Walt Mossberg

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Blogging For Beginners

About a decade ago, when the World Wide Web took off, it meant a dramatic lowering of the barrier to entry for publishing. Because anyone with a little technical knowledge, or technical help, could publish

a Web site at low cost, some analysts compared the moment to the invention of the printing press. Millions of Web sites were started, but only a small percentage attracted a significant audience. Now a second eruption of Web publishing by amateurs is under way. And this time, more people are reading and even subscribing to sites published by folks who’ve never seen the inside of the New York Times, CBS or any other media firm.

This latest phenomenon is built on a foundation of three new online-publishing mechanisms that didn’t exist the last time around: blogs, podcasts and RSS feeds. Here’s a brief primer that explains them.

Blog. A contraction of the term “Web log,” the word describes a personal Web diary, organized by date, from the latest to the earliest. Bloggers add entries, called “posts,” to their sites frequently. Posts typically consist of text and photos, with occasional links to audio and video clips. Some blogs are made up primarily of links to stories or commentaries around the Web. Others feature the author’s writing, supplemented with links to relevant material elsewhere.

High-profile blogs, like the sarcastic, raunchy political site Wonkette.com, compete directly with the mainstream media, known as the “MSM” in the blogging world (which refers to itself as “the Blogosphere”). But the vast majority of blogs are written for narrower audiences: family, friends, fellow hobbyists, or fellow fans of favorite TV shows, pop stars and sports teams. A key feature of most blogs is the comments readers are encouraged to post, discussing or debating entries.

You can find blogs by checking blog search and listing sites, such as Feedster.com, Bloglines.com and Technorati.com. Anyone can quickly create a blog with little or no technical knowledge by using templates at free blogging services including Blogger.com and MSN Spaces (spaces.msn.com).

RSS. In order to avoid the obscurity into which the first round of amateur Web sites fell, bloggers have invented a way to distribute their latest entries: RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. It’s a technology that allows browsers or other software to display a constantly updated “feed” of headlines and summaries of blog entries. The way it works is too technical to get into here, but basically, special code inserted in a blog’s innards gets queried by an RSS reader program, which pulls headlines and summaries.

With the right software, a user can subscribe to the feed of a blog, or of a mainstream news site, and receive headlines as they appear. Just click on the headline to read the full entry. All the modern Web browsers, including Firefox and Apple’s Safari, can display these feeds. The most common browser, Microsoft’s aging Internet Explorer, cannot, although a new version due soon will be able to do so.

Podcasts. The newest personal publishing technology is the podcast, essentially an audio blog or personal radio show that can be played on a computer or downloaded to a portable device like an iPod (hence the name). Podcasts range from music programs to commentaries on politics, sports, technology, sex.

Podcasts are harder to create than blogs because you have to record them and then find a Web service where they can be published. Finding and subscribing to podcasts is much simpler because Apple has opened its popular iTunes Music store, on both Windows and Mac, to podcasters. They can register podcasts with iTunes, then iTunes users can download them just like songs, but free of charge. Also, iTunes allows users to subscribe to podcasts, so fresh episodes appear in your iTunes cache as they are created.

So get yourself some news-reader software and a copy of iTunes, and start sampling blogs and podcasts. Then do one of your own. Your public awaits.

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