Untangling the Web
Express Yourself: An Introduction to Blogs
Do you want to speak your mind to anyone who may listen? Do you want the latest news from your neighborhood, nation, or political party or about your hobby or interest? The rights to express your views freely and to a "free press" are considered essential freedoms of democracy, guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution for Americans and similarly protected by law in every democracy on the planet. Although the framers of the Constitution may not have conceived that every Tom, Dick, and Harry would set up a printing press and turn out a newspaper, exactly that seems to be happening on the web with blogs.
What Is a Blog?
If you understand what the World Wide Web is, you are not far from understanding the term blog, a contraction of the words web and log. As these words imply, a blog is created on the World Wide Web and represents someone's "log" of his or her thoughts and activities. A blog is nothing more than a web page. You read a blog with your web browser. Just like any other web page, a blog can be easily accessible or maddeningly inaccessible. Fortunately, for the reader who is blind, many (maybe even most) blogs are wordy and as delightful to read as a web page from the web's early days--before navigation bars (and other technologies) cluttered it up.
Perhaps you have never been interested in starting your own newspaper. Perhaps you have never even considered it because it is an expensive proposition as well as a lot of work. Blog technology provides a readily affordable mechanism for making anyone a publisher. Blogs have become an established component of the World Wide Web environment. They are widely used for everything from political organizing in presidential elections to religious education to prurient pursuits to every topic of great or small interest. Famous people blog, as do many ordinary people.
Perhaps you are only a consumer of news and commentary. But if you have ever posted your two cents on some e-mail list, you have done the electronic equivalent of a letter to the editor. The difference, of course, is that your message was sent out to everyone else on the e-mail list, whereas only a few select letters to the editor ever get published. Another difference that should not be forgotten is that writing a letter to the editor was a daunting task for most people who are blind only a few years ago before accessible computers gave us the ability to spell check and format our words for printing on paper.
Writing your own blog or sending a comment on someone else's blog is different still from sending an e-mail message to an electronic mailing list. The e-mail message is distributed to the other subscribers to the list and then promptly disappears into an archive on Google or another search engine. The blog posting stays on a web page for some time, ready for anyone who wanders by to read it. What is more important, it is picked up by the web equivalent of news wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters and propagated across the blogosphere (the world of blogs and bloggers) in a 21st-century version of "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!"
Of course, there is no guarantee in life--on the web no less than with more traditional media. You could write copiously, but will anyone read what you have written? Our interest in this article is, of course, the technology that allows you to do so, not your literary merit. Computers have made the tasks of reading and writing far more accessible than ever before for people who are blind or have low vision. Blogs do not make the tasks of reading and writing more accessible, but they do make publishing accessible in every sense of the word. Best of all, you do not need new software or a screen-reader upgrade. In fact, any old computer will do, even an old computer, as long as you can access the World Wide Web with it.
How Are Blogs Different?
To understand how a blog is different from other web pages, one needs only to consider how blogs are created. The point of blog technology is to make it as simple as possible for ordinary people to create all the online web content that they may want to publish without the assistance of nerds and geeks. Blogs do not make it easier to put a web server (the hardware and software that "serves" web pages to browsers) together--that part still requires technical know-how. But once a blog page is installed, publishing it can be as simple as filling out a simple web form and pressing the Submit button. It is a template approach to creating online content--just like baking cookies using commercial frozen cookie dough and cutting out the cookies with a cookie cutter: Each new web page may say something different, but it will look and feel exactly like every other page that has been produced by that particular blog template. Blogging is the mass production of web content.
Of course, there are fascinating variations to this simple procedure. Blog content can be created and published from a word-processing program (like Microsoft Word), from an e-mail submission, or even from a portable digital assistant or cell phone. Not all blogs are wordy. Some are about displaying photographs or about publishing audio recordings. But whatever the elaboration of how they are created and published or what combination of media is used, the underlying process is still the same. A well-defined e-form is filled out and submitted to the web server for publishing.
An extremely simple, yet powerful, blog search tool was recently opened by Google at the web site <http://blogsearch.google.com>. Use this tool to find blogs on subjects of interest. Just like anything else on line, some of the pages you find will be not so accessible.
If reading blogs that are published by and for readers who are blind seems a more comfortable way to be introduced to the blogosphere, try the blogs <http://www.jeffbishop.net>, <http://journal.shandrow.com>, or <http://mosenexplosion.com>. Or try Matt Bailey's readable blog <www.accessibilityblog.com>. Notice that each of these blogs allows you to submit a comment on what you read. If you like, you can submit your comment, and it will show up along with the original posting and any other comments--assuming that the owner of the blog accepts your comment; in order to prevent spam, most blogs do not let just anyone add a comment. Blogs are not necessarily one-way publishing; they can also become online conversations. The same web form-based tools support comments.
But accessing blogs like an ordinary web page falls short of what you can do with blog technology. I cannot think of a simpler way to get started with the power of blog technology--reading or writing a blog--than to use an accessible web blog service like <www.bloglines.com>. Now a service of Ask Jeeves, Bloglines is a simple-to-use entrée to the blogosphere because you do not need to learn anything new about how to use your computer to use Bloglines, either to read at random or to collect blog postings on topics of your choice or to create your own first blog. Best of all, Bloglines is free of charge. You will need to sign up for an account, but the web form is straightforward and as simple as it can be. Another good choice is the web blog service <www.blogger.com>, a service of Google. Sign up with one of these services and select some topics of interest, and the service will automatically build a page for you to read that is tailored to your interests. It will be there waiting for you the next time you log in.
It is one thing to look for a blog posting on some topic of interest. It is another thing to have that content come to you. Services like Bloglines aggregate new postings on topics that you have previously identified or from blogs that you want to track. When something new shows up--and these aggregators are always searching the blogosphere--the new posting shows up on your personal web page, just like new e-mail messages arrive in your e-mail box. And if you choose to make your personal collection of aggregated blog clippings public, you will have actually created a blog of your own. It is perhaps the simplest kind of blog to create. Go ahead and comment on the clippings you receive on your personal page, and Presto! you have become a blogger. If you also invoke the "track back" mechanism link, you will inform the originator about your comment electronically, in a web format that will provide a web link back to your comment. And that is how the web is woven.
Of course, there are dizzying variations and elaborations, far too many to discuss in this article. Some of the more important ones are aggregators. I have discussed how services like Bloglines help your blog-reading experience by searching for blog content and presenting it to you on your own Bloglines web page. But what if you want the content to show up in your e-mail or on your desktop? Aggregators work by using XML specifications, such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) or Atom--two competing technologies for identifying and retrieving blog posts. There are aggregators for every environment on your computer--even the Linux (or Shell World) command-line prompt.
A good choice is PubSub <www.pubsub.com>. PubSub has a great deal to offer computer users who are visually impaired because it allows subscribers to view PubSub updates in a variety of ways--including Instant Messenger notification and e-mail distribution, both of which are screen reader-friendly. A podcast is a blog that comes as an audio file that you listen to with your media player, as opposed to words that you read with your screen reader. The word was created as a combination of syllables from iPod and broadcast. It is a term that is probably here to stay, even though you may listen to your podcast on something other than an Apple iPod. Podcasts are particularly interesting and useful to people who are blind because they are audio. Some regularly scheduled radio programs can now be downloaded as podcasts to be listened to when you are ready to listen. ACB's radio shows are available as podcasts.
AccessiblePodcatcher <www.webbie.org.uk/accessiblepodcatcher/index.htm> is a simple tool for users of screen readers to use to listen to podcasts. Podcatching is receiving and listening to other people's podcasts. Another podcatcher that is accessible is Ipodder <www.ipodder.org>. A good choice on the Linux command line is podracer, available at <http://podracer.sf.net>.
Just as podcasts are blogs in audio, there are visual blogs that are aimed at publishing video and photographic content. After all, the underlying web technology lends itself readily to all the different kinds of media that human beings use online.
Beyond Basic Blogging
Although a service like Bloglines is a great way to start, you may soon want more if you are serious about becoming a blogger. In particular, you may want a simple domain name, perhaps your first name plus your last name followed by ".com." You can host this domain yourself if you have a reliable broadband or high-speed connection that does not block web servers. I have found the WordPress blog tool particularly straightforward to install and configure on my Apache server, and the WordPress documentation, available at <codex.wordpress.org/Accessibility>, appears to be refreshingly unique in providing excellent and detailed explanations about why and how to make blogs accessible. However, most bloggers do not host their own domains; they seek an online provider to handle all the technology for them. Tens of thousands of hosting sites are ready to accept your monthly payment. Needless to say, not all of them are good choices for accessibility reasons, if not for other reasons as well.
My advice is to use the time-honored technique of copying someone you admire. If you find a blog that is similar to what you would like to have, find out where it is hosted and check into opening an account there for yourself or just hunt around. Here are some solid starting points:
- WordPress is one of the premier accessible blogging technologies. Several sites that were mentioned previously in this article use it--can you spot them? The home page for WordPress is <http://wordpress.org>, and the hosting recommendations all look dependable to me--but I have not used WordPress hosting. Find the hosting recommendations at the web site <http://wordpress.org/hosting>.
- Live Journal <http://livejournal.com> is both a blogging technology and a hosting site. Basic blogs can be had for free, and nominal fees provide a wealth of attractive additional features, including the ability to add audio to a blog by dialing a telephone number and recording your posting by telephone. In fact, reading the features page at <www.livejournal.com/paidaccounts> also serves as a useful overview of the kinds of uses that blogs can be put to.
- The granddaddy of blogging technology is Movable Type <http://movabletype.com>. The aforementioned Live Journal is now part of the MovableType suite of products. Perhaps the better starting point for MovableType is <www.sixapart.com/movabletype>, and it is one of the few blog sites that I have found that offers a "Skip Nav Bar" link.
- The New York Times site about blogs <http://weblogs.about.com> is also useful. Although its navigation bar and advertising make the site a bit bulky, it is a wonderful resource for blogs and for information about blogging.
The Bottom Line
What all this means is simple. You should feel free to make of it what you will. The blogs that you will find are as varied as the people who write them, some that are reasoned and highly articulated and others that are terse and pithy. Technologically, blogs are useful web technology because they help take technology issues out of the act of creating online content. If you come upon some blog tool that is inaccessible, keep looking. There are many tools for bloggers, and among these tools are accessible options that can facilitate your creativity.
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