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Blogging Tools: IZEAfest talk

I spent this Saturday morning listening to some pretty smart bloggers at IZEAfest in Orlando (Merlin Mann, Loren Feldman, etc.). This afternoon I’m on a panel talking about blogging tools. Below are my notes and slides for that short talk.

Blogging Tools

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: blogging api)

Simplify & Streamline It

If you’re like me, you don’t blog for a living, but you’re trying to blog while you’re living. I need tools and features that simplify my life and make it easy for me to be more effective as I’m doing the day-to-day things that actually run my life. That means I mainly want tools to work in the background, or I want a system coordinated in such a way as to make the work I have to do a lot easier and streamlined. So, it’s a little bit about making things easier and being productive while going about it.

All Things in Moderation

My next consideration is how cluttered additional items make the site look. Your mileage may vary – and it will depending upon your readership, but I like to keep my sidebar clean. Not empty, but with items that are relevant. So, I’m extremely careful about adding a new sidebar item. For me, this rule also applies to the posts themselves, so I’m careful not to add too much before or after the main text as well.

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Blogging and the Problem of Asymptotic Growth

Paul Jacobson is a lawyer and long-time South African blogger. He wrote a post today, “Blogging is, like, so 2007”, that triggered some thoughts I’ve had on blogging and growth. In it he talks about how the there are many more ways to publish your thoughts to the web other than your blog (lifestreaming), and how that fractured state leads to less value being placed in blogging.

Asymptotic Growth in Publishing

I think there’s more to it than just the number of ways to communicate, it’s also about the number of new people who come online each year with their own blog, Twitter comments, Facebook Note, etc. Each year there is more content being put online and so your own voice matters less relative to the sum of all noise out there. This applies to niches, and the web in general, and I refer to it as asymptotic publishing growth.

Put another way, even if your blog grows more readers every year, it shrinks in relation to the whole.

This is particularly apparent to first-movers in any new platform. At first you have an inordinate amount of “voice” in a specific sphere, which seems to erode over time.

Islands of Influence

One of my theories on what happens as these environments mature is that as they grow and there becomes more and more options for readers, that there tends to be a coalescing or readers around a certain few blogs or publishers. Though every one of the publishers is likely growing in size, there are certain “keystone” blogs to each niche that have an inordinate amount of influence relative to the general blog in that space.

For example, as a technology blog reader, I might visit 10 blogs every day. However, three of those are likely the same as everyone else.

I compare this to teen hangout locations. There are a lot of places to hang out, and everyone tends to go to a few of their favorite places. However, everyone knows the place to be on Friday night, and that’s the place where the majority of teens go.

In Summary

There will always be more noise in the blogosphere, or whichever publishing platform is your choice of the moment, than when you first started in it. However, those that provide the most value to the readers will continue to grow and also garner a greater relative audience than their peers.

Basically, asymptotic growth is a truth that we all have to live with, but there will always be islands of influence.

Mobile Phone Reporting in Africa

For the last year there has been quite a bit of talk about mobile phone reporting in Africa. For good reason too, since this lowers the technology barrier to getting stories out of hard-to-reach places. Imagine, all you need to do is find a journalist and equip them with an adequate mobile phone Now you can record interviews in video and audio, take pictures and upload in almost any part of the continent.

Netherland’s based AfricaNews has been a pioneer in this space, starting last year with their “Voices of Africa” section of their site. I’ve been continually impressed with how they find, train and equip their journalists all over Africa. My one problem with what they do is that they don’t allow for the proliferation of their reporters work around the web by hamstringing the ability to share by embedding the reports in other websites.

Colin Daniels is the Publisher for Times Online in South Africa, arguably one of the better newspapers and always on the cutting edge of news sites online globally. A couple weeks ago he posted on his personal blog about a new initiative in where Nokia is testing mobile journalism through local universities using the Nokia/Reuter’s mobile newskit. He says,

“This has all been made possible by constant technological breakthroughs and the portability and immediacy of connected mobile devices; it is becoming increasingly feasible for journalists to replace their pens and dictaphones for converged smart phones with exceptional audio/visual capabilities such as the Nokia N95. Add a keyboard, tripod, and an external microphone and all of a sudden you have a portable newsroom and studio in one…”

A true, and exciting statement that applies to mainstream journalism and blogging. Colin refers to the N95 “Mojo” toolkit (pictured above) that Reuters uses as well. The value here is that as mainstream news sources put more resources towards mobile journalism the tools get better for everyone (amateur and professional).

