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September 23, 2006

Designing for Blogs, Part 1: A Brief Manifesto

I'm an unabashed fan of working smarter, not harder.

In 1999, before I first happened on blog software or even the precursor called "EditThisPage," I was working with a few student programmers on a similar system in PHP, for classroom uses, collaborative projects, and portfolio-based active learning. What I really wanted to do was get away from the limitations of WebCT and Blackboard for more student-centered learning, instead of reproducing traditional classroom structures online. And I didn't want to have to keep teaching students HTML in classes that had other work to do.

When I saw that EditThisPage, Radio Userland and other applications were already doing what I was attempting to build from scratch in my dining room, I realized that the idea was so simple and such a logical next step, hundreds of people were probably doing exactly what I was doing, in different arenas, to make publishing accessible to more people. I saw that I could use blog tools for just about anything I could imagine with HTML and Flash, and save myself a whole lot of work.

And why did the blog idea catch fire as the killer app, when content management systems on the corporate side were plentiful? I strongly believe the answer is a timely combination of the rise of Google along with RSS.

Even though feed readers are having difficulty reaching non-tech users, feeds and tags are becoming an intrinsic structure in nearly everything we build. Quite simply, I won't build another freelance/contract web site that is not RSS/Atom-enabled. It's a no-brainer. Blogs are the display and feeds give the display legs. Technorati.com would not exist without feeds. And the massive social movement that is the blogosphere would not exist at all without RSS behind it.

So these days, rather than endlessly re-inventing the wheel, I'm primarily designing for CSS and the content-management shell blog software provides, a shell I can pour nearly anything into. Do I ever wish for the old blank-slate, starting fresh with a new audience/user interaction model every time?

Sometimes, but Web functionality is so crucial to interactive communities and a public commons that solo work in Flash feels empty to me, like an essential piece is missing. I think we'll end up one day defining "interactivity" as something that essentially must have more than one author, perhaps even many authors.

And lately, when I want to push on the limits of what interactivity can do, I find myself reaching for an even more robust system, pmachine's Expression Engine, where I can situate multiple blog modules in different contexts on the same page, and still retain my permalink archives and flexible CSS designs.

My only complaint so far is that I want some of the features I find in Scoop, features of audience-driven, "self-organizing" sites.

Not too long ago, someone asked me to predict where interactive media and the Internet would be five years from now. I refused to give an answer, because I don't get to decide. The beauty of a grassroots, bottom-up social movement like in the blogosphere is that the social structures provide an organic kind of direction and structure, and the social structure is the authority, not "industry leaders" or "futurists" or any other professional prognosticators striving for control or a first-mover advantage.

Interactivity is about giving up control.

What I strive to do as a designer and a participant in this grassroots social movement is to create tools that empower the most people with enough freedom to set their own directions. I'm not interested in herding cats. I am interested in watching and learning inductively from where cats go.

That's what Web 2.0 is about. That's why it rose from the ashes of the top-down corporate- and VC-driven creations that crashed and burned after all the money turned to vapor. What we valued most was what remained. Communities, interactions, strong ties, weak ties. Rich relationships over time. Rabid flame wars. Not endlessly pitching widgets while dropping names to bugger your Google/Technorati rank.

That's also why, in what some are calling a Web boomlet, I see business people desperately trying to appropriate blogs for various business models, proclaiming themselves authorities on their blog content niche as if they were following a stock professional copywriting formula, many diluting content in search engine-optimized blog sites that literally suck all the life out of the real reasons for blogging, the real reasons for writing and communicating online.

They claim they are dispensing value in a kind of knowledge-log "how-to" format, but as this genre of blogging multiplies, the sites look to me like little more than human-written, SEO-focused link farms, one step away from machine-generated link farms. Where is the real value in that?

Where I will stand in this new wash-out is with the commons, the spaces where real people talk, where conversations are alive with an energy of their own. The interfaces I will build for these communities and cybercultures will be interfaces that allow patterns of use to co-create the interface structures themselves.

