Year 9

When most of my peers and I started blogging with a proper content management system (CMS) like Blogger in 2000-2002, it wasn’t really clear what we were signing up for. Blogs were a new, hyper-public outlet for self-expression, a means of keeping in contact with friends, and for feeling the first waves of a democratic future where a student had as much right to virtual real estate as the multinational corporation that might one day hire him. Or not, depending on what he had posted.

Today, much of what a blog once offered has been decentralized by a slew of dedicated online services. Post your photos on Flickr. Keep a circle informed of your movements on Facebook and LinkedIn. Show off your art, photography, or design skills on any number of portfolio sites like deviantART. Share links and bits of media on scrapbook blogs like the ones popularized by Tumblr. Everything comes with social networking built right in. The standalone do-it-all blog has become something of a solitary pursuit as its necessity fades amongst newer internet users with a hundred other avenues for self-expression and communication. The word ‘blog’ is more strongly associated with a breed of continuously updated semi-commercial news and topical interest sites than it is with personal journals.

Perhaps the personal journal is a relic of the internet past – emblematic of our emotional reaction to a new technology, and the possibility of audiences larger than had been present before. Or perhaps they’ve disappeared under cover, gone to ground and reemerged with new names, part of our need to understand through categorization. So now there are motherhood blogs, cooking/dining blogs, birdwatching blogs, and so on. Once specific interests representing just a facet of their authors’ lives, these topics now serve to define their bloggers as amateur authorities through posts and reader feedback cycles so regular you can set your RSS readers to them, spurred on by commerce in the form of Google AdSense banners. The personal journal is dead because we reduce people to the one thing they do best.

So, nine years on and I’m still at it. Still not quite sure what I signed up for, but with some changes I’ll be making here this week, a little more sure of where I should take this.

New Google Blogger templates

Transparency! Three-column grids! An absence of lighthouse imagery!

Please join me in welcoming Google Blogger to the modern web. As you can see from the look of my site today, Blogger has rolled out a new beta feature called the Template Designer which allows users to assemble several thousand more combinations of layout, color, and graphics than with their previous selection of templates. Those spartan and occasionally cheesy designs were the main reasons why the service has been losing ground to the likes of Tumblr and Posterous amongst those setting up blogs for the first time, and also the reason why most people skin their blogspot blogs with horrendous amateur themes they find on sites with URLs like free-colorful-blogger-templates.com.

We all know ‘most people’ have no taste, so the Template Designer aims to save them from themselves by having a fixed library of background images from iStockPhoto (you can’t upload your own). I have chosen the least distracting and colorful one, a silhouette of the Parisian skyline, but look forward to experimenting with crazier options now and then. Why not? It used to take a deep dive into the HTML code and some tedious asset uploading to change the look of my site – those who’ve been here before will know that I hardly bothered anymore, and reverted to the most minimal of themes over a year ago – but now it’s all just a matter of clicking around and moving sliders.

Some of these features, like the dynamic width resizing and comprehensive inspectors for changing text/background colors, fonts, etc. replicate the best innovations of blog hosting company Squarespace. That service does a little more but costs money, and incidentally so does Six Apart’s Typepad, which now stands as the only hosted blogging platform remaining whose templates look so hopelessly mired in the early 2000s. Assuming that Blogger doesn’t just push out this one update and leave it untouched for another six years, they’ve got a fair chance of soundly beating the competition. A few weeks ago they added the ability to create standalone Pages, the kind you can use for an About Us page or FAQ. With a few more templates, perhaps some built for microblogging, some for magazine-style sites, they’ll be able to do everything Tumblr can. They’ve got post-by-email functionality that isn’t too far off from what Posterous does, and WordPress.com can’t compete with the freedom Blogger gives you to add third-party scripts, widgets, and ads.

One interesting point: Microsoft IE6 is not supported by the editor or the templates themselves.

Intro video:

Pocket Plastic

The last post (a review of Nevercenter’s Camerabag Desktop application for Mac/PC) was also posted on my new site project: Pocket Plastic. I take a great deal of my photos these days with my iPhone, as I have done with all the cameraphones I’ve owned before – Sony-Ericsson made some great ones under their Cybershot brand – but the iPhone is unique. People are now in the habit of actually processing their photos and doing all their ‘darkroom’ work on the device itself, so the shots are ready to go up online before they’ve even rubbed their feet on their doormats.

There are some sites out there dedicated to helping others with this hobby, reviewing new photo apps and sharing tips, but I often find myself in some sort of disagreement with them. You know what they say: If you want something done right, you’re incredibly anal and have an inflated view of your own importance. Well that’s me, so I’m starting my own. It’s also going to be a place for me to send the photos I like best to, and fish for ever more compliments.

I’m using Posterous to do the whole thing, and if you’d like a site/blog that you can update simply by sending an email, I highly recommend it. You can send a post from your home computer or your mobile phone, attach photos, audio, or video, and Posterous will automatically put the thing together in the best possible looking way and you’ll look like a star. You don’t even need to sign up beforehand. Just send an email to post@posterous.com from your personal email address, and that will be your first entry. They’ll send you an email back with the location of your new site, which you are free to change at any time. This was not a paid advertisement, I just really like them.

Is it the little things that count?