All of this optimism has to be tempered with some real-world examples of how it’s still a difficult field to work in and how the technology is still not quite there for full-fledged real-time news feeds. David Axe, a war journalist, wrote a fascinating article for Wired on the failures of his mobile phone trials in Chad matching up a Nokia N95 with streaming mobile news service Qik.

It should be noted the problem was not with the phone, but with the web service Qik and the poor mobile data network in Chad. This can be a real problem for anyone using MMS or any other GSM service. Though some parts of Africa have strong networks, many others are home to the worst in the world. Of course, this makes Africa one of the great testing grounds for any new device or service, so there is a silver lining to every cloud.

“…there should be a “store” function, whereby you can shoot a video in some austere location, save it to your phone’s memory, then stream it later once you’ve got a solid network. With that function alone, I could’ve filed scores of fascinating videos about refugee camps, peacekeepers and urban combat.”

A simple solution, utilizing SD card memory could have made his trial a success. David’s quote above serves to underscore one other incredibly important point; web and mobile services need to at least test in Africa, if not have a small development shop there to truly create robust applications. After all, if it can work in Africa, it can work anywhere.

Crossing the Mapping Chasm

As I was putting together my talk on “Activist Mapping” for Where 2.0, I realized that I was getting a little to fragmented in message. One of the areas I’m probably not going to have time to cover is what I consider the consumer-accessibility of mapping tools, so here it is.

Is There Something to be Learned from the Blogging Evolution?
In my last blog post I showed a slide talking about the timeline of major blogging engines. I did this because I was exploring a premise that there might be something in common with the way self-publishing tools on the web have developed, and the way mapping tools are developing. As I’ve dealt with mapping solutions on eppraisal.com and Ushahidi, I can’t help but think how powerful they are, but still so hard for a non-programmer to really master. The beauty of the blogging engines is that they finally created a way for an “ordinary” person to create a personal website.

Is this where mapping is in comparison?

When I look at that timeline, I wonder if we’re not in the same era with mapping that we were in with blog CMS tools back in the early 2000’s?

Comparing 3 Digital Activist Tools
As I was thinking about mapping, blogging and activism, I also thought about another one of the core digital tools that activist use worldwide: mobile phones. What would a simple comparison be between the 3?

Comparing blogging, mobiles and mapping for activists

Blogging’s learning curve is fairly shallow, if you can handle email or word processing, then you can understand how blogging works and do it. It’s middling when it comes to accessibility worldwide, due to bandwidth and PC requirements.

Mobiles are moderately hard to work into good activist campaigns, additional software can make this easier, but planning the campaign doesn’t necessarily take a technologist. Accessibility is widespread and simple to g

Getting from the Tech Elite to “Everyone Else”
Those thoughts led me to think about Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm book, where he talks about the difficulties of getting technologies to leap from the technology elite to the the masses. By anyones definition, I think we’ve seen that happen with blogging. Not so with mapping… yet.

Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm

Within the mapping ranks there are definitely those that are trying. Google’s My Maps and Platial/Frappr come to mind as I think of good examples of consumer-facing self-generated mapping applications. However, so much of what is being done (as cool/powerful/amazing as it is) is still only understood and grokked by the mapping gurus of the world.

This is seen first hand in what we had to do with Ushahidi. The ability to just create a map system that was even slightly geo-coded correctly for Kenya took a little work. Not everyone could just jump right in and mashup something as simple as that. Will it ever be as easy as jumping in and creating a blog, or will mapping always be a tech-centered effort?

A Brief Timeline of Blogging Engines

Timeline of Major International Blogging Engines

  • October 1998: Open Diary begins and pioneers reader commenting
  • March 1999: LiveJournal started
  • July 1999: Pitas launches the first free build your own blog web tool.
  • August 1999: Pyra releases Blogger which becomes the most popular web based blogging tool to date, and popularizes blogging with mainstream internet users
  • June 2001: b2Cafelog starts being built by a few unemployed hackers
  • October 2001: Movable Type released
  • August 2003: TypePad launches for the non-technical masses
  • May 2003: WordPress.org begins as a branch of the b2Cafelog code, and quickly becomes the most popular self-hosted blogging engine
  • December 2005: WordPress.com launches
  • July 2006: Microblogging tool Twitter launched
  • October 2006: Vox Released by Six Apart
  • March 2007: Tumblr microblogging tool launches

Sources: I put the above graphic together from the following timeline that I found on Wikipedia, Enterprise blogs and the platform owners blogs.

Why?
I’m working on my talk for Where 2.0 next week and am starting to think that there is an analogy between current consumer-facing mapping tools and where we were in the early 2000’s with blogging and journaling tools. Not sure if I’ll even talk about this, but thought the research into blogging engines was worth sharing.

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