The most creative, edgy projects I want to work on compulsively on my own time will not just employ user-centered design. They will allow social network structures to literally create their own designs.

In part two on this topic, I offer a visual snapshot into the kinds of blog-based sites I design, build, and often, host. One got 2,500 hits in its first 48 hours online. Others get very little traffic, because they are e-books I'm committed to maintaining as part of our common online library. Others are simply labors of love, my own contribution to the "real."

September 23, 2006 in Portfolio, Projects, Web Design, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 17, 2005

Fifth annual Pollner lecture draws big crowd

Link: Fifth Annual Pollner Lecture.

News & Events • October 2005

Fifth annual Pollner lecture draws big crowd

J-School Web Reporter

photo by Ryan Brennecke
Blogs have power because they are interactive and more personal, Boese said.

A visiting journalism professor who kept prominent war blogs from the Iraq war says she often feels trapped between two worlds: one of traditional media and one in the blogosphere.

Christine Boese’s Oct. 10 lecture, “Big Media and Little Bloggers: How corporate media responded to war-blogging journalists,” addressed tensions that arise when mainstream media and bloggers go after the same story but in different ways.

“What does little David have in his slingshot that is making Goliath sit up and take notice?” Boese asked

This year's T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor, Boese delivered the annual Pollner lecture to a group of about 150 people in the University Center Theater.

Boese was writing for the “ticker” at CNN Headline News when the war in Iraq began. She said she had felt uncomfortable ever since the events of Sept. 11. “The thing that shook me up the worst was the uncertainty,” she said.

That uncertainty was magnified by her placement in two different journalism traditions: one in the mainstream media she was exposed to at CNN, and one in the blogosphere, where stories would break but often weren’t regarded as credible by the mainstream media.

“I didn’t know, or trust, whether or not the military would allow accurate reporting,” Boese said. “Most of the time I doubted what the so-called official sources were telling us.”

A long-time blogger herself, Boese wanted information when the war began from journalists who were in Iraq but not embedded with the military.

“I wanted to know I had sources on the ground in Iraq who were independent of the U.S. military,” she said. “I wanted to build their blogs so I could read their blogs.”

Boese met two journalists online and eventually became the keeper of their blogs. Carolina Podesta, an Argentinean journalist, wrote a blog that was featured on Argentinean television early in the war. At its most popular, her site was getting nearly 1,000 hits per day.

photo by Ryan Brennecke
Members of the Pollner family visited Boese's seminar on Oct. 10

Josh Kucera’s blog also grew popular. Eventually, after the Boston Globe wrote an article about Kucera’s blog, Time magazine, Kucera’s employer, demanded that he stop posting to his site.

For Boese, that demand raised important questions about the ownership of ideas. “Can employers lay claim to what Josh [and others] do when they’re off the clock?” she asked.

Stifling intellectual freedom in that way is a disservice to readers, she said, because blogs offer strengths that differ from the strengths of traditional media. A major strength of blogs is that they encourage readers to interact with what they read, rather than simply providing facts, which encourages readers to remain childlike, Boese said.

Mainstream journalists often cite credibility as a reason for following traditional journalism guidelines. But, Boese asked, “what if credibility is casting readers into the role of perpetual children?” News should be a conversation, not a lecture, she added.

Blogs are also noted for being more personal than traditional media and often seem more like letters home than a news story. “It is incidental, off-hand observations that I think give blogs their power,” she said.

But despite their strengths, blogs don’t signal the end of traditional media, she said.

“Blogs couldn’t survive without newspapers,” she said during a question-and-answer session following the lecture.

Boese is the School of Journalism’s fifth T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor, a position made possible by family and friends of Anthony Pollner, a graduate of the School of Journalism who died in 2001. The Pollner professor spends the fall semester at the Journalism School, teaches a seminar and mentors the staff of the Montana Kaimin.

Previous Pollner professors were Jonathan Weber, a former reporter at the Los Angeles Times and editor of the Industry Standard, the fastest-growing magazine in American history; Tom Cheatham, a former UPI war correspondent and Emmy-award-winning producer and bureau chief for NBC News; Maurice Possley, a criminal justice investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune; and Nancy Szokan, an editor at the Washington Post.

