The Big Blog Boot Camp

I’ve just spent the last two days with The Big Blog Company helping with their boot camps for journalists. The idea is to gather small groups of between two and four journalists at tBBC headquarters in Chelsea, set them up with a blog and an aggregator, then let them loose on the blogosphere. We explain not just the nuts and bolts of how to blog, but also examine the implications blogging has for their profession.

Adriana Lukas-Cronin did the first boot camp on the 17th Dec which unfortunately I couldn’t get to, but I was delighted to be able to help out this week.

The advantage of having such small groups is that we can work in a very ad hoc manner, tailoring the discussions for the needs of each blogger. Some people want to understand the technology because although they have heard of blogs they don’t know which software to use or what RSS is or how to use an aggregator. Some people want to understand how they can use blogging to help their own careers develop and whether they can ‘monetize’ their blog (quick answer: no, you won’t make money from your blog, but you might make money because of your blog). Some are more interested in how blogging will affect them personally, or how they can find their own niche and their own voice, than how the technology works.

If we had large groups, we wouldn’t be able to give them the individual attention that they need, and it’s important to us that participants come away from the session feeling not just that they have a better grasp of the blog phenomenon, but also that it is something that they can go on to explore on their own afterwards. We give them a taster and hope that they like it – if they keep their blogs going, then so much the better.

These mini-events are free – they’re our way of helping journalists understand the blogging medium, a goal which has benefits not just for them, but for us and everyone else working with blogs. We are trying to shatter the diary myth before it makes it into print, and to stimulate more informed commentary. (Contrary to many people’s assumptions, it is easier to understand blogging if you are a blogger – the experience can’t be fully comprehended from the outside.)

The bootcamps have been both enjoyable and successful with good feedback from the journalists who took part, including David Tebbutt, who seems to have taken to blogging like a duck to water.

If you are interested in coming to future boot camps, the next one will be on 30th December then 10th January looks like the next possible date, so drop Adriana a line for details.

500 down, 3061 to go

I’ve been gathering feeds in my Bloglines aggregator for some time now, hoarding them like a bower bird in a tinsel shop, weaving them together into one unholy unread mess. A few months ago I had a flurry of half-hearted search activity for the perfect aggregator, and although then I think I concluded that the RSS plug-in for Firefox was nifty and that BlogMatrix Jäger was also worth a look, my nomadic non-laptop owning lifestyle of the time meant that a web-based aggregator was the only serious option, so I stayed with Bloglines.

At the beginning of this week I had 310 feeds showing around 25,000 unread posts. I had toyed with the idea of declaring RSS bankruptcy and just starting again, but I was getting increasingly unhappy with chaotic state of my feeds and deep down I knew that hitting ‘mark all posts read’ would do nothing to solve the problem in the long run.

There were two issues. Firstly, I never had enough time to sit and read all my feeds, or even to work out which ones I could safely mark as read whilst actually leaving them unread. Thus I would pick which feeds to read based on which had the lowest number of unread posts (anything in double figures was likely to get ignored, triple figures ensured I wasn’t gonna touch it for a goodly long time). Secondly, although I had made a stab at categorising them through the use of folders, they really were all over the place and utterly chaotic. This meant that ever time I glanced at Bloglines I was confronted with one fugly mess.

Aggregator crisis point had been reached.

The advantage of hanging out with well informed blog-geek Mac-obsessives is that when I whine about needing a new aggregator, I am given advice and I happily make the assumption that whatever is recommended is going to be good. So over the last couple of days I have migrated my OPML (someone, please sort out some sort of OPML standard so that I can export/import without having to manually to fix crappy, import-snafuing code) from Bloglines to NetNewsWire.

Immediately my unread headlines list diminished to less than 4500, just because NNW only pulls down the latest 30 headlines, instead of the maximum of 200 that Bloglines marks as unread before it stops counting. I managed to quickly delete 25 blogs I knew I didn’t need anymore, and easily sorted the rest into folders. Sitting now on the train back to Dorset, I’ve read through around 500 posts, because NNW caches them locally so I don’t need to be connected in order to read.

