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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Reflections: What did I do all day?

AT THE END OF THE DAY yesterday, I took time to add up what I'd managed to get done during the course of the day. I didn't do this while sitting at a window looking at a sunset, though I certainly could have. Like so much of my life, this reflection was conducted while I sat looking at my 22-inch flatscreen monitor.

I have a good friend with whom I've exchanged emails regularly for about six years now. When I was going through a divorce, she was by my side every step of the way, even though she lived in Chicago and I was outside of Seattle. There were stretches when we emailed each other a dozen times a day; if she didn't hear from me for more than a few hours, she'd check in. Maybe I would have made it through the divorce without her, but I'm not quite sure how.

These days she's busy with a new business and I am not in crisis, so we are more likely to exchange emails in little flurries that occur only every few days. But if she doesn't hear from me for a while, she still checks in (everybody should be lucky enough to have a friend who is part Mother Hen). Yesterday I got one of those emails, and in response I just tried to describe what my day had consisted of. The description went something like this:

I sent a post to my gardening blog with a revised version to the Native Gardeners elist I own, and sent an email to an interested party to let him know about the new post. I sorted through the huge numbers of emails that come into my various inboxes, looked over a garden design that a friend here is doing and commented on it, responded to an inquiry from another blogger about a topic she's interested in writing about, thanked the same blogger for making some very useful how I could market my blog better, suggested to her that she might want to check out Blogher.org (organization for women bloggers), checked out a blog that another friend (also a blogger) emailed me about and ended up following a link to a website that I ended up joining (global-mindshift.org), then signed up for an online tutorial that starts on the 17th, then emailed another friend about that because I thought she might be interested in it. My housemate actually used the telephone today (voice: the new paper) to call a family member, but she needs a website for her business so they ended up talking about that, and I took the phone for a few seconds to tell her about Lunar Pages. I also filled in some government paperwork online, paid the fees online, put together almost the entire package for mailing (paper: the new cave wall) tomorrow, and used the Internet to help another friend figure out how to get his car registered in a state he's moving to. And of course I answered that "checking in" email from my dear friend.

Somewhere in there I did actually get up from the computer to walk the dogs and talk to my partner in person. (It’s a wonder we don’t conduct all of our interactions by email even though our desks are 5 feet apart.) We even shared a meal. (Actual fish, not an email in sight.) But I spent a lot of time functioning as a sort of relay switch, passing information from one place to another. Not surprisingly, at the end of the day I didn't really have much sense of having accomplished much. I'm beginning to think that big part of the appeal of blogging is that at least, if you blog about what you're doing, you make a record of it. And that in turn makes it feel as though you actually did do something. Human consciousness seems to have trouble regarding anything as real until it's been recorded somewhere: That's why we take pictures of things instead of just looking at them.

But the question is, Did I do anything? Answer: yes and no. Individually, I didn't do much. But as a tiny part of the hive mind that seems to be developing on the Internet, I did my bit. I relayed information, I made connections, I was a good little neuron in a giant mind that, we can only hope, is going to be a lot smarter than its parts. I bet neurons also get to the end of the day and ask themselves, What did I get done?

Friday, April 6, 2007

TIP: A Money Wiki

The Online Journalism Review has started a wiki where online journalists can share tips about how to make money with online publishing. There is good information there already; no doubt it will get better.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Q&A

A FRIEND ASKS:

Q: Technically how hard was it to get the blog started?

A: Starting a blog through Blogspot is falling-off-a-log easy. For details see this post. Now, if you intend to try to turn your blog into a commercial operation, you will probably want to own your own domain. However, Blogspot now allows you to set up your domain so that it will point to your Blogspot blog, so it's even pretty easy to set up a blog using your own domain address.

There are many things you can do in order to attract and hold readers and make money off your blog, but these are all things you can do after you've started your blog. (In fact, you really can't do these things until your blog is up and running.) When you're ready, websites such as problogger.net can help you learn the ropes.

Q: How much of a chore is it to keep uploading copy?

A: That depends. Does your topic interest you enough so that you'll enjoy researching it and writing about it? Do you already have a lot of knowledge (maybe even articles already written) to share with your readers? Do you write a lot of emails about this topic? (I find that recycling emails is a great way to get "free" blog posts. Let's conserve those electrons!) Is the topic part of your life? (It's easier for me to write about cooking, gardening, and dogs than about modern architecture or the Chicago Cubs. But if I still lived in Chicago, ...) If your answer to most of these questions is yes, you probably won't find blogging to be that much of a chore. Keep in mind that typical blog posts are very short: It's not hard to come up with a few hundred words on a topic you know and care about, especially if it's a topic you're learning about on a daily basis anyway.

Q: What programs do you need techically?

A: To get started, none. Blogspot takes care of all of that for you. If you want to make your blog pretty, there are a lot of software packages that can help, of course, but they're not essential. You might also want to check out WordPress. This seems to be what a lot of professional bloggers use. But again, it isn't required.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Website or Blog?

