I was born in 1956, when ordinary people had far fewer opportunities to communicate their ideas to mass markets. For most of my adult life, there were only a few choices to get the word out. You could send out mass mailings or you could hit the telephones, dialing number after number. You could hang paper flyers on telephone poles and fences. You could knock on doors and talk to the folks house by house. Or you could stand on a soapbox and shout your ideas.
These traditional “techniques” are still available and they are still sometimes quite effective, at least to those with hordes of volunteers at their service. The Internet, however, has opened up many additional possibilities for spreading your ideas far and wide. With that great power, however, comes serious responsibility to spend the time to obtain a working knowledge of the underlying technology. How many bloggers are out there now? At least 100 million.
Being a proficient user of a word processor is only the first step. Putting your written work on your own website also requires you to understand at least the basic tools of blogging software. With those two steps, you might already be on a big slippery slope.
Many people are perfectly happy blogging on a free site such as LiveJournal MSN’s Spaces or Google’s Blogger, or one of the many sites with low fees as long as your traffic is modest (e.g., Typepad). Choosing to place your blog with one of these simple on-line sites keeps things really easy. You needn’t ever load any software or maintain the “backend” of your blog.
In 2006, I suspected that I would want to take advantage of many modern day multi-media tools. That’s why I chose to base my blog on WordPress. Going with WordPress allowed me to take advantage of numerous constantly evolving add-ons. I chose it because it kept my site flexible for using multimedia technology that, in return for its flexibility, can require a substantial investment in time. If you’re like me, you will thus develop a love/hate relationship to the flexible do-it-yourself blogging software and the many multi-media tools that allow you to feed your blog in sophisticated ways. You’ll become enthralled with the power these things give you to package your ideas. But you might also become frustrated when you see how much time it takes to learn to make proficient use of these tools.
Here’s an ironic twist: Since 2006, the free online sites now allow you to easily incorporate many kinds of images, sounds and video on blogs. Therefore, if you aren’t exceedingly greedy for technology or traffic, you can now have it all. Yet you’ll still need to decide how much multi-media to incorporate into your blog, even if it’s free and simple. Therefore, much of this post applies to all of us who have decided to jump into the world of blogging.
In 2006, I founded Dangerous Intersection. I hired a web designer who designed this site (thanks go to Nick Smith), and he has been an endless source of good ideas for improving this site . In the first few months of this blog’s existence, I was delighted that my new blog allowed me to communicate to audiences sometimes as large as 10 to 15 people per day. I did not feel compelled to do much work regarding the blog other than spending some time writing posts. In those “early” days, I relied solely on my word processor and my basic blogging software (based on WordPress). In those early days, I also made the important decision of inviting several other writers to share this forum with me–there’s no need to try to “feed the monster” all by yourself–that’s too damned time-consuming for people with real lives.
Dangerous Intersection has now grown to a daily audience that exceeds 5,000 visitors (about 100,000 unique visitors per month). As I watched the audience grow, I explored ways to spruce up the blog. I heard from many sources that new software technologies could make my blog more “professional looking,” which might attract more readers. I also found, however, that making the blog more presentable put me on a technological slippery slope.
My first step beyond word processing was to start incorporating photographic images into my posts. Having access to images required me to carry around a camera and to make sure that I actually took the pictures (I love my $180 Canon SD1100SI). The desire to have photos also required me to edit the images and take the time to attach them to various posts. Luckily, I found that much of this work could be facilitated by use of a free photo-organizing and photo-editing program, “Picasa.” Because I wanted additional control over the images, I also added Photoshop Elements to my software collection (Elements is a consumer grade program costing about $100). Sometimes, though, I need an image that I don’t have and I don’t have time to create. For those moments, I have occasionally gone shopping to buy images (I’ve used Dreamstime, for example, which offers many images for $1 each).
Writing original content is time-consuming, of course. I found that writing posts always took more time than I expected. I incorporated a voice recognition program called Dragon 10 in order to allow myself to dictate my rough drafts; this saved an immense amount of time. In fact, I’m dictating this article on Dragon, a widely available software package that costs about $150.
All of these incredible software applications don’t magically animate themselves; you need to learn how to use them. Further, there is a significant learning curve to make even rudimentary use of these technologies. In my experience, this learning curve will be painful unless one of two things happens: a) you spend a lot of time reading the manual and exploring the program or b) you are lucky to have a friend who will sit down with you and help you through the process. I ended up doing a lot of both.