At last, I feel like I am in control of my aggregator again. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information that I ought to be absorbing, instead of feeling scared to open my aggregator because the unread posts are gonna overtop any second and flood my poor little brain, I feel like I have a nice, tidy resource that I can dip into any time I want. Of course, much of this is an illusion, facilitated by a folder cunningly called ‘blogs/tech/stuff’ which contains pretty much everything that’s currently uncategorised, but I can cope with that act of wilful self-deception.

All this, the offline reading, the chilling out with my friends’ feeds, the feeling of regained control, has been reinvigorating. There have been blogs of friends that I’ve not read in ages because I felt like I ‘should’ be reading blogs related to work, even though frequently those are some of the least interesting blogs to read. No one can begrudge me spending a train journey reading through non-work stuff, not even me and I’m the worst workaholic I know.

Thing is, it’s reading the unrelated stuff, the fun stuff, that is important. It’s through picking up on a random comment by someone else that some how fits in just so with something that someone else said and something that I was thinking that pokes my brain and gives me that a-ha! moment that I constantly seek. It’s through faffing and playing around on the edges of things and allowing my brain to synthesise ideas without the imposition of expectation or structure that I stand the greatest chance of coming to some new understanding. It’s through finding a gem of a post that I regain/retain my love for blogging – and, doing what I do, maintaining a love for blogging is essential.

Ecto – a little bundle of blogging brilliance

A few months ago Joi Ito was encouraging me to try using Ecto, a desktop blogging app written by Adriaan Tijsseling. I downloaded it but events got the better of me and I never installed it. Recent conversations with friends about Ecto and its compatibility with nearly every blogging platform out there reminded me that I’d not yet tried it, so I nabbed the latest build and, this time, remembered to actually install the thing.

Ecto is, simply put, excellent. I have set up almost all my blogs in it (apart from Blog-City, which doesn’t seem to play nicely with anyone else anyway) and can easily write posts for any of them all in the same app. Ecto’s wysiwyg editor makes writing posts simple – I can adjust font, text justification, add bulleted or numbered lists, indent, use blockquotes and insert links and images without ever needing to resort to code. Yet Ecto also allows HTML control freaks to perfect their code by providing an HTML view as well so if you want a minimalist post you can easily strip out any unwanted tags that have accidentally crept in. Having Ecto installed on the Mac means that it can make use of Apple’s ‘as you type’ spellchecker too, which is very handy for people like me whose spelling tends towards the random. You can also blog when you don’t have a connection and save your post for uploading later.

I have eight blogs set up in Ecto, and another five or six yet to sort out. Some of them I never post to anymore, some I post to irregularly, but I can now get at all of them using one single UI (except Blog-City, and the only reason I want that in Ecto is so that I can more easily copy old Chocolate and Vodka posts over to Blogware). I am hoping that this will mean I’ll post more, and more often, as I no longer need to swap between web-based admin pages.

Ecto is also far more user-friendly than a lot of blog backends. One of the reasons that I used to dislike Movable Type was because the admin pages aren’t very nice, and that same reason was one very large part of why I moved from Blog-City to Blogware earlier in the year and why I slated the Blogger redesign. The blogging user experience is in general still lacking, with many tools seemingly created for the benefit of developers rather than end users – notable exceptions to this are Typepad and Blogware. Ecto overcomes all UI problems by sidestepping the need to use them at all. The only reason I now have to visit Blogger, my various MT blogs or Blogware are for functionalities that Ecto can’t give me, such as comment spam management or viewing visitor stats.

