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From the History and Technology column of the May 2005 Perspectives

Blogging: It's Easier Than You Think!

Manan Ahmed, May 2005

Blogging historians are, perhaps, the most surprising development in the recent blog phenomenon. After all, this a group that has long cherished its Luddite credentials as opposed to their counterparts in the social sciences. Yet, the presence of historians in the blogosphere points precisely to the ease with which anyone can start and maintain a blog. No technical skills are required. Here is a brief primer on the technical aspects of a blog and how to get started on your own. Relevant URLs are listed in the box to the right.

Blogging: A Beginner's Glossary

Blog: A "blog"—a contraction of "web log"—is a periodically updated personal journal that is published to a public web site. A blog's content can be anything the author wants it to be, from merely chronicling the most personal of daily routines to writing up scholarly reflections in a most professional manner. How is a blog different from other personal web sites containing similar texts? Several characteristics differentiate a blog from other forms of personal publication on the Internet: (1) A blog is periodically updated (some enthusiasts doing so daily or even more frequently!), and the time-stamped content is archived. (2) Authors of a blog usually allow readers to comment on each "post"—or the latest entry—and enter into a conversation with the author. However, it should be noted that some bloggers, including some of the most popular ones, do not enable comments on their posts for various reasons. (3) Authors of blogs can (and often do) comment on someone else's blog by linking directly to a particular post. (4) Such linking is made possible in particular because of each post's Permalink .

Blogroll: A blogroll is a list of other blogs that the author reads and recommends. By maintaining reciprocal blogrolls, bloggers solicit new readers.

CMS: A "content management system" (usually web-based) works in the background to arrange and manage your "posts" for retrieval (and linking to it) by online readers. There are numerous CMS providers. Some are free, some have one-time fees, some require monthly subscriptions. The level of technical involvement also varies. The most popular CMS providers are Blogger, Movable Type, WordPress, bBlog, Serendipity. They provide templates and other features that make it especially easy to create and maintain a blog. Usually a database (the most common database used is SQL) stores all of the content that is hosted on a server.

Comments: Readers can read any given blog post and submit "comments" on that post. This allows for a conversational thread to develop between the author and the readers.

Permalinks: The unique URL associated with each post on a blog. This allows other bloggers to link directly to a particular post.

RSS—Really Simple Syndication: A more advanced feature (sometimes also called "Rich Site Summary") that allows readers to "subscribe" to your blog and receive notifications via a web client (known as an aggregator or newsreader) alerting them to new posts or other changes in your blog's content. Some add-ons to newer e-mail programs also enable you to gather and view such RSS "feeds."

Stat Tracker: Part of being a blogger is being obsessed with the number of the visitors to your blog and of those who link their blog to yours. Tracking such statistics can be done through free services like Site Meter and Extreme Tracker.
Template/Style sheet: A template, or a Cascading Style Sheet, usually provided by the CMS, determines how your blog looks on screen to its readers. In the template/style sheet, you can chose such features as how many columns your text should appear in, whether text should be on the left/right/middle of the page, which fonts and colors should be used, and whether graphics should appear on your page. Some content management systems allow switching between different templates and themes.

Getting Started

There are a few important recommendations to consider before you join the blogging revolution. It is advisable to start your blogging at a free service to see if blogging is for you, and then migrate once you have survived six months and have an audience larger than your friends, family members, and random students.

Blogger: Blogger (at www.blogger.com) is the easiest free service to get started with. To create a new account and start blogging, go to www.blogger.com, click on create "Create Your Blog Now" (if you prefer, after taking the quick tour or browsing through the "help" links). You will then be asked to choose a user name and a password, and the "display name" that you will use to sign the blog posting; you will have to provide your e-mail address and accept the terms of service. You will then proceed to step 2, in which you first select your blog's title and then select the URL where your blog will appear. Conveniently for most beginners using its services, blogger provides server space on blogspot.com, and the default URL is thus almost ready—all you have to do is fill in the blank in [name].blogspot.com; you can also choose to point the blog to your own domain name if you have one. Finally, you select an already designed template (which you can change later). Once your title, URL, and template are set up, Blogger will now create the blog and direct you to start writing your first post. It is quite easy!

Movable Type/TypePad: Movable Type, another CMS, is also popular. The paid version, TypePad, provides you with the server space and installation and the price point, $50/year, is comparable to doing it all yourself. There is little technical involvement. The Movable Type incarnation (which is free if your blog is limited to one author and you do not require technical support) requires self-installation and tweaking. To use it, you will have to rent your own server space and be able to use FTP software.

WordPress: One great option for those who have rented server space is WordPress. It is a free CMS that has an amazingly easy installation and provides an incredible level of customization. It also comes with various templates—"themes"—to help you customize your online presence.

Once you have gained some experience on a free site and discovered that you like blogging, you may want to migrate to a paid service with more server space and more bells and whistles. Before you do so, however, I strongly recommend registering your own web domain name (such as www.myblog.com). You can do this at any number of sites for a modest price (around $8/year). You can register any available name in the .net, .com, or .org domains. Next, you can point it to your blog. This is very simple to do; your domain registrar will have clear instructions.

—Manan Ahmed, a South Asia history PhD student at the University of Chicago, blogs both through the group blog, Cliopatria, and by himself at chapatimystery.com.

Some Useful URLs