October 17, 2005 in Citations, Journalism, Portfolio, Television, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 08, 2005

University of Montana School of Journalism: New Pollner prof

Link: New Pollner prof.

Download NewPollnerprof.pdf

Click "Continue reading" below to read the text version of the article that begins here:

Blogging pioneer named next Pollner prof

By Bennett Jacobs
J-School Web reporter

Chris Boese, a writer for CNN Headline News and a pioneer in the Weblog movement, will be the UM Journalism School’s fifth T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor.

Boese will spend the fall semester at the J-school, teaching a class on blogging and working as an adviser to the Kaimin, the student newspaper. Pollner professors also deliver a public lecture during the semester.

Chris Boese
“We were particularly interested this year in getting someone who was on the cutting edge of technology,” said Carol Van Valkenburg, chair of the print department and the Pollner selection committee. “Chris will bring something new and unique to the school and we’re certainly looking forward to that.”

Boese started her first Weblog, or blog, in 1994, before the software to do so which is so readily available today even existed.

"I was like, ‘Oh my god, someone’s given me a soapbox,’ " Boese said of that first blog.

Since then she has built and maintained dozens of blogs for herself and others, including some controversial ones for reporters in Iraq.

"I think the bloggers kind of act as a checks and balances to journalists," Boese said. "It's an explosion of words and voices and it gives power to a lot of people and that is empowering."

In the past several years, blogs have become an important and powerful platform for journalists and non-journalists alike to voice opinions and receive feedback as well as communicate with one another.

Boese joined the CNN Headline News team just a month before 9-11. In her application letter she wrote that she went to Headline News because she "wanted a front-row seat to the attempted 'convergence' of broadcast and interactive media with that very busy modular screen."

What she got was a front-row seat at the biggest event in modern media history. During that crisis, as well as during the ensuing two wars, Boese was often the writer vigorously punching out the blurbs on the Headline News double-tiered ticker.

Boese started her career long before her days in the bustling Atlanta newsroom of Headline News. It was in her home state of Alaska were she was first a reporter and photographer for the Frontiersman and Valley Sun newspapers. From there she entered the academic world, working and teaching at universities in Wisconsin, Arkansas, Georgia, New York and South Carolina.

Boese received a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Arkansas. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, where she earned a doctorate in rhetoric and communication in 1998, Boese studied the impact of interactive media on traditional forms of media. It was there that her relationship with interactive media began to thrive, mostly because she saw it as an outlet for individual voice, she said.

Her dissertation, a rhetorical analysis and cultural critique of the online fan club for the TV program "Xena, Warrior Princess," was the first Web-based hypertext dissertation accepted at the school and is required reading in some graduate seminars.

At the time of the interview for this story on the afternoon of April 1, Boese was having a particularly busy few days in the newsroom.

"What happened yesterday was the best and the worst of things," Boese said. "The Terri Schiavo thing (Schiavo had died the day before) was just shark attacks and exploitation of the mike, the kind of thing that makes me sick. Then the Pope took a turn for the worse and I felt I was doing something important again."

Boese has what she calls "an uneasy relationship with journalism." But that continues to turn her on to the possibilities blogs allow. It also gives her reason to turn to her other love: teaching.

"I've always loved teaching," Boese said. "It charges my batteries up is what it does."
Boese has taught many university classes and conducted as many seminars, but she hopes her time in Montana will be different.

"I want to meet people who are thinking about the things I'm thinking," she said.
Boese said she can lend her technical skills not only to students in her class but to the Kaimin and the rest of the J-School. She said she may use her time at UM to work on a book about her experiences covering 9-11.

Family and friends of 1999 J-school graduate Anthony Pollner created the the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professorship to honor his memory after his death in a 2001 motorcycle accident. Pollner helped create the Kaimin web page and worked as a Kaimin reporter.

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May 8, 2005 in Journalism, Portfolio, Projects, Vita | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack