Blogs: Less filters, more voices
The Allentown Times
Diaries go online, but what's the value of shooting from the hip?
Friday, November 17, 2006
By KRISTEN ZIEGLER
The Allentown Times
Psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James once said "The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual."
In its formative years, the internet was dominated by a sect of computer programmers armed with knowledge of hypertext markup language, or HTML. More recently, the advent of online journal writers who learned the code and chronicled their own personal adventures, have introduced the masses to the internet.
Today, Web sites such as blogger.com, which use technology to circumvent the code, have opened the web creation experience to the everyday internet surfer.
But as the number of web logs, or blogs, continues to increase, they challenge the concept of community and the value of traditional media, while raising questions about the professionalism and validity of the content.
The blogger community
While blogger.com hosts bloggers ranging from an advice columnist who won't answer questions about sports, to a vegan ice cream maker, Allentown residents have discovered their own reasons to post online.
"I'm very excited about the turnaround in Allentown and the way things are moving forward in the West End Theatre District and I wanted something that would provide people with what is going on," said Damien Brown, author of Our West End Neighborhood.
Though his blog reports on events scheduled in the area, he also uses the page to project his vision of the community.
When AutoZone, a national auto-parts retailer, began planning a new location at 19th and Tilghman streets, many residents objected. Brown used his blog to organize the neighborhood.
"We gathered signatures to petitions in the street and on an online petition and we gathered 200 signatures in a short amount of time," said Brown. "What I would love to see on blogs-- I would love to see Allentown as a city connected by blogsIt would be really neat to see a network of blogs where residents voice their concerns," said Brown.
These signatures were presented at a Zoning Commission meeting, where AutoZone agreed to some concessions to appease those residents, including planting a wrought iron fence, which would have separated the property from the sidewalk.
Eventually, AutoZone discontinued its plans at the site altogether, which Brown said lent his site some credibility.
"I think my blog has contributed to the buzz about the area and what is happening in the area," said Brown.
For Everette Carr, Brown's blog meant more.
"Unbeknownst to him, he was the catalyst for me to create a blogIt was his blog that told me I can do this and people would find it interesting," said the 70-year-old Carr.
His blog, called Union and West End Cemetery, chronicles the lives of Civil War veterans buried in the two cemeteries and discusses the challenges of tending the land.
"We need financing and volunteers to come out and maintain it, so that was part of the reason for the blog," said Carr.
While the blog has been unable to gather the volunteer support he initially desired, Carr has found a new reason to continue writing entries: his fellow Civil War researchers.
"The thing I took note of, once I started dealing with the war, is there are a wealth of people out there writing about the war," Carr said.
And, as those people stumbled across his site in internet searches, praise-filled notes began arriving, said Carr.
"I am encouraged and pleased that the blog is having an impact, even though it is from the Civil War community," said Carr in a follow-up e-mail.
Ultimately though, the success of the site has surprised even him.
"It is not often when you search and the "Union and West End Cemetery Blog" comes up are you going to look at it, but people do."
The corporate approach
The blogosphere has opened the internet to a larger number of content creators, but Bernie O'Hare, who writes Lehigh Valley Ramblings, said this individualist medium is under attack by the corporate community through fake blogs, or "flogs."
"People are setting up flogs to control people's information," said O'Hare.
When he posted information about network neutrality, which is the idea that networks should maintain the same loading speed for their own sites as those of their competitors', O'Hare said his information was challenged by a corporation posing as a grassroots movement.
While O'Hare said that flogs are easy to identify because they don't exhibit spelling errors or an informal tone, which is indigenous to most blogs, he said that these posts damage the environment.
"That's bad for bloggers if they trying to deceive people into believing they are a grassroots movement," said O'Hare.
According to both O'Hare and Brown, the blogosphere can defend itself against the flogs.
"It can pretty much self-regulate because it is cheap, so anyone can come out with a blog and come out against another blog," said Brown.
"Right now, it is a meritocracy where people can defend what they know," said O'Hare.
