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.

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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.