Monday, February 27, 2006

15 nanoseconds of fame: 1. Metaphors for blogs

Here are the links to all of "15 nanoseconds of fame":


Metaphors for blogs

The state of Indian blogdom

About my blog

Prof. Sadagopan, the Director of IIIT-Bangalore, has one. Prof. Swami Manohar, one of the creators of Simputer, started one recently. And, guess what? I have one, too! I mean, a blog. That's the reason why I, a materials scientist, am here addressing you in an article on blogs.

To me, a blog is a personalized medium of communication, carrying your voice to the rest of the world through the Web. It allows you to take part in conversations on topics that interest you. It's easy to set up, and all blogging platforms support unicode, so you can write in any of the Indian languages. Blogs, together with associated technologies -- blog search, trackbacks and RSS feeds -- form a friendly ecosystem that sustains and supports bloggers, allowing them to find out, quickly and effortlessly, who is saying what, particularly about themselves!

As a CSI member, you probably know a lot more about these technologies than I could ever learn; explaining them to you, therefore, is a lot like describing to Rahul Dravid about a nifty defensive stroke I learned. So, let me focus instead on the multi-dimensional splendour of blogs using a set of metaphors, and conclude with a few observations about my blogging journey so far, and about the state of Indian blogdom.

Blogs as op-ed opinion pieces

Due to the very nature of newspapers' editorial pages, the opportunity to be featured in them is restricted to a few experts; there are only so many opinion columns in a year, but there are a billion of us! Blogs have had a great democratizing effect in making this opportunity available to everyone. They liberate 'the rest of us' from the 'tyranny of the few'! In addition, the blog format does offer some great advantages. First, there are no deadlines; you write whenever you find time and inspiration. Second, there is no editor to prune your insightful, 2000-word opus into the standard 800 word format. Third, you are also liberated from the tyranny of fixed size; your posts may range from a couple of paragraphs to long articles that have several argument threads.

Blogs as back-up brains

When we come across an interesting article on the web, many of us simply bookmark them (either on our browser or on social bookmarking sites such as Blogs can be used to park such links, together with some of your immediate thoughts, opinions and questions. This private use can also serve a public purpose: your readers benefit from your good judgement: they get to read interesting articles you choose to link!

Blogs as newsletters

As members of CSI, a professional society, you receive a copy of this magazine. Imagine receiving the magazine, not as a hard copy or through an e-mail, but as a blog; not as a set of articles packaged in monthly issues, but as a series of blog posts, written as and when a good article comes along. With comments enabled, such a blog can work wonders in building a community. Well, CSI may not be doing it, but several others are. Slashdot is one such community-led discussion forum for techies, and its Indian equivalent, SlashIndia, has been up and running for a month or so.

This newsletter approach also works well for those who are interested in specific causes. Thus, we have blogs focusing on combating social ills such as eve teasing and ragging. NGO's such as Project Why, use blogs to disseminate important information to its members as well as to the public. In the area of e-governance, Mr. B. Dayananda, the Superintendent of Poice of the Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka uses a blog to disseminate press-releases issued by his office.

Blogs as teaching tools

Many instructors use their blogs as a bulletin board for their courses. These blogs host reading materials, home assignments and exams, and forums where students can post questions and discuss them. In some courses (particularly in social sciences), students are required to write their own (group) blogs. Again, advantages are many: blogs are easy to set up, discussions are publicly available to everyone in the course, student interactions need not be confined to class hours. It's a win-win for everyone!

Blogs as coordination centers

The enormity of the disaster unleashed by the tsunami of 26 December 2004 demanded relief efforts at many levels. While the government and the mainstream media played their role in the relief efforts, a group of volunteer-bloggers also contributed to them through a collective blog: the South East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami blog (with an apt acronym 'SEA-EAT'), which acted as a coordination center for "news and information about resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts". This model, which combines voluntarism and citizen journalism, has been replicated during several other subsequent natural disasters including the extraordinary downpour in Mumbai in July 2005 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Such a model can easily be adapted to coordinating large projects involving many people, with blogs serving as public bulletin boards and discussion forums.

Blogs as news organizations

In principle, a blogger can be a journalist, gathering (and sometimes, investigating) and disseminating news through his/her blog. In this enterprise, he/she may also take help from the readers, who can be asked to pursue specific leads while investigating a larger story. Several such blogs have already sprung up in the US (such as Talking Points Memo), and it's only a matter of time before we see them in India.

When blogs perform so many different functions, it always amazes and irritates me when an ill-informed journalist describes blogs as just 'personal diaries'!