Beyond the Blog: Blogging Alternatives

Blog Blog Blogidy Blog

I suppose I’ve been a blogger longer than I realized. In August of 1996, I started making weekly web updates regarding the progress I was (or wasn’t) making on a computer RPG project. Back then, we just called them websites. Actually, to be more accurate, we called them Web sites as the Web was still something special enough to warrent a capitol letter.

I remember hearing the term blog for the first time around 2000. I actually read one particular personal blog regularly because I found the writing style to be completely compelling. As more and more blogs started to pop up around the Internet, I started to dislike the term. Part of me still felt that these blogs were just specifically formatted web pages and that giving them this trendy new name of ‘blog’ was pretentious.

Blogs Don’t Totally Suck, Only Mostly

I do have to give blogs some level of credit as their popularity has pushed web technologies along during a stagnant time. My favorite by-product is the powerful RSS format. Blogs have also encouraged the adoption of CSS techniques. In fact, at the beginning of last year (2004) I wanted to improve my xHTML/CSS knowledge and created an online journal about snowboarding as a testing ground. You’ll notice that no where on the site do I call it a blog. ;)

I’ve never been a big fan of blogosphere evangelist. Think about it, you don’t find forum users posting endless threads about how posting to forums is going to revolutionize the face of the Internet. The same holds true for countless other online communities. Oh, but that blogging community, they love to love themselves. A few days ago I read a blog post that was about a blog post about blogging. This was a breaking point for me. The day I found that post, I turned anti-blog.

Well, here I am, posting a blog post about being anti-blog. That makes me sound like a hypocrite. What I mean by “anti-blog” does not mean I dislike the blog format itself. For content that is appropriate, blogs are well refined and generally easy to deploy. Aside from just hating the arrogance of the blog culture, I’m particularly none-to-keen on the over-use of blogs. A lot of content that is published via the blog format is not best tailored for that delivery method. In fact, the intent of my own blog here does not fit a blogging format. (Yes, I am guilty!) Ultimately, this format has influenced my content development to be more blog-like and less like I had originally intended. Anyway, I’m going to provide two examples of content types that are often deployed as blogs but would be better delivered in another customized format.

Essay Archives

My original intent for this site was to deliver more essays and less personal ramblings. While a brief post about the latest happenings with Google or Winamp might appeal to my audience, these posts should not be given the same treatment as a post about virtual community – the intended core subject of this site. In fact, this very post deviates from the topic. Anyway, I had originally hoped that this site would be a collection of small essays with useful content about virtual communities. On Life With Alacrity, Christopher Allen has done a good job of keeping the majority of his posts on topic and in an essay style format. With this example in mind, we can consider how his content (and my intended content) could be delivered better.

First, let’s consider where the blog format is weak for essay delivery. A blog is generally organized by date and time. Occasionally a blog will also include a single layer of categories or groups. More than any other parameter, “recent’ content is given priority in a blog. This assumes that users visit your site regularly and keep up with your content. However, content like much of that found on Christopher’s site is timeless. As a first time visitor to his site, a user may be most interested in his oldest posts. The blogging format does not lend itself well to this scenario.

A better solution would be an essay archive format. This format would give more billing to the subject of content and less to the date it was posted. There would still exist a section of the site that would allow for denotations of recently added or updated content; but this would come secondary to a searchable index of multi-layered categorical organization. The format would likely look like a hybrid of software documentation and a directory. (note: I suspect this format exists, but failed to find a good example.)

E-Zine / Webzine

On the Gearbox website, we have a section called Gearblogs. Using a blog style format for this section ultimately created many brick walls. I forced the format to apply to content such as photo albums. While the format worked, I feel it was not a natural delivery. The blog format also created a “one content item per post” feeling. Given the nature of the content we have available for posting, I’ve often wanted to post a variety of pieces glumped together.

A webzine format (nothing new or revolutionary) would work very well. What surprises me is that this format never received a level of refinement comparable to blogs. Blogging is considerably more popular. Perhaps this is because the publication of an e-zine is best suited for a group of people; meanwhile, a single individual with something to say can get the message out quicker by posting a blog. Organizing the development of a full webzine would require extra work, and nobody likes to work anymore.

