When I think about blogging, and all the tools we have to make the task simply easier or possible at all, I can't help but think of a layer cake. I'm going to dive into a bit of an analogy ride here (I am a big fan of analogies) partly to help explain the concept of a blog to my peers and friends who keep asking me to try and explain it to them. If this is simple stuff for you, just move along, this will get interesting in a later post. To define a "blog" in the terms of a dictionary, we would start with something like "a Web site on which an individual or group of users produces and ongoing narrative". In other words, a site that is regularly updated, can also suffice. The use of the word has become so broad that it requires some hands-on use and some refinement.
On with the cake.
The analogy only carries so far, so bear with me. At the base, where the cake is biggest, we have regular old blogs. This site being an okay example, but also other WordPress blogs, Blogger blogs, MovableType, Django-based blogs, etc. Blogging software or systems that allow full and complete (for the most part) customization of the interface, and addition of new functionality through the use of plug-ins or other software.
The second layer in the cake is something called LiveJournal. I first got started with the thing back at the end of middle school going into high school. Needless to say there's a lot of junk there, typical ramblings and rants of a teenager. Had it been a few years later, it could have just as easily been a "MySpace Blog". Same stuff. But nowadays LiveJournal has evolved into essentially, community blogging. There are thousands of group journals that people contribute to covering a massive array of topics. This has been seen before, it was called Usenet, or newsgroups. It's also pretty similar (when you get into the commenting threads) to a typical online forum or other bulletin board system. But really the majority of LiveJournals are personal, structured like blogs, and themselves tie into the greater community at large. Moderately sophisticated commenting tools allow other users to start threaded conversations about that post, or something else entirely. So, LiveJournal allow people to blog in a more or less watered down way (it's hosted, so a lot of the magic sauce is behind closed doors), and it's community centric.
Now we get into the third, somewhat smaller, layer in our cake. Services such as Tumblr and/or Pownce. Now I know there are others in the area, but let's keep this simple for the time being. These services are not intended to directly compete with a service like Blogger or WordPress, rather, they are along the vein of something called a MicroBlog. In this case, Tumblr is a specialized MicroBlog, while Pownce is a bit more broad and generic. Tumblr for instance, is focused on acting as a simple and easy to use online scrapbook. So you post all the neat little pictures and video clips you come across online to Tumblr and your friends can come on up and see them or they can subscribe to your Tumblelog (like one subscribes to an RSS feed). Pownce has a similar capability of allowing you to post up images, audio, video and text, but both have a focus on quick and short posts. They are not set up to carry on extended stories or conversations. Although there have been some creative uses in that application of these sorts of services, that's not the focus.
Which brings us to my favorite part of the cake, the top. The best example I have, is a service I use all the time and love, Twitter. Keep in mind this is a hierarchy of content types/styles, not necessarily the winners or losers or anything like that. But here we get into a really interesting idea. Twitter is rather unlike Pownce or Tumblr in that it not only does not allow you to attach images or videos directly to your "tweets" (posted updates), but you are limited in how many characters you can upload in a single tweet, 140 chars to be exact. Twitter has found a plethora of uses, notably the idea of a "lifestream", the posting of your day, play-by-play. For instance, you could be tweeting weather updates on your way to work on the train while also tweeting about a news story you noticed in the newspaper while tweeting what you're eating for breakfast. Not all at once mind you, but you get the idea. Others use it in much the way one might use del.icio.us, tweeting URLs of interesting things they come across online. There are many more uses we could get into, not to mention the communication theories that are at play here, but I'll save that for another post. Here, we're just getting the lay of the land.
An important thing to note with all of these, is there are a number of ways to interact with these services. Most notably, Twitter, which has in my opinion, the best desktop companion to the service. It's called Twitterific and is a wonderful Mac application that sits in your menu bar and totally changes the way you think and interact with Twitter. Someone else already gave a pretty good explanation on his views on the matter, but in short, when you use Twitter through something like Twitterific, your use and approach of the information delivered through it is changed. For me, Twitter is an application that lives on my desktop, and dutifully notifies me of interesting tweet every 5 minutes, and to whom I can quickly and easily tweet away with and easily track and form conversations through Twitter's direct messaging option. To someone else, and in fact, very many of the first users of Twitter, it is a website and an SMS updating service. Part of the reason for the character limit system-wide is the character limits placed on the US SMS system. One of the primary interfaces for Twitter when it first launched was the SMS (AKA: TXT or texting) screen on a cell phone and the other was the web site itself. Tweets would be sent to your phone from those you followed, and visa versa. This, so far, is the thinest of the MicroBlogging layers.
All these services exist to fill a need that was not met with the tools that existed prior to them. They are all empowered with RSS, and are all offered (for the most part), free of charge. They are quickly changing the models of communication that we are studying right now in class, and I am extremely excited to be alive right now to witness what is happening. I could gush for hours on end, but the point is simply this. Go out and try them out. Find the ones that work best for you. I abandoned LiveJournal a long time ago, but I am active on my blog once again and I am now an avid Twitter'er through Twitterific. Try them out and get back to me with your findings.