How else can you make a website interesting? Occasionally, you might want to use a spreadsheet. Or maybe one would want to create a piece of artwork (or even an animation) to illustrate a post. Each of these modern miracles involves the use of separate sophisticated software packages that offer you exactly what you’re looking for, if only you’re willing to spend enough time to become proficient at using them.
But why stop at digital images when you can also videotape interviews with interesting folks and edit those interviews on your own computer? That was the next compelling step for me. Last year, I started doing interviews, which I edited on my desktop computer (I had purchased a fast RAM-laden machine so that it wouldn’t choke on video editing). Rather than hosting these videos at your own site, I’ve been uploading your videos to YouTube and then linking those YouTube videos to DI. I was tempted to host my own videos until I learned that a successful video could easily bring the site to its knees. I admit that I’m still learning the ropes regarding video, but I have been amazed at what you can do using a $300 digital camcorder, a $20 tripod, a $10 shop light from Home Depot, a $30 microphone and a $100 video editing program. Consider, for example, this interview of a local musician, Leslie Sanazaro). A big caveat: I’ve found that doing a good jot editing video takes me about an hour for each minute of video. I’m certainly hope that I’ll get more efficient with practice. If you want to add your own soundtrack, you can get to work recording your own music on a highly sophisticated digital studio such as the Roland BR-600 (plus your musical instrument).
A relatively recent software edition for me is an image-grabbing tool called Snagit (costing about $50. This slick program allows you quickly make screen grabs; I use it to facilitate commenting on portions of others websites.
Every month or two, I learn of a new piece of software that will supposedly make my work faster and easier. My ever-growing reaction is: “What is the time-investment required of this technology?” I’ve recently been advised that if I really do care about traffic, I will need to spend far more time promoting my site on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social sites, as well as social bookmarking sites such as Digg and Reddit. “All it will take” is an hour or two per day, I’ve been told. I know that this advice is solid, but I just can’t bear the thought of spreading myself thinner. Blogging was supposed to be fun and easy, right?
My latest adventure on the slippery slope is to redesign my own site. The designer of the “classic” edition of DI (Nick Smith) told me that I could save a ton of money by designing my own site using WordPress (a free open-source platform). At first, I didn’t believe that this was feasible for a non-programmer to put together a website, but I now do (the design of Dangerous Intersection was completely revamped two weeks ago). It cost me about 120 hours of my time trying to figure out how to install and tweak the basic program, the “plug-ins,” the “widgets” and various stray bits of code, most of it offered for free by people who love figuring these sorts of things out and offering their work on the Internet. I also need to insert some applause here to the people at Solostream, makers of WP-Vybe, a sophisticated WordPress template that cost $100. I’d recommend WordPress to anyone considering his or he own blog. It is oddly satisfying to have a deeper understanding of the “parts” that make the website run the way it does.
I’m really pleased the various types of information that I am now able to present at Dangerous Intersection, but it is taken a substantial investment learning the technology in order to make it all possible. Of course, it would have been easier to pay the salaries of people who would do all of this work for me, but that’s not in the cards, given the minimal amount of money that advertising brings to this site (a couple dollars per day, perhaps enough to pay for the hosting—don’t believe everything you read!).
I fully realize that I could’ve kept this website small and simple. It was certainly my choice to jump in and try to up the ante. I’m writing this article to serve as my word of warning to anyone else who is tempted to make a small simple website “more professional.” Having a serious blog is a lot like making the decision to have a child. Before I had children, veteran parents repeatedly told me that having a child was both exhausting and rewarding. I think that about sums it up for maintaining a multi-media website. It’s often exhausting, often rewarding. And here’s another caveat: writing for a blog with gusto will take you away from your loved ones. Beware of Koyaanisqatsi . . .
Web 2.0 refers to the extraordinary opportunity that the Internet now offers to citizen journalists and hobbyists to set up shop as their own media outlets, to reach vast numbers of people with their creative efforts. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the great power offered by modern technology to regular people like the various authors at this site.
If you are interested in getting heavily into blogging, I’m definitely here to encourage you. The main trick, however, is to not get so caught up in the technology that you forget what motivated you to start that website in the first place. On a regular basis you need to remember to put aside some of that amazing gadgetry in order to spend some quiet time thinking elevated thoughts and writing elegant strings of words on your word processor. For most of us aspiring writers, our writing is our strength, and we need to remember to nourish our writing to allow it to serve as the foundation for all of those cool multi-media bells and whistles.