Back to the format: A webzine format would allow the bulk publication of multiple articles in an “issue” style delivery. This delivery would allow readers to enjoy a variety of information in regular intervals. This content could still be organized such that articles in older issues could easily be looked up via a search feature or a directory. Furthermore, since each issue will likely have the same basic structure (think of how the newspaper always has the same sections), readers can easily go back and catch up on any given section they are interested in.

A webzine could also still offer a constantly updated news section to track current events that would feel too dated if they were held until the next issue publication. In fact, if appropriate, a blog and forum could be rolled into the mix. In fact, this is much like how Sitepoint works. (Greets to all you sitepointers!)

I do plan to develop a webzine to replace Gearblogs in the near future. In retrospect, I think I might have been lured into the trendy nature of the blog format without fully considering how I really wanted to deliver content on our site. Or, perhaps, the blog format was a simple solution that got the job done when I needed to get a lot done quickly.

Conclusion

I haven’t presented any revolutionary ideas; however I still want to stress the need for both CMS developers and content producers to explore other standard delivery formats beyond the blog. I would very much like to see a powerful and easy to use webzine or essay archive service reach the same level of quality as blogger and typepad. Really, it’s time for bloggers to grow up.

What Happened to Winamp?

Winamp used to be this nice little mp3 player.

This weekend I got tired of Winamp bugging me to upgrade, so I did. For the first time in a long time, I started exploring the new features in Winamp. That’s when I discovered ShoutcastTV. I’ve been a Shoutcast Radio listener for a long time now. Two of my favorite shoutcast stations(?) are DI.fm and Soma.fm. But this TV thing – it’s crazy. There exists a huge variety of stations playing all kinds of cotent from nutty home baked comedy to mainstream media. I watched protest videos and commercial free South Park all weekend.

How does this model work? How does someone provide media that has to be licensed on a free online stream with no commercials and make money? Subscription model? Donations?

I don’t know how it works, but I love it. Thank you, Winamp… !

HTML Based Forms… and how they suck…

This is a rant…

I hate HTML based forms. Since I started scrapping together bits of html a decade ago, forms have not significantly changed. They are still the same clunky limited user feedback interface they have always been. We’re building 2K5 website with the exact same level of technology we had in 1995.

Blogger WYSIWYG InterfaceThe textbox is lame. The idea is wonderful, a box you could type lots of text into and submit to a website. But, what happens when we want part of our text to be bold? Web developers have been trying to solve this problem of formatting text for years. The easy solution was to put HTML code directly in your textbox submission. This is great, if you’re an HTML monkey; otherwise, it’s too much for the average user to learn. To make this easier, we created systems such as UBB code where the learning curve was significantly reduced. Wikis developed their own code systems as well. However, it still required that the user learn. Blogger, the tool with which I’m composing this very post, uses a sweet WYSIWYG interface. To get that interface to work, Blogger had to deploy a whole bunch of javascript. From the user standpoint, the solution is awesome. As a developer, I want this problem to be solved by my web browser. Where is my htmltextbox that uses the browser’s built in WYSIWYG editor to compose a formatted entry? After a decade, why is this feature still missing?

Travelocity Has a Cool Date FormMy next complaint is date and time entries. I can’t count the number of times I’ve created form elements for submitting date and time. If I want the form to default to the current date and time, I either have to set it up in my PHP script or use javascript. Many developers have created elegant and easy to use interfaces for selecting date and time. My favorite are the little DHTML pop-up calendars that let you select the date with two quick clicks. Once again, I have to ask, why haven’t we added standard date and time input fields to HTML?

I can’t complain about forms without spending some time talking about how hard they are to customize. Creating a stylish form requires some work. Even when you’ve got all your elements laid out in a user friendly format with some nice CSS styles, you’ll find radio buttons and drop down menus refusing to change background colors and blend into your design. Of course, there are javascript ways around this; but again, why should it require javascript?

There’s no end to my complaints about HTML forms. My core complaint is the lack of evolution since their inception. I hope that, soon, we see a rebirth of forms providing a wider range of standard data types, easier implementation and more extensive customization.

A Few Good Forum Ideas

I’d like to share a couple of forum structure ideas that have made managing the Gearbox Software Forums a little easier and an idea we’ve yet to try.