I can see great potential for Ecto as a business tool too. MT is an obvious choice for businesses wanting to set up blogs internally or externally, but the UI can be very intimidating for non-techies. One option is to design a wrapper for MT that disguises the nuts and bolts by providing a more intuitive set of admin pages. Ecto, on the other hand, provides a simple solution for smaller businesses that can’t afford to have a custom-built system installed. It is just like a stripped-back version of Word, using instantly recognisable icons and a wysiwyg editor that most newbie bloggers would find comfortable to use and which businesses will be able to install without a massive outlay (licences are less than £10).

If you haven’t tried Ecto yet, give it a shot, even if you have just the one blog. The offline editing and simple interface are well worth a tenner.

Personally, I blame Danny O’Brien

This time last year, I was happy in my ignorance. I had never really thought very hard about the software that I was using – I used what got the job done and didn’t think about what it was I really wanted from the software I was doing it with. I put up with foibles and crashes and lost data. Well, I was on Windows, so it seemed like part of the deal.

Then in June I went to NotCon, my first ever geek conference. At NotCon I saw Danny O’Brien give his Life Hacks talk, about the way that successful programmers bent apps to their will, creating a working landscape which fit in around their habits, rather than twisting themselves up to fit the landscape imposed upon them by developers.

I’d never considered software in that light before. Suddenly, I started looking at my fugly PC in a whole new way. I started using Notepad instead of Word because it was somehow less messy. I got increasingly cross with Eudora because it wouldn’t let me deal with my mail the way I wanted to. I started to really dislike the entire Windows environment in a way that I hadn’t before. Years of the Blue Screen of Death had, obviously, taken its toll on my saintly nature, but now I’d moved beyond the rolling of the eyes and the sighing and had started to look at that nice hefty hammer I own with a twinkle in my eye.

Then, I got a Mac and a whole new suite of software and I became really demanding of it all. The first thing under scrutiny was my text editing app.

Although this Mac has MS Office on it, it’s a wee bit unstable and Word crashes frequently. I had come to dislike Word anyway, so I didn’t shed a tear over that one. So I started using TextEdit and, whilst that’s 100% stable and easy enough to use, it doesn’t give me a word count and there are no layout options.

Then I started using SubEthaEdit, which produces cleaner files and does wonderful things with Rendezvous and collaborative authoring, but although it provides a great character count, it fails to count words (as far as I can tell, anyway). It also can’t cope with text formatting and has no layout facilities.

So I downloaded Ulysses, a tool designed primarily for authors. It has some great features, including tabbed documents and a multi-pane screen with the ability to keep notes in a separate pane. Whilst these aspects are very good, there is something about Ulysses that makes me uncomfortable. It may be the way that the paragraph numbers don’t update properly, or the fact that I can’t change the zoom so find the text too small to comfortably read. I don’t know. But something makes Ulysses a not entirely perfect user experience.

I have had BBEdit recommended to me by some of my developer friends, but it costs $199, which is precisely $199 more than I have to spend at the moment. Bare Bones Software also do the much more affordable TextWrangler, but from the looks of it, it really is aimed at developers in the way that BBEdit is.

TextForge is just like TextEdit – just far too vanilla for my needs. I really want something that sits between the basic apps like TextForge and the horrible monstrosity that is Word. All I really want for my basic, day-to-day writing is font formatting, basic layout such as bulleted lists and tables, spellcheck as you write, and a word count facility. Tabbed documents would be very useful, as in Ulysses, along with a zoom facility and several levels of undo, but I guess I can live without those. I’m glad to be rid of Word’s automatic ‘styling’ – I hand code any HTML I need for blog posts, so losing ‘smart quotes’ is a blessing. The number of blog posts that have been stuffed up by those stupid smart quotes is astounding.

So up til recently I have been coping by smooshing together SubEthaEdit and Word, doing most of my actual writing in SubEthaEdit and then doing any pretty formatting in Word. That’s fine, it works ok, but it’s not ideal.