One defense is linking or referencing other web pages in a post to verify its validity, said O'Hare.
However, Vanessa Williams, the marketing chair of the Lehigh Valley Network of Young Professionals who writes The Afterwork Chronicles, said that many corporations are using blogs in a more official capacity.
General Motors Fastlane Blog does just that in its discussion, which highlight new products and showcase their race cars.
One post, Hot Vehicles and their accessories, discusses a bio-diesel concept car built by Jay Leno, and provides videos of that car and other new GM vehicles.
"You're reading this because you're interested in cars and trucks, so I think you'll really like these short video streams," the blog reads.
However, while a blog and video streams posted by a marketing manager might interest the consumer, Williams said that this technology has even more potential when it is wielded by workers.
"By having the blog, it brings the human element back in to business," she said.
When a company ships its merchandise behind schedule, the purchaser is able to search the blogs to discover why their materials are late.
"Instead of it being the company, it is manager Joe had a bad day, the machine broke and that is why my shipment is late," said Williams.
Williams said that this business transparency will lead to greater understanding between the consumer and producer, and thinks that, once the trend catches on, the number of corporate blogs will expand.
"The people at the top of these corporations are not young, they're like 50 years old," she said. "I guess it is going to take a while to get them interested in it."
However, O'Hare questioned whether this form of blogging will interest the public.
"It's a meritocracy, if their ideas are good, they'll rise to the top," he said. "So far, I haven't seen them rise to the top, have you?"
Lehigh Valley Blogs Union and West End Cemetery http://union-westend-cemetery.blogspot.com Our West End Neighborhood http://www.westendneighborhood.blogspot.com Lehigh Valley Ramblings http://lehighvalleyramblings.blogspot.com/ The After Work Chronicles http://netyp.blogspot.com/
Newspapers and Blogs
"The Express-Times and The Morning Call, they cover Nazareth, but they just don't give it the gut that people are interested in their community," said O'Hare.
While both newspapers publish a slew of regional articles, O'Hare said that in many stories, professional journalists respond slower.
An example of this would be a post in late June on O'Hare's blog which announced that the Northampton County Liberty Bell was sitting inside the courthouse, propping up easels and fast food menus.
The Express-Times did run a story on the bell in October, but Brown says that the disconnect between newspapers and the community is typical of the industry because of the for-profit corporate structure.
"I recognize that there is a gap in media because there are huge overhead costs because you need to make it cost-efficient to hire reporters and solicit advertisers," said Brown.
However, he said that blogs will force the papers to change.
"It will force traditional media to act in an increasingly effective manner," said Brown.
But Steve Ibanez, editor-in-chief of pennlive.com, which hosts The Express-Times online edition, said that media outlets are content to let blogs serve the local community.
"We want bloggers because it provides a different perspective on the community and their interests in the area," said Ibanez.
While many blogs are independent site, pennlive.com wants bloggers to link to their site.
"Newspapers get local content, bloggers get a heavily trafficked site," he said. "It helps give them presence."
"They do have an advantage over the new bloggers in that they have great access to readers," said Brown.
However, he still sees the two outlets as functioning independently of each other.
"What I would love to see on blogs-- I would love to see Allentown as a city connected by blogsIt would be really neat to see a network of blogs where residents voice their concerns," said Brown.
O'Hare said he has already seen the result of voicing his concerns on blogs.
"I am a frustrated writer. You can only send so many letters to the editor before you get cut off," he said. "This is a way to rant."
With these rants, he says, he is able to reach a key audience to bring greater attention to local concerns: the reporters.
"Newspaper reporters tend to read blogs and they will run stories if they think what I am writing is significant," he said.
With his posting on the Northampton Liberty Bell, and its subsequent article in the Express-Times, O'Hare said he accomplished more than he did in years of letter-writing.
And Ibanez said that this type of relationship "is really blowing up the old structure."
"We are not just a news organization grinding out the news," Ibanez said, "it's going to be newspapers and the community."
Courtesy of the Allentown Times