Internal Combustion

Many message boards offer a forum dedicated to allowing users to flame. For example, the Xterra Owners Club used the traditional and cleverly name, “The Asbestos Lined Room“. Our message board lacked such a forum, and the entire community was littered with negative posts.

Thus, we spun off of the traditional idea, but took it a slightly different direction. We branded the new forum in the Gearbox theme and called it “Internal Combustion”. Unlike many other forums, we still maintained a certain level of moderation over the forum. We presented the forum as a place to voice concerns about anything related to the community that might normally be inappropriate. As a surprising result, we’ve seen a lot of very constructive threads and not much flaming.

We also made another very important decision when creating the Internal Combustion forum. A large portion of our traffic comes from Internet users looking for information that happens to be on our forums. To make it easier for these users to find the information, and to present a more positive impression of our community, we hid the Internal Combustion forum from casual users. The forum can only be viewed by community members when they are logged in. We also actively move threads from other forums into Internal Combustion when appropriate. This has ultimately helped to keep our forums a little bit cleaner.

The Illuminate

Most of our forum users don’t even know it exists. In fact, this post may be the very first and only public posting about it’s existence. I may get flamed for not keeping the secret.

Our message board attracts a lot of immature members. Our moderators stay busy trying to curb trouble makers and keep things generally productive. Even with our best efforts, the public posting areas can be unpleasant at times. In this chaos, we noticed that a lot of our regular members were very mature, very constructive, and an important element in making our community a good place to be. So, we decided to reward these members.

We created a group of hidden forums where only selected members could post. The moderators, company employees, and those selected members all found that these new forums made for a safe haven to chat and interact without the noise of the public forums.

Much to my surprise, I found that the Illuminate actually cared deeply about the success and structure of the community as a whole. Their feedback has been valuable in managing the community. So much so, that I’ve recently proposed organizing the Illuminate as a council to provide regular reports to help the moderators, admins, and our new manager further grow the community.

The Jail

It’s not live yet, but we’re seriously considering it. Currently, banning users is our only real forum of management. We want to expand our punishments and add rewards so that we can better influence the community. As a first step in that direction, we are considering jailing users instead of simply banning them. We would do this by creating a forum hidden the same way Internal Combustion is hidden. When a user earns a ban by breaking rules, we would restrict them to only being able to post in this forum. The idea is that the jailed user can still interact with any other forum member who’s willing to spend time in the jail forum. The jailed user will also have a platform from which they can discuss the nature of their punishment. The user may protest, make amends, or simply enjoy the time of the sentence.

Conclusion

If we go ahead and try the jail out, I’ll discuss the results in a future post. In light of this positive take on changes in the Gearbox Forums, I might also offer a future post discussing what hasn’t worked or – more interestingly – what has worked against us. Hopefully, the jail won’t be part of that post.

The Online Architect

In a previous entry, I mentioned that my official work title at Gearbox would be changing – and it has. Originally, I hired on as community manager. Once here, I started overhauling Gearbox’s online image and have recently redesigned the company’s intranet. I am currently shifting into a completely new set of responsibilities, and will be handing community management off to a new hire.

I am now a director in a division of company called Gearbox Development Services. GDS is designed specifically to support the rest of the company. This includes QA, IT, Web, and application (mostly tools) development. I oversee the development of apps.

Our online infrastructure is my passion. Gearbox will soon be doing things with it’s community that have not been done before. So, while my little box on the official org chart is titled ‘Director of Applications’ – my business cards and signature read ‘Online Architect‘.

Community Building Case Study: Tips from DallasFestEvil.com

Introduction

I began development on the DallasFestEvil.com website around July of 2004. I was working in conjunction with a promoter (now retired). Up-to and during the event, we worked to build an online following. Our budget was very limited and we were working with a previously unsuccessful festival. Somehow, we managed to pull it off. Here are a few of the techniques we deployed.

Techniques

Dynamic High-Content Website – The site itself provided detailed information about the event, including ample visual imagery. Dynamic pages were scripted to auto-update. Some pages were entirely new each day of the event. Even without attention, the site felt alive during the event. The current state of the site represents less than a third of the content available before and during the event.