MY FAVORITE BLOGGING SITE, Problogger.net, has an item today about "The Problem of Too Many Blogs." After reading Darren's comments, I was grateful that I managed to stop at only four blogs and even more grateful that I never planned for two of those blogs (Wild Flora's Food and Wild Flora's Farm) to be very active. That leaves me with only two blogs--Wild Flora's Wild Gardening and this one--that are very active.

Even so, I have a regret. In retrospect, I wish I had created a website for the Wild Gardening pages rather than a blog about that subject. Problogger cites another blog, Performancing, whose owner makes the point that websites are probably easier to maintain than blogs are. That makes websites pretty attractive! In addition, I'm finding that certain types of material really don't work all that well in blog format. A blog is basically a diary. This is great for information that is updated frequently. It's much less great if you're trying to create a resource--a place people can visit to get information and advice that's going to remain the same year after year. For that, a website is far more appropriate.

Most of the information I'm putting into the Wild Gardening blog is really website-type information. (FYI, a lot of bloggers have their own websites now. Darren at Problogger uses the term "static website" to distinguish the old-style website, which remains fairly much the same from day to day, from a blogger's website, which will typically change several times a day as new posts are added.)

Here's another reason I should have started with a website: I don't want to post as often as bloggers usually do. Bloggers typically post at least daily if not several times a day; I've heard of bloggers who post 20 times a day! That may change as people get burned out (both with writing blogs and with reading them), but for now I qualify as a very lazy blogger. If I post every couple of days, I think I'm doing pretty well. That amount of change is low for a blog but high for a static website, which says to me that a static website is better for me. I'd rather underpromise and overdeliver with a website than have the constant feeling that my blog is trailing behind the rest of the pack.

It's tempting to start a blog rather than a website because Blogger and a few other sites make blogging free and easy. Also, blogs are getting all the buzz right now, whereas static websites have that "so 5 minutes ago" feeling to them. And the blogging community is very attractive; they are so supportive of one another that you can't help wanting to be one of them. But the cost of maintaining a website can be quite small, and the software is not that difficult to learn and is getting easier all the time. There are good reasons to consider starting a website before starting a blog.

In retrospect, I wish I had given more thought to whether my topic (in this case, wildlife-friendly gardening) was more suitable to a blog or to a website. If I had, I think I would have created the website first. I might well have ended up starting a blog too, eventually, but a website should have been my first move.

It's not too late to correct this mistake. I plan to create a Wild Gardeners website in the next few weeks, even if I have to cut back on the blog in order to do it. With any luck, eventually I'll be able to maintain both the website and the blog, with the blog serving as a sort of newsletter for the website.

Meanwhile, you'll be seeing a transition in my posts to this blog, because I'm going to be talking more about creating a website and less about blogging.

A Prettier Blog (continued)

THE LAST TIME I POSTED, we were taking a tour of Blogger's options for making your blog more attractive. To rejoin the tour, log into the account you established on Blogger and find yourself at your dashboard. While we're here, let's take a quick detour to that upper right-hand corner and click on "edit profile." This area gives you an array of options for describing yourself to readers of your blog; unless you've already decided that you don't want to have any information about yourself on your blog, it's worth taking some time with this section in order to make sure that it represents you as you want to be represented. Pay particular attention to the text you write in the "About Me" section, as this will be seen by every visitor who goes to your blog.

OK, now, go back to the dashboard, find the blog you want to work on, and click on "layout." This takes you to the "page elements" page, a page full of boxes. At the top of the page is a box called "Navbar." This is the bar that runs across the very top of the page, containing the Blogger logo and a search box. If you click on "edit," a window will appear that will allow you to change the color of this bar.

Immediately below the Navbar box is a box containing the name of your blog followed by "Header." Click on "edit," and a window will appear containing the title of your blog and the descriptive information that can appear under the title. This is your chance to change this information if you're not entirely happy with what you decided earlier. (If you want to change the appearance of this section, you'll have to go to the "colors and fonts" page. I talked about that in a previous post.)

Back to the page elements page: On the right side of the page elements page is a column of boxes. The top one is "Add a Page Element." This takes you to a window with a lot of options--too many to explore today. However, here are some that are worth looking at right away:

  • "Add a picture" will allow you to upload a digital photo from your hard drive if you happen to have a photo you want to use. (Of course, you'll need to know where the photo is located on your hard drive. I can talk more about that some other time.) This photo will always be displayed at the top of your blog, so be sure it's a photo you like and that you think your readers will enjoy seeing more than once.
  • Another option on this page is "text." This allows you to write some text that will be permanently displayed on your blog. This is useful if you would like to explain what your blog is about or tell your readers any other information that might not be covered in the "About Me" section of your blog.
  • "Links" and "lists" allow you to add lists of anything you like. Because I have other blogs, I like to offer a list of my other blogs with links so that people can check them out. You might prefer to list your favorite books. It's up to you.

If you make changes in these elements and save them, when you return to the dashboard you'll see that they've been added to the boxes on your page elements page. You can now move these items around: Click on the item you want to move, hold down the left key on your mouse, move the item to where you want it, and then release the key. (This is called "drag and drop.") I like to put the photo at the top of the column followed by some text explaining what this blog is about.

The page elements page also allows you to change how your blog archive will be set up (I left it the way Blogger had it), and if you click on "About Me" you can change your profile or even decide not to show it at all.

Note that you don't have to place all your page elements down the right-hand side of the page. Blogger also gives you the option of putting page elements down at the bottom of the page.

Finally, if you click on "edit Blog posts," you can customize the way your posts appear.

Now you have a blog that has been customized to suit you!

Friday, March 9, 2007

A Prettier Blog

A FEW DAYS AGO I explained how to get a basic blog quickly using Blogger. Now let's talk about how you can make that blog prettier to look at.

When you log in to the account you've created in Blogger, you should find yourself at a page they call the "dashboard." This will show you all the blogs you've created and, next to each blog's name, various options. What we're most interested in today is the section that says "manage: posts, settings, layout."

It's a good idea to click on both "manage posts" and "manage settings" and then look at all the options that are offered to you. Blogger gives you lots of ways to set up your blog; here's your chance to customize it to suit yourself.

The option that has the greatest impact on how your blog will look, however, is the "layout" option. Click on that and you'll find yourself on a page called "Page Elements." The tab next to it is called "Fonts and Colors." Next to that is "Edit HTML," which you don't need to worry about right now. And after that is "Pick New Template," which you can use if you're not happy with the template you chose when you started this blog.

I suggest you start by looking at the "Pick New Template" options. I'm not sure about this, but I think you get more choices here than they offer you when you are first starting your blog. You might find something you like better; try to choose something you're going to be able to live with for a while.

Next I'd go to "Fonts and Colors." This one is a ton of fun: Click on buttons to change the color and type style of various sections of your blog--and in the window below, watch your blog change instantly to reflect the changes you've made! If you think the template you chose would look better with a pink title and purple type, try it out. When you have colors and fonts you like, be sure to save them before you leave this page.

Finally, there's the "page elements" section. Go ahead and play around with it. I'll be back with some tips tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Domain, Sweet Domain

ONCE YOU START MAKING A HOME FOR YOURSELF on the Web, you may want to get your own domain name. (A domain is a unique Web address, such as techcrone.com.) You certainly don't have to do this: There are lots of sites that will let you have what's called a subdomain, or your own piece of a larger website, for free. This blog, for instance, is hosted at http://www.techcrone.blogspot.com, making it a subdomain of the blogspot.com domain. This is not a bad address; it's a bit long, but on the other hand it's free. If your place on the Web is going to be strictly for personal use, a subdomain is probably all you need. You can stop reading this post now. (But don't miss the post below it, which is about how to get your own blog.)

It is certainly fun to have your own domain name. When I'm not the Tech Crone I go by Wild Flora, and I'm very glad I grabbed wildflora.com domain a decade ago when I had the chance. I haven't done anything with it yet, but it hasn't cost much to keep it, either. Recently I also purchased wildflora.net, just to make sure that nobody else did. You should probably purchase any domain name you can get if you think you might want it or even if you just want to use it as a nickname (or netname); for instance, the minute I decided to do this blog I went to my favorite web host, Lunar Pages, and bought techcrone.com.

If you think you might ever want to make money from your work on the Web, you almost certainly need your own Web address(es). If you can find a name that hasn't already been taken, purchasing one is very inexpensive. I pay about US$8 a year for the ones I own through Lunar Pages, a bit more for the ones I own through Network Solutions. You should also plan on paying an extra fee for what's called "private registration"; this keeps your personal information out of the public eye and helps to keep spammers at bay.

Unfortunately, when you try to buy a domain name today you're going to find that most of the good names have been taken. It's widely believed that the "dot com" names are the most valuable, if not the only ones that are valuable, with the "dot net" names coming in second. Many of these names are owned by speculators who purchased all the names they could think of that have any commercial potential and now hope to resell them at a profit. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to find that any name with the word 'tech' in it was still available, but I got lucky. Apparently, it never occurred to speculators that anybody would want to call herself a 'crone.'

Before paying a speculator's price, try to find a name that will work for you and has not yet been purchased. Think of some names--this can be an amusing game to play with friends--then go to GoDaddy.com or any other web host (but GoDaddy has a good search tool), enter the names you want in the "domain search" box, and hope to strike pay dirt. This can be fun, like playing a slot machine. If you can't get the name you want in a dot com form, consider dot net. If that's not available, some people try dot org. But I would probably try a different name.

Have your credit card ready and, if a name you like is available, grab it. (If you change your mind, you can always let it go in a year when it comes up for renewal.) If you plan to create a website this year, I recommend that you purchase your domain through Lunar Pages. They have a terrific, inexpensive hosting package that includes one free domain registration for life and free Website design software. (Full disclosure: Lunar Pages pays for referrals, so if you buy a hosting package from them please tell them that I--Flora Johnson, wildflora.net--sent you. I promise I would not recommend these people if I did not use their services myself and believe that this is a very good deal.) If all you want to do is buy a domain name, however, I think GoDaddy is probably the least expensive option.