Awhile ago, a friend working overseas who I don’t get a chance to meet very often told me that he checks in on this blog every now and then when he wants to know what I’m up to, and usually comes away disappointed. I think he specifically said that he doesn’t care about what gadgets I’m after, what I thought about films I’ve seen, or what I find interesting, etc. Now, this is not the kind of talk many friends get away with, but because I only have to be insulted once every 18 months or so, I let it go.

But the thought that someone might be more interested in reading narratives on the minutiae of everyday lives – months after the fact! – rather than the critical choices that express our personalities, continues to strike me as strange even now, several weeks on, in the middle of the night.

There’s always Twitter and Facebook if one wants status updates, but that can’t be what he meant. Who would want to trawl through half a year’s worth of anyone’s Twitter stream? Microblogging, like the worst supermarket sandwiches, is generally worthless and meant for immediate consumption. Unless you’re a fake celebrity account with carefully crafted witticisms (see @CWalken), chances are your lifestream’s value as entertainment is virtually null after 48 hours.

Before I started thinking about this, my view was that Twitter presents microscopic detail from which a more complete picture of a life can be fabricated. In this story, blog posts are overviews; providing structure. Also, keep in mind that the two accounts of time spent (the descriptive report and the vocalized introspection) will coincide at some point. For example, if you hear a lot about my activities, you’d be able to discern a pattern that indicated my tastes. Conversely, if I told you how I felt about theatre, you would know not to look for me in a Sunday matinee.

I wonder if the opposite is true. Twitter and status updates are not detail, they’re noisy overviews. The most coherent image one can put together will still be a best guess estimate. Real detail resides in thought and writing. The way most of us use Twitter, with truncated phrases and inhibited rhythms, it’s no substitute for going without a word limit. In much of today’s communications, you can’t be sure whether it’s the voice or the format you’re hearing. It’s the reason why I can skim a friend’s blog posts from years ago and remember how they used to be. It’s also the reason I keep my own.

After having tried to keep my different interests in separate blogs, and failed, it’s come back to this. I’m grateful now for having one single place that periodically captures the things I’d like a future version of myself to know I once considered important, and for friends to know today, however unappreciative they might be.

What’s the best place to host a blog?

In the past few days, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people about what the “best” hosted blogging platform is (pure coincidence, my life isn’t that geeky). I’ve been using Google Blogger for this here outlet since 2002, with a short WordPress dalliance in-between that cost me a few weeks’ worth of posts when my hosting company suffered a database outage.

Blogger isn’t really so bad, but it IS bland and boring. In exchange for solid, Google-level stability, you have to put up with a small selection of dated templates and no easy way to customize your blog without some knowledge of HTML and CSS. But at least you can. Everything about the page can be changed, provided you know how. I’m quite familiar with the ways of the internet, but I can’t make this page look good to save my life. Adding widgets is quite easy, though, which gives it an advantage over the next service.

WordPress.com – a hosted blogging service, not to be confused with the WordPress.org blogging software for installing on your own server, offered by the same company – is very modern in comparison with Blogger, but doesn’t allow you to insert your own widgets and bits of code. That means no cute little Flickr slideshows, ads, or shoutboxes. Some plug-ins are offered by WordPress.com itself, but those are limited. Templates/themes are also limited to the ones included, with some minor tweaks to header images, colors, etc. but these tend to be very nice and good enough for most people.

Typepad costs money, unlike the first two choices, and I’ve always held it in high regard for the fact that they’ve managed to stay afloat in a sea of free competitors, and their marketing has been quite good. The site’s landing page boasts a large number of high-profile bloggers and professional journalists who swear by Typepad, and promises hundreds of expertly designed templates to turn even complete luddites into proud owners of beautiful sites in mere minutes. –– When I finally tried to sign up for the free trial this week, the reality was a complete disappointment. These templates are anything but modern and attractive. It’s hard to justify paying a minimum of US$5 a month when just a few more dollars can get you…

Squarespace. The things that are being done by this company put their competitors to shame. Sure, their prices are a little high, but I’ve yet to see the design and technology at work here being offered anywhere else. Many software packages say you can put a website together with virtually no HTML knowledge, but they’re still pretty hard to use. Squarespace lets you drag and drop content, switch layouts/themes with a few clicks, and do complicated CSS adjustments like changing the width of columns, the amount of leading (space) between lines of text, font sizes, etc., with sliders and other intuitive controls. All in real-time, so you can see the changes you’re making. If you want to get technical, it apparently lets you do that too.

Of course, there are a bunch of others like Livejournal and Vox (both free and owned by Six Apart, the company that offers Typepad), but I can’t recommend them for any serious use. They’re kind of hybrid blogging + social networking platforms, limited in scope and geared towards more ‘fun’ and socially oriented applications. You can’t use your own designs, and I don’t think you can export your data if you’d like to move to another service. Blogger, WordPress, and Squarespace make it easy to leave, always a good sign.

My conclusion is, if you can afford US$8-14 a month, Squarespace is your best bet. Their gallery of customers includes Mark Ecko’s personal blog and corporate site, Digg founder Kevin Rose’s blog, and a few other great-looking examples. If you’d rather go free, choose Google Blogger if you have some coding knowledge or would like to put ads and fun gadgets on your page. WordPress.com is a stylish, easy alternative for people who just want to start writing.