Efficient Communications – We used a webform to make e-mailing the organizers easy. Every e-mail was processed quickly. This solid feedback loop encouraged many new relationships that proved valuable to the success of the event. If you provide users with a way to contact you – always be responsive!

Quality Mailing List Community – We focused our mailing list efforts towards quality over quantity. We organized contests – such as online scavenger hunts – and awarded prizes provided by our sponsors (remember those positive relationships?). We provided exclusive high-value content to our list members (such as ways to get discounts at the event) and branded the list as an exclusive club (“R.I.P. All Access” as we called it).

Dallas FestEvil

Cross Promotions – We made sure to mention every act, every sponsor, and every vendor on our website (linking when and where we could). In exchange, we asked each of these acts, sponsors, and vendors to do the same for us on their websites. We even provided sample banners and linking code. Then we asked google to re-index each site that linked us. As a result, we were able to significantly raise our page rank and indexing in google. We also tracked referrals and could see which sites were sending us the most traffic.

Photo Albums – During the event, we roamed around taking digital pictures of attendees. We often asked them to pose with actors in costumes and in various scenes. We posted a total of 14 different photo albums (with captions). As we took pictures, we told attendees where they could find photos of themselves online. We also posted informational fliers all over the event grounds. These photo albums generated a large bulk of website traffic during and well after the event.

Fire Spinningrarhello ladies!good peepsso scaredscrewed!pretty lady

Street Teams – Together with volunteers from our mailing list, we posted about the event both online and off. On the Internet, We spread the word to a variety of online communities we both happened to be active in. We posted on a variety of forums and message boards, always being careful to pick relevant sites and post politely. We also monitored and responded to these posts in case anyone had questions or comments. In the real world, we spread fliers and printed up coupons. We made these available in store fronts and other public location.

Conclusion

While most of those techniques may seem obvious, they are often overlooked or at least under-worked. Combined with the production of a quality event, our inexpensive techniques proved a successful and effective way to brand and promote the festival.

A public posting area – providing a way for the community to interact – would have been a good addition. However, we felt we could not afford the personnel bandwidth to properly monitor and care for a forum type solution. Without proper care, a forum could have done more harm than good. Unattended forums are often hit by spamming and trouble makers, making them unpleasant for the community to use. If you’re going to do it, you gotta do it right.

Virtual Community – What is it we’re talking about here anyway?

Definition of a Virtual Community

I could simply post a link to wikipedia’s definition of virtual community and leave it at that. The free encyclopedia says:

“A virtual community is a group whose members are connected by means of information technologies, typically the Internet.”

However, I think it important to carefully consider the scope of this definition. In 1910, an information technology called ham radio began to connect groups of people. Ham radio communities are different from our modern view of Internet based virtual communities; however the idea is the same and still fits our definition. Thus, ham radio users formed their own “virtual communities”.

But, the idea could be even older than ham radio! Hundreds of years ago, American Indians used an information technology known as smoke signals. (this connection was mentioned at sxsw) Perhaps native Americans used these smoke signals to form virtual communities of their own.

I suspect one could reach further into history and find an endless slew of arcane virtual community examples. However, in our world and our time, Internet based virtual communities have come and gone in numbers far beyond my desire to estimate. I think its safe to assume that the Internet is by far the most popular virtual community platform in history.

Examples of Internet based Virtual Communities

Here is a brief and random list of technologies that support various types of virtual community on the Internet:

Usenet: Perhaps the oldest (1979) and definitely the most established message posting system on the Internet. While usenet has grown easier to use, it still suffers from greatly from spam.

Forums: Forum software has grown to be the de facto solution for building an instant community. Generally speaking, forums work much like mini versions of Usenet. The advantage of using a forum solution is the ability to quickly provide a standard yet powerful communication platform. The disadvantage is inheriting a batch of common social problems that seemingly result from the design of the technology. Generally, the only way to overcome many of these social problems is via constant moderation of the system. This can often times turn what seems like a cost effective solution into an extra expense.

IRC: Internet Relay Chat is the oldest underworld on the Internet. Servers and networks are generally provided by enthusiast instead of corporations. Chat networks of all kinds have come and gone, meanwhile the world of IRC always persists. It is not uncommon for IRC communities to grow significantly large. While the technology has slowly evolved, the core of it remains mostly the same.