Tonight I have downloaded iText, a freeware app that seems to sit in that middle ground I’m so keen on. I can’t say that it’s perfect – it does do some stupid things like put spaces round pastes in the way that Word does, which means inserting an URI in between two double quote marks results in extraneous spaces which need deleting, but I lived with that in Word, I suppose I can live with that in iText. I don’t want to have to, but it’s swings and roundabouts. I will give iText a trial run over the next few days, see how it pans out, but barring tables and and bulleted lists and spellcheck as you write and several levels of undo, it seems ok.

If you have any suggestions for free- or cheapware for Mac OS X, please leave a comment. I would so like to find my perfect text editing app, particularly as I spend the majority of my day editing text.

UPDATE: iText turned out not to support some Polish and Welsh characters, which pretty much rules it out for every day use for me. I am now trying out Tex-Edit Plus as suggested by Michael in the comments, which supports Polish characters such as ę and ł, but not Welsh characters such as ŵ and ŷ. There may be a way to extend Tex-Edit using AppleScripts, but so far I’ve not found one that sorts out the Welsh localisation. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

How we work

Great blog from Rod McLaren who looks at, amongst other thing, how we work. McLaren has gathered together a veritable feast of archive commentary about how creative people work, including this fascinating interview with film critic Anthony Lane:

“People think that you have these things called ideas and that writing is a matter of imposing them on the subject material, whereas it’s only in the writing that I discover what it is that I think.”

This is me precisely, and this is why I blog – it’s in blogging that I realise what it is that I think about the things I am blogging about. Indeed, I do the same thing when I’m talking. Thoughts don’t spring forth fully formed in my head, they sort of ooze out of my mouth, shaped by the words I used to express them, frequently mutating along the way. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one whose brain works like that.

(Via A Gentleman’s Commonplace.)

True Voice: 20 Questions

As part of the True Voice seminar series Stowe, Greg and I have posed 20 questions that we would like anyone interested in blogging to chew over and answer. So far we have had some great responses from people such as Robert Scoble and Marc Canter, but we are eager for more!

So, what are we asking? Here’s a sample:

4. Blogging has been characterized as a ‘social medium’: what makes blogging social?
9. How can businesses and employees who blog unofficially learn to peacefully co-exist?
12. In what ways do we need to support staff bloggers in order to ensure that they can blog effectively?
16. What are the basic technical concepts necessary to understand about how blogs work?

If our 20 questions whet your appetite, then reserve your place at the first True Voice seminar, in New York on 26 Jan 05.

Environments for growth

Chris Whipple writes about how various blogging and social networking sites have managed the creation of developer communities. He discusses the importance of the ‘RERO (release early, release often) mentality’ and compares the developer communities of Six Apart, Technorati and Flickr, drawing some pertinent conclusions:

These three companies have had vibrant communities spring up around them thanks to a combination of developer relations and the high quality of their product or service. Each company has taken a slightly different approach to providing an environment in which to court the developers needed to grow their offering. There’s still room for improvement in each of these communities and I think they can learn from one another. Six Apart and Flickr should allow developers to annotate their API documents. Technorati should keep the spammers out by walling off its developer’s wiki. Flickr should open up its mailing list archives; this is valuable information that needs to be indexed by search engines.

True Voice (The Business of Blogging)

Stowe Boyd, Greg Narain and I have been putting together the True Voice series of seminars which will launch in the New Year, but now we’re widening our net, as Stowe explains on Get Real:

I am going to ask a few dozen colleagues to get involved in a short project over the next few weeks: 20 Questions related to the Business of Blogging. I invite anyone who would like to offer a question to do — but no answers yet. I will be launching a new blog with the 20 questions later this week, and then will be soliciting answers from our extended network of talented bloggers.

The second thing that we are doing with the seminars is community-oriented: as soon as you register you will become part of a community of other attendees. We will be outfitting every registrant with access to the ongoing discussion about the seminar content, as well as access to the 20 questions project. This membership will extend through the end of 2005.

Read more on Get Real.

I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into the True Voice seminars – see you there!