Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
 
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
 
> chapter 6 history of journalism
 
> 10 blog design tips
 
> what is this long tail?
 
> trackback demystified
 
> blog ethics primer
 
> glossary
 
> resource hotlinks

interviews

> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

file: excerpts


what is this Long Tail anyway?
05.24.06 @ 02:14:43 pacific

/feed/Dcap.gifiscussions about “long tail” distribution patterns among blogs are popping up everywhere. The concept, sometimes referred to as “power law distribution,” grew out of research in economics and linguistics. The economist Vilfredo Paredo showed that wealth in most populations follows an 80/20 rule in which 20 percent of the population controls 80 percent of the wealth. Similarly, linguist George Zipf showed that word frequency follows a similar Power Law curve with a few words like “the” and “a” occurring with enormous frequency, while instances of other words occur with decreasing frequency. Graphing a Power Law distribution results in an L-shaped curve with the few, high-volume instances forming the “head” of the curve and the many, lower-volume instances trailing off along a “long tail.” (See diagram below, “The Long Tail of Blog Search Results”)

Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at NYU, first applied the concept to blogging in an early 2003 post to the “Network, Economics, and Culture” mailing list. At the time, bloggers were beginning to voice disgruntlement because a few “A-list” blogs consistently dominated any listing of popular blogs. Shirky pointed out that the phenomenon fit Power Law distribution patterns and that the concentration of links and resulting popularity wasn’t a case of ill will or collusion, but rather an consequence of scale. He wrote, “What matters is this: Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.”

Chris Anderson, Wired magazine’s editor-in-chief, took the concept a step further. First in a magazine article titled “The Long Tail,” and then in a book of the same name and a website (longtail.com), he began by applying Power Law theory to the distribution of cultural artifacts like books and movies. Traditionally, book sales were limited to the number of titles the largest bookstores could fit on their shelves. Similarly, movie rental options were constrained by the shelf space available to brick-and-mortar outlets. This dynamic forced a hit-driven economy that essentially limited distribution to products populating the head of the curve.

The introduction of services like Amazon and Netflix altered the dynamic dramatically. Because they take advantage of centralized warehouses and online ordering, they require no physical outlets and can afford to carry more niche products. The surprising result, as reported by Anderson, is that Amazon now cumulatively sells more niche products along the tail than the more popular books and movies still populating the head of the curve. Sales for any individual item along the tail may be low, but the overall dynamics of the system now justify distribution. “When consumers are offered infinite choice,” Anderson writes, “the true shape of demand is revealed.”

longtail2sans.gif




10 practical tips for great blog design
05.16.06 @ 12:51:20 pacific

(from Chapter 9, Anatomy of a Blog Page)

/feed/Scap.gifome blogs are a pleasure to read and navigate. Others are a pain. No matter how brilliant your commentary, if the look and feel of your page is forgettable, plug ugly, or difficult to navigate, your visitors are less likely to return. There are no absolutes in the world of blogs, but a familiarity with the general rules of good online design makes it easier to break a few of those rules and still attract new readers. Whether you plan to use default design templates or employ formidable CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) skills to tweak your blog to your exact specifications, here are some useful things to keep in mind.

look around

Visit your favorite blogs. While the editorial content of the blogs will probably be the greatest unifying aspect, spend some time analyzing how each presents its content and organizes navigation. Take notes on unique or particularly graceful linking solutions or informational blurbs. Note color combinations that you find pleasing (or horrific). The smart grasshopper learns from those who have gone (and stumbled) before them.




syndicating blogs: creating and subscribing to newsfeeds
05.8.06 @ 05:12:04 pacific

(from Chapter 8, Packing Your Toolkit)

/feed/Ocap.gifne of the decisions any blog author must make is whether or not to allow readers to subscribe to your updated content via syndicated newsfeeds. More and more blogs sport buttons or links labeled RSS, Atom, XML, newsfeed, or simply feed. Click those links and you’ll often find yourself abruptly presented with a web page full of dense, incomprehensible text. What’s this all about?