Blogs: Perhaps mostly successful because of their self-promotional nature; Weblogs have grown into this creepy Death Star esque concept called the Blogosphere. With Blogs, the supporting technology seemed to have slowly converged instead of suddenly being invented. While the pointless ramblings of the Blogosphere may be filling the Internet with seemingly trivial and pointless data, all the fuss brought us innovations in technology such as the wonders of the RSS feed.

Social Networks: Somewhere along the way, someone decided to start looking at ways we can map our relationships within virtual communities. The weblogish site known as Live Journal does this by allowing users to maintain friends lists. This feature allows a user to explore posts made by friends, friends of friends, and so on. The concept goes a step further on MySpace: a conglomerate of far too many trendy communication technologies that encourage the exploration of the social network via photos. These sites have often become brave new networking grounds for various industries. MySpace, for example, seems to appeal to performers – ranging from bands to porn stars – who are looking to promote their talent.

MMORPG: Multiplayer computer (and video) games are popular foundations for virtual communities, but none more than the massively multiplayer online role playing games. This technology provides a very natural aspect to community development – the aspect of space and time. Where many communities allow users one-click instant access to another section of the community, an MMORPG provides a conceptual world where a user must spend time moving from one location to another. This concept of space is the key factor in how human communities began forming in real life. Remember, without information technologies, communities could only form among groups of people living close together. This suggests that the aspect of space and time should greatly influence the social development of a virtual community.

ARG: Alternate Reality Games probably aren’t as new as they seem. In fact, being more of a game than a technology, ARGs might not be appropriate for this list. However, the realm of ARGs seems to be a popular foundation for many recent virtual communities. Perhaps one of the most recent and popular ARG related communities is Our Colony. In my experience, these games/communities are generally marketing driven campaigns. I would love to see examples of ARG communities that are not related to a corporate agenda.

Wrapping It Up

The information above is not comprehensive nor particularly uncommon knowledge; however, many of the ideas I’ve pointed out are good foundations for future discussions. There’s so much more I’d like to talk about and I think it might be fun to see how long the above list could be; so I invite comments about stuff I missed.

In the future, I’ll offer extended dialog on the social and technical aspects of various virtual community types and try to note some things that can be learned from each.

CSS and State Machines

It suddenly occurred to me last night, CSS should include a state machine.

In a subtle way, it already does with “:hover”.

The hover state is triggered based on the mouse cursor’s position. This very basic state allows designers to produce some interesting results.

Additionally, perhaps CSS should allow designers to create their own custom states. It could allow designers to assign state changes based on user interaction with page elements – such as onclicks. A page element could have unique CSS formatting depending on a given state. This concept provides a foundation to build highly interactive page elements without (or with less) javascript.

One application for this system is multi-paged documents. By hiding pages inside divs with both hidden and display states defined, a designer could build a menu that flips through any number of pages without requiring a new page load (a server request). Just think, a complete website could be stored in a single .html document.

State change interpolation is a potential subsequent addition to CSS. Pretend you used states to create a menu that window shades on double click. If you toggled between hidden and display states to change the menu, the animation is going to jump instantly from one state to the other. However, if you could interpolate the menu height from 100% to 0% between two states, you could create a smooth animation.

This would open the door to impressive interfaces, but without the use of Javascript.

SXSW, in review…

Introduction…

Austin during the day. It’s been a few days since I returned from SXSW. The trip as a whole was wonderful. I enjoy being in Austin no matter the reason; and this trip was particularly rewarding. However, the Interactive Festival itself was less than I had hoped for.

I hoped I would find myself surrounded by scores of seasoned professionals. Rather, I found myself waste deep in blogosphere evangelists. Instead of being excited by the potential to interact with people from all over the industry, I found myself slightly creeped out by hundreds of Apple laptops sending blog updates through the air around me.

The First Day…

SXSW vendors area Jeffrey Zeldman provided my introduction to the event with his keynote. I enjoyed it. From there, many of the panels were very good. I found Digital Convergence in Central Texas to be very informative, although I would have liked a little more time for questions. Social Software and Shades of Trust was probably one of the most technical panels for the entire event, but I felt a bit out of place. Both panels were well done, and got me inspired about the rest of the event.

