Blogs, like the ones at HowStuffWorks, are a lot like keeping an online journal.

hsw 2009

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Introduction to How Blogs Work

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Blogs appear on the news pretty often these days. For example, a reporter is tipped to a story by a blog, or a blog reports another angle on a story. Blogs show up in magazines a lot, too.

But there is a good chance you have never seen a blog (also known as a weblog) or experienced the blogosphere. What are blogs? There are now millions of them -- where did they all come from?

One of the things that is so amazing about blogs is their simplicity.

Think about a "normal Web site." It usually has a home page, with links to lots of sub-pages that have more detail. HowStuffWorks is like this, with thousands of information pages all organized under a home page. A small business site follows the same format -- it might have a home pag­e and five or 10 sub-pages. Most traditional Web sites follow this format. If the site is small, it is sort of like an online brochure. If it is large, it is like an electronic encyclopedia.

­ A typical Web site has a home page that links to sub-pages within the site. CNN.com is typical of this genre. The CNN site contains thousands of articles all organized into big categories. The categories and all the latest stories are accessed from the home page.

­ A blog is much simpler:

  • A blog is normally a single page of entries. There may be archives of older entries, but the "main page" of a blog is all anyone really cares about.
  • A blog is organized in reverse-chronological order, from most recent entry to least recent.
  • A blog is normally public -- the whole world can see it.
  • The entries in a blog usually come from a single author.
  • The entries in a blog are usually stream-of-consciousness. There is no particular order to them. For example, if I see a good link, I can throw it in my blog. The tools that most bloggers use make it incredibly easy to add entries to a blog any time they feel like it.

­­In this article, you will have a chance to enter the world of blogging. You will even learn how to create your own blog and publish it to the world.

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Blogging Basics

A typical blog has a main page and nothing else. On the main page, there is a set of entries. Each entry is a little text blurb that may contain embedded links out to other sites, news stories, etc. When the author adds a new entry, it goes at the top, pushing all the older entries down. This blog also has a right sidebar that contains additional permanent links to other sites and stories. The author might update the sidebar weekly or monthly.

Basically, a blog is a lot like an online journal or diary. The author can talk about anything and everything. Many blogs are full of interesting links that the author has found. Blogs often contain stories or little snippets of information that are interesting to the author.

Even though blogs can be completely free-form, many blogs have a focus. For example, if a blogger is interested in technology, the blogger might go to the Consumer Electronics Show and post entries of the things he/she sees there. If a blogger is interested in a certain disease, he/she might post every news article and every piece of research he/she finds on the disease. If a blogger is interested in economic issues, he/she might post links to articles that discuss the economy and then offer commentary on them.

There are people who use their blogs simply as a scrapbook -- a form of online memory. Whenever the author finds a link or a snippet of information that he/she wants to remember, it gets posted in the blog. Even if no one else ever looks at it, it is still useful to the author because the blog is a searchable electronic medium that the author can access with a Web browser anywhere in the world.

In other words, a blog can be anything the author wants it to be. The thing that all blogs have in common is the reverse-chronological ordering of entries.

Best Blogs

If you would like to get a taste of blogging and look at some of the best blogs out there, the easiest way is to find a "best of the blogs" list and surf around to a few real blogs. Here are several "best of" lists to get you started:

The Blogosphere

One thing about blogs that is so fascinating is the interlinking. There are millions of people keeping active blogs, and bloggers often tend to look at other people's blogs. When they see something they like in their favorite blogs, bloggers will often link to and comment on it.

All of this tight interlinking has created a phenomenon known as the blogosphere. The blogosphere consists of all the cross-linked blogs. Once you arrive at one blog in the blogosphere, it will often have links that connect you to many of the other sites in the blogosphere. You can bounce around in the blogosphere for years if you like that sort of thing.

Many blog readers enter the blogosphere and find one (or a few) bloggers they really like. For example, you might have a blog you use to keep up to date on the latest technology, and another to keep up to date on the latest news. The blogger is acting a lot like a DJ on a radio show, choosing stories, links and/or snippets just like the DJ chooses songs. People who like what the blogger focuses on each day come back and read that blogger every day or so. Celebrities have also gotten into the act, creating blogs as a way to interact with their fans.

See how to create your own blog next.

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Open Source Code

LiveJournal is built on open source software. This means that most of the software used to create and maintain LiveJournal is available for anyone to modify and use. There are several blog toolsets that use LiveJournal's source code, including GreatestJournal and DeadJournal.

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Creating a Blog

Creating your own blog is now easy because there are Web-based toolsets that make the management of your blog incredibly simple -- Blogger, Xanga, TypePad, and LiveJournal are just a few of the services available. You can create basic blogs for free, and most of these toolsets have additional features available for a price. There is also software (such as Movable Type) to help you create and self-publish your blog with even more customization.

I created Marshall Brain's Blog using Blogger. Creating a simple blog is free and only takes about five minutes. You enter your name, e-mail address and a few other pieces of information. You select "the look" (template) for your blog from a set of standard templates. Click a few buttons and you're done.

Now you can add new entries to your blog. Basically, all you do is type in the entry and push the "post" button to post it. You can edit the entry as much as you like by clicking the "edit" button. When you are happy with the new entry, you push the "publish" button to make your new entry visible on your public blog.

One of the best Web sites I have found recently is called ExploreMarsNow.com. I added a short entry about it to my blog in about 10 seconds. The entry says simply:

I really like this Web site: ExploreMarsNow.

That's it. A blog entry can be that simple. Or it can be an entire story. It's all up to you.

With Blogger, you have two options for where your blog can live:

  • Your blog can live on the Blogger.com blog site, called Blogspot.com. You create a custom URL for your blog and Blogspot.com does all the work of hosting your blog. For example, Marshall Brain's Blog can be found at http://MarshallBrain.Blogspot.com.
  • You can host your blog yourself on another Web site. Every time you "publish" your blog, Blogger uses FTP to send the latest HTML code for your blog to the chosen location.

­ The incredible simplicity of blogging is one of the things that makes blogging so popular. But if text isn't enough for you, many blogging toolsets also allow you to post photos, video, and audio files. You can even post via your cell phone.

If you would like to learn more about blogs and blogging, take a look at the links on the following page.