First of all, newsfeeds aren’t exactly new. Many of us have been subscribing to them for years, often without knowing it. If you have a personalized web page on Google, My Yahoo, or MySpace, the headlines and stories from the various news organizations you’ve selected arrive as newsfeeds. So do most podcasts. Additionally, newsfeeds are often used to distribute newsletters and track packages, as well as provide marketing, weather, and stock updates.

Essentially, newsfeeds are syndicated web content delivered to subscribers’ news aggregators, also called newsreaders, in real time. Besides being able to subscribe to the content of blogs, many of the newer search engines allow you to subscribe to updated results of specific search queries. If you wanted to track all the blog posts that include the word “bogosity,” for instance, you could conduct a search on Bloglines or Technorati and then subscribe to future search results for the term. Now, each time your newsreader updates your subscriptions, you would receive a list of links to each new blog post containing the term.




trackback demystified
08.1.05 @ 06:57:26 pacific

(from Chapter 8, Packing Your Toolkit)

/feed/Tcap.gifTrackback is a little tricky to explain, but the feature is handy and worth taking a moment to understand. In a nutshell, a trackback link beneath a blog entry is similar to a permalink, but with a trick up its sleeve: It allows individuals to notify you and your readers that they’ve responded to your entry on their own blogs.

The main reason bloggers sometimes choose to respond on their own blogs rather than simply posting a comment beneath your entry is that they want their own blog visitors to read what they’ve written and perhaps contribute to the conversation. Also, bloggers have more control over the text on their own sites and can correct typos or otherwise edit content after posting.

In theory, the ability to carry on a conversation across blogs is compelling. In practice, trackback can be a bit daunting. It’s likely that the mechanisms will soon be transparent, but for now, stepping through a manual trackback scenario is probably the best way to illustrate how trackback works.

Aunt Magda Masters Trackback
Let’s say your Aunt Magda really likes your latest blog entry about frog butter and would like to share it with her own readers. On her blog, she starts a new entry, telling her friends why she thinks they’ll like what you posted, along with a short excerpt from your blog. Because she’d like her readers to be able to click a link in the body of her entry to go to your blog and read your full text, she clicks the permalink beneath your entry. A window opens with a web address that remains unique to your original frog butter entry, even after it’s archived. Martha copies the permalink address and pastes it into the anchor tag for the link in her own entry. So far, so good. Her readers can now happily read her commentary and the short excerpt from your site, and then, if they like, click the link to read the full text on your blog.

But you and your readers still don’t know that Aunt Magda started a side conversation about frog butter on her blog, so she next clicks the trackback link under the entry on your blog. A window opens displaying a brand new Web address, the unique trackback address for the entry. Magda pastes this trackback address into a special trackback field in her own blog. The field may be called something cryptic like “Trackback an URL” (in WordPress) or “URLs to Ping” (in Movable Type). In addition to pasting the unique trackback address, Magda probably also types in a headline, copies an excerpt from the new entry on her own blog, adds the permalink for her entry, and finally clicks to post.

Now everyone refreshes their browsers, and on your blog, you see that in the parentheses after the trackback link for your frog butter entry, the zero has updated to the number one. If you click on the trackback link, the window that opens now includes her headline and excerpt, along with a live link to her blog. (On some blogs, trackback content appears automatically with any comments on the entry’s permalink page.) Subsequent trackback links by other bloggers who comment remotely will update the trackback number on your blog and so you always know how many other sites are discussing a specific entry on their blogs.

More Trackback Goodness (and Badness)
A conversation is now taking place across blogs thanks to trackback. Not only that, your search ranking has been enhanced since Magda’s blog software probably pinged the major search and aggregation sites and their ranking algorithms will reward you for Magda’s trackback link.

What’s the bad news? What else? Spam. Like battling the spam that plagues email itself, it is a constant game of whack-a-mole. There are anti-spam plugins for all the major blog applications, but it is likely that you will sometimes have to go in and manually remove spam links when particularly virulent specimens make it past your safeguards.

OK, there’s one more bad thing. Because only the blognoscenti understand trackback, not that many people use it yet. But as automation and standard practices improve, this ability to converse across blogs promises to be among the most powerful features in blogging.