Everyone's Blogging

When CBS News went public last year with what it thought was evidence that President Bush had shirked his National Guard duty, it seemed that no amount of White House spin could hold off the scandal dogs. But a group of largely nameless, faceless so-called bloggers took up the defense and quickly began posting online dispatches questioning the authenticity of documents CBS used for its story. The rest, of course, is history. Bush was reelected; several CBS employees were shown the door.

In less than a half hour--and for free--you, too, can create your own online media empire and affect the world. You won't need to cut a deal with Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch. You can just set up a blog and start publishing your ideas and opinions on the Web. With blogs, you're free to explore almost any subject: Journalists use them to scoop each other, politicos argue conspiracy theories, teenagers share angst, and sports fans vent frustrations.

Here's the really good news: Even if you're not that tech savvy, today's free blog-hosting services make it simple to publish your daily musings. How? Glad you asked.

What's a blog, anyway? Think of a blog (also known as a Web log) as either an online diary or a never-ending newspaper column, full of links to online material--often other blogs--that stimulates your brain or makes you laugh. They may hold breaking news, wry commentary, or everyday observations, plus comments from other readers. While politics and technology inspire many bloggers (the folks that write blogs), Web journals connect almost any group of like-minded people, from gadget enthusiasts, to Harry Potter devotees, to time-starved moms. See Yahoo's blog directory for more. Some people use a picture-filled blog to keep family and friends up to date on big events, like a wedding or a new baby. Companies use blogs to communicate with customers. Your blog's purpose--and cleverness quotient--is entirely up to you.

How do I get started? If you want to take the cheap and easy route, use a free hosting service, such as Blogger.com or MSN Spaces. These services now make it easy to set up a basic blog. You register, pick a template for your blog's appearance, enter your prose, and click to publish. Once you're set up, you just keep making new entries, which always appear at the top of the Web page. For a look at how the popular tools compare, see the accompanying story, "Shopping for Blogs."

Want more control? You can also use Blogger.com's creation tools and host the blog on your own Web server. For a step-by-step guide on how to do this, visit PCWorld.com. People who want maximum design flexibility typically add a blog to their Web site using a software program such as Movable Type, which costs about $70 for the personal version.

Will people pay to read my blog? Nope. Some prominent writers make money by selling advertising space, but you'll have to have a large social network of acquaintances to generate enough Web traffic to earn a living selling ads. Your blog will probably be more about personal satisfaction than profit. Still, a blog that creates buzz with a professional audience could earn you networking opportunities, speaking engagements, and the like. Bloggers often link their posts to others they like and/or respect. Some people even meet Mr. or Ms. Right (in which case, don't try explaining blogs to older relatives--they'll never understand how you two kids got together.)

What are the unofficial rules of blogging? Blog readers can be more demanding than the ladies on Desperate Housewives. Many have the attention span of Jessica Simpson (after all, once they're done with your blog, there could be hundreds of others they need to check in on). Post new entries often--ideally every day--and don't drone on. Posts don't have to be long to be engaging.

As a matter of etiquette, make sure entries are spell-checked. You'll also have to decide whether to allow people to post comments regarding your entries. Some bloggers love the free-wheeling dialogue that flows in the public comments space, likening it to the democratization of the media. But other writers decide they can do without this kind of unlimited feedback. If you do allow comments, have a thick skin and don't feel the need to respond to every criticism.

Should I worry about privacy? Yes. Some groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recommend blogging anonymously. See the group's recently released tipsheet on blogs and privacy. But even if you want to tout your name in bright lights online, follow some basic privacy rules. First, don't reveal personal information in your blog that others could use to find out even more personal information about you. Don't dish about confidential work matters, or salary info, unless you're trying to get fired. And if you're going to start a blog discussion about nightmarish bosses, Murphy's Blog Law says your boss will find it.

Can my employer fire me for criticizing the company in a blog? Maybe. Freedom of the press means Uncle Sam has to tolerate your ramblings, but your boss doesn't necessarily have to--especially if you use a company PC to monitor or manage your blog. That said, some companies encourage blogging as a way for employees to engage customers, partners, etc. Several, such as IBM, have issued guidelines for employees to follow, so everyone understands the rules. In general, unless you're at a company that encourages blogging as a way to communicate, like Sun Microsystems, don't blog at work. Anything you create on an employer's PC is fair game for monitoring.

If you're going to talk business on a blog--regardless of where the PC you actually post it from is located--make it clear you're not speaking for the entire company. And remember, if you keep a racy or controversial blog, potential future employers may find it when they do a Web search for information about you (and many will). You may be proud of your creative writing about Carmen Electra and Paris Hilton, but the folks in human resources may not see it your way.

Can I blog while away from home or traveling? Yes, many people create travel diaries using blogs. You can write and post entries anywhere you can access the Web. Some services, such as MSN Spaces, now even let you post entries via cell phone.

Can I create a members-only blog? Yes. Services such as LiveJournal and MSN Spaces let you password-protect your blog (or certain blog entries) so only a group of specified family members or friends can get in. This makes particular sense if you're writing about your kids or a family event; the whole world doesn't need to know the details.

Another way to increase your privacy quotient: Keep your blog out of Google's grasp if you don't want it popping up when other people do Web searches. Blogger.com (which Google owns) gives you this option at set-up time. Or, you can use a special file called the Robots Text File to keep your blog out of Google: The EFF recommends using the free Robots Text File Generator tool at Web Tool Central to do this.

Most of all, have fun and be creative. Conceptually, blogs are fairly simple. But use your imagination, and they can be more than online diaries. Need to collaborate on a project? Use a password-protected blog to share notes and updates. Going to be away from home and need to get in touch with several people? Post your whereabouts online along with requests, instructions, impressions, etc. And who knows, maybe your witty insights will soon make you the center of attention on the Web.

Laurianne McLaughlin is a freelance writer living outside Boston.
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