HTML text boxes a useless techology,
as they stand today.
Mistakes happen. And when they do, there is no way to restore a previous state in an HTML form -- a matter of significant
concern for anything other than extremely short messages.
These failings were brought vividly to my attention the other day,
while attempting to respond to a blog. At the very tail end of a long post
(and a very elequoent one, if I do say so) I managed to hit some combination
of keystrokes that eradicated the entire message. No saved copy. No way
to bring it back. Tragedy. That particular set of thoughts is still waiting
for the convergence of time, topic, and creative energy, that will cause them to resurface.
Increasing the Coolness Factor
The solution, oddly enough, is in the other half of the browser -- the
Together, web pages and email make a great combination.
After all, email editors have save and undo, and many support HTML
authoring is well. And, as we've already noted, with email notifications,
the topics essentially come to you.
Some email systems also let you specify which domains should
get HTML, and which should get plain text. That's cool. On
the other hand, some (like mine) store the sent-folder copy
in plain text, too, which is exceedingly dumb. So the system
isn't perfect, yet. But I expect it will evolve.
So a quick outline of a system for "blogging heaven", begins to look
Email authoring for blog posts (input)
Email notification to readers (output)
Click link in email to get to the post (input)
Web page delivery to readers (output)
Email authoring for responding to a post (input)
Web page presention of collected responses (output)
There is a bit more to "blogging heaven" than that. But the next
steps, which are geared towards using the blog as a vehicle for
collaboration and knowledge sharing, are also somewhat more
difficult to implement. So we'll leave that for future blogs.
For now, it's enough to recognize that the combination of email
client and browser are both necessary and sufficient for a vital,
robust blogging system that lets you author at close to the speed
of thought (assuming you have quick fingers!), and lets you read
with all the comfort of formatted and linked text.
Are you sure that blogs travel at the speed of thought? Sometimes mine goes at 9800 speed and blogging seems to stop. Maybe that's because time slows down as the speed of thought increases. Its hard to make the weekend last any longer by blogging down. Hey! Maybe I should be blogging UP.
Tellingly, you don't mention content. In my experience, what makes a blog cool or not is content and content alone. All the other stuff you mention is 'nice to have' bells and whistles. A blog can have every technological feature in the world but without content it is nothing.
Witness all the blogs available through Artima. All are technologically identical but are they therefore equally cool? Far from it.
As my English teacher used to say to say of the more flashier fashion consious kids in my class at school: "It's not the colour or your pen that impresses people. It's what you write."
I've never really experienced writer's block, because I never sit down with a blank sheet of paper with the idea that I need to put something on it. Instead, I write when the muse drives me.
It generally begins with a question in my head. I'll ponder it for a day or so, and sleep on it at least once. (Some extremely difficult problems have been in my head for most of my life. But since I haven't found a solution, there's nothing to write.)
I know it's time to write when I wake up in the morning with some words running through my head. When the number of things I want to say gets long enough that I have to work to remember them all, I know it's time to sit down and start writing -- if only to capture a list of notes on the things I want to mention. (The downside is that when I have a short pithy thought, I generally don't write it, because I'm not worried about forgetting it. But then I generally *do* forget it, so all my really concise thinking never makes it to paper!)
As I write the phrases and sentences that have been popping into my head, more thoughts invariably occur. (As in this reply, which started with just a sentence or two.) After years of practice, I've learned to sequence the thoughts so that there are good transitions from one to the next. So at the bottom of the message I'm writing, I'll pick the next thought I can transition to nicely. Most of the time, things flow without a lot of effort (although some times good sequencing does require a lot of thought, especially when one idea branches to multiple follow-on topics).
Anyway, the point of all this is that when I sit to write, I have many thoughts in my head, and they all come pouring out. Having the blog creating the html is one less formatting step I need to do worry about when writing, so I really do write at (closer to) the speed of thought. (People who have seen me type are pretty amazed -- I use about eight fingers, or so, and have trained myself to watch the screen instead of the keyboard -- so this entire message took something like 5 or 6 minutes to write -- including a few typos and *many* backspaces to correct the ones I noticed!