The Second Day

Mount Bonnell About that time, my significant other showed up. She works in promotions, so we hit Open Source Marketing next. Things started to break down. One of the panelists seemed more like a used car salesman than any kind of information technology professional. Meanwhile, too many questions from the audience were preceded with a discussion of their personal blogs. But, at the very least, there was some value in the panel on the whole.

I was involved in several start-up companies, but I was never involved in investor relations; so we attended the panel on How to Obtain Start-up Funding. The panel was great, but the crowd was so thin. It seemed I’d finally escaped the blogosphere zombies, I guess they’re not interested in business. Anyway, “Social Software” was the whisper on a handful of lips in the room. The panel was one of the best panels we attened. I left feeling excited.

The Third Day

Waterfall Optomistic, we took a bold step and attended a panel with “Blog” in the title. As it turns out, Blogging While Black was full of excellent panelists. I do, however, miss an Internet that seemed to be colorblind. I really enjoyed the days when online characters lacked ethnicity, race, age, or even a face. I suppose those days a long gone, and I think it’s a little sad that the next generation will never get to experience it.

We skipped Anna‘s keynote. We accidently attended Al Franken. I wondered who was trendier.

Design Eye for the Idea Guy was almost good. Somehow I got the impression that it would be a live redesign, not the analysis of a redesign done shortly before the event. Too bad.

Last Day

Fake? We woke up early for the last day, and we raced our ways to the biggest let down of the entire event. I was stoked about a panel called Web Design 2010. I was ready to chew on statistics and hear from educated industry professionals and scholars about the current online trends. I was not impressed. It wasn’t that the panel lacked interesting, talented professionals. Doug Bowman‘s work is a big inspiration to me and I have much respect. Just, somehow, the panel was completely inappropriate for the subject matter.

The moderator’s first question to the panel was simply dumb, “Are Web apps going to happen?” As a developer of Web apps, I was shocked by the question, and more so by the answer, “That depends on how you define Web apps.” There I was, sure that someone had defined the term “Web application” already – silly me. Eris Free dodged the topic with a comment about not having had her coffee. What ultimately followed was a horrid discussion on technology with gross misinformation. Panelists constantly referred to the Internet as the Web. They also referred to network applications as Web apps. It was obvious that the panel lacked having a single software engineer or even so much as a server side programmer. The panel did not seem to understand the basic infrastructure of the World Wide Web much less networks in general.

The panel would have been much better if the subject matter related to topics the panel actually knew a little something about. I felt bad for some of the panelists as they were obviously uncomfortable. More so, I felt really bad for the attendies, as many of them were eagerly learning horrid misinformation. In that regard, I was really upset by the panel. So much so, that I couldn’t address the panelists afterwards, even with my significant other urging me to do so. I feel better knowing I wasn’t the only attendee left disappointed.

After a little venting and cooling, we caught the tail of Remix Culture. Hearing about the world of Creative Commons rocked our socks, too bad we missed the beginning.

We barely managed to dodge Blogging Versus Journalism. Whew!

Lunch Break! We made it back from lunch just in time to slip GearboxSoftware.com in the hat for the Accessibility Shootout. When the panel tore into the first site they picked, I suddenly wanted to take mine out of the hat. It was too late, and I ended up in the spotlight. For the most part, I really enjoyed it. The panel was well informed and really dug into the details of the site – I learned a lot in the process. In the end, they told me I was doing a good job and headed the right direction. Given our target audience, I felt real good about where we were at with accessibility. Before we left, my significant other managed to get an autographed copy of Joe Clark’s new book.

SXSW in Summary…

SXSW was not what I had hoped. I must admit, for a film and music festival, they’ve worked hard to make the Interactive aspect work. However, coming from a technology background, the event wasn’t the focus I was looking for. I feel there is a missed opportunity in Texas for a gathering of information technology and Internet culture specialists.

The Trip in Summary…

Austin at night. The best part of the trip, for me, was catching up with two extremely talented Austin developers, Kirk and Vito. My breif time with each of them provided more depth and insight into our industry than every panel I attended combined. Mixed with a little time spent enjoying Austin with someone I love, and you have a very wonderful trip indeed.