Category Archives: creating the blog

meditation on a blog

When I publish this post my assignment will be pretty much done!

were assigned to write a blog instead of the usual dry essay. The blog could be about any topic you wanted- as well as net communications (the uni subject). It took me ages to wrap my head around how I was supposed to “critically engage” with net communications theory on a blog about weird food.

Once I figured the assignment out, I thought it would be easier than a research essay. Essay writing generally make me want to rip my hair out. At least on a blog I could write in my own voice, and I thought the words would just flow out. The reality was I ended up agonizing over a dozen mini essays instead of the usual one. The posts weren’t technically “essays” but there was agony nonetheless, especially with the academic posts.

In spite of that, I think the blog was a good practical assignment. I don’t feel like writing academic essays has really prepared me for working in the real world. Not even close. On this assignment, the combination of blogging while studying theory helped me realize and reflect on a few new things about the Internet. Writing about web design made me really consider the conventions and impact of design. Trying to find photos for my blog while reading about the copyright debate made the topic more real. I saw more of a connection between reality and theory.

Most of my blogging was for the sake of the assignment, but there were times when I genuinely enjoyed it. I liked hunting for weird new foods, and putting together an interesting post gave me a sense of satisfaction. But whatever I was blogging about, I kept finding myself getting tongue-tied and rephrasing constantly. I hadn’t realized it was so hard to express myself, let alone eloquently.

I’m still a complete amateur but I think I have a little insight into blogging now. On the technical side, I’m sure I would have done better if I’d read the whole WordPress manual. But I didn’t. So it took me a couple days to figure out the quickest way to view my blog. I also have no understanding of how and why I get views. For three weeks I got only a few views a day. Then for two days the number skyrocketed. The day after that I got a one view! It’s like watching stocks go up and down.  The truth is I was too busy trying to publish content to read one of the countless articles about how to draw traffic to your blog. If I wanted to develop this blog, that would be the first thing I’d look into.

Finally finishing this project calls for a hallelujah. But I think I might possibly potentially maybe keep posting weird food finds. Of course posting will be more sporadic,  more concise, and less thought out. Plus, I’ll be going back to Bangkok soon. So whether I hit the street or the supermarket, I’m sure I’ll find some treasures worth blogging about.

A Bangkok street vendor. Photo credit: ukbgreen44ww on flickr

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play nice or shut up, please.

I struggle to remember, but I don’t think I’d ever written a comment before this blog. It’s kind of shocking, considering how much content I read online. I guess I’m more of a comment reader than a comment writer. But since my blog got its very first comment I feel like I’m finally in the game! Like customers in a restaurant, I think comments attract more comments. And my mother would never sit in a restaurant with no customers… Is this analogy working?

Web guru Tim O’Reilly describes the blogosphere as an online “conversational watering hole”. Robert Scoble, who used to blog for Microsoft, says “cross-site conversations” are a key element to popular blogs (Lovink, p. 4). Two-way communication is clearly an important aspect, whether or not it’s in the form of comments.

Geert Lovink says that blogs “are characterized by a culture of desired affiliation” (p. 2). You can definitely see that in the realm of food blogging. The comments on one my favourite cooking sites, Smitten Kitchen, are relentlessly positive. There’s an atmosphere of sharing and general pleasantness. Maybe it’s the subject of delicious food that quells nastiness. Whatever it is, I’ve never seen a negative comment on the site. Of course, rude or inappropriate comments might just be deleted by the blogger. As Lovink points out, freedom of discussion on blogs is limited (p. 21). There’s always someone in control, who can allow or disallow comments. That’s one reason people often post responses on their own blogs instead of commenting (Lovink, p. 21). Referencing the work of Florian Cramer, Lovink says:

“The original posting of the blog owner is not equal to the answer of the respondents… Users are guests” (p. 20).

And being a good guest means remembering your “netiquette”. According to Wikipedia- I wasn’t just being lazy, I thought Wiki’s description would reveal the general consensus- basic netiquette means avoiding flamewars and spam (Wikipedia). All too often basic etiquette seems to go right out the window when people start commenting, whether it’s on YouTube or on news sites. During the recent violence in Thailand I was reading news about it on CNN.com. I found the comments as upsetting as the article I read. They were rife with hostility, insults, and extreme assertions. A painful few displayed open-mindedness and attempts at understanding both sides.

Unlike articles about politics and religion, food blogs are far less likely to create controversy. ‘Weird food’ blogs can be slightly more prone to flamewars, since there are huge cultural differences about what’s acceptable as food. Posts or comments can be culturally insensitive. Heated arguments can break out about the ethics of eating meat, which is what happened on the blog Weird Meat. It usually gets about 10 comments per post, but the postDog Meat got an astounding 220 comments. Debate and sharing perspectives seems like a good thing, but there were clear examples of bad netiquette, like suggestions that dog-eaters should “burn in hell”. Lovink says that blogs “create communities of like-minded people” (p. 21). In this case, not so much. Here’s a sample of the flamewar (these comments were both written anonymously):

There are some, like Claire E. Write, who believe “the essence of a blog is not the interactivity of the medium” (Lovink, p. 28). Flamewars aside, I disagree. A blog may not be defined by interactivity, but I think it’s what’s created the massive blogosphere. Without the communicative aspect, blogs would be stuck at the personal homepage stage. I also think that being able to instantly respond to or communicate with the writer is what often makes blogs more appealing than print media. Not only are you imparted the writer’s views and experiences, but you can join in on that conversation, potentially (emphasis on potentially) enriching the public sphere. Which is why I allow comments on my blog. I’m not the authority on weird food. I’m only sharing what I discover, and I’m happy to learn from visitors as well. Plus, it’s nice to know that my blog gets more than split-second and accidental views.

And as long as my blog is newborn and lost somewhere in the long tail, I think I’ll handle the comments as they come.

Sources:

Geert Lovink (2007) ‘Blogging, the Nihilist Impluse’, pp. 1-38 in Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, London: Routledge.

Tim O’Reilly (2005) ‘What Is Web 2.0’

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copyright? copyleft? can i sit on the fence?

I’ll admit that I had a pretty vague idea about what the Creative Commons were before I started this blog (which is perhaps pathetic for a Media & Communications student). But after a bit of reading and blogging I’m a little more enlightened. And the outcome of this brief education is that I’ve decided to place a Creative Commons license on my blog.

The concept of copyright started in Europe following the invention of the printing press, which suddenly made it easy to reproduce texts. Copyright laws differ all over the worlds, but American copyright laws (which the Creative Commons organisation is based on) decided in 1790 that copyright should be granted for only 14 years (Garcelon, p. 1308). But since then copyright protection has been continually extended. Today it’s the lifetime of the author plus 70 years (Garcelon, p. 1308). WHAT? American president Thomas Jefferson explained a long time ago that a limited monopoly over content was created so authors could profit from their work, which was hoped would further motivate production (Garcelon, p. 1308). When the first real copyright laws were made there was an emphasis on the “limited” part, which modern American copyright seems to have completely forgotten.

I think most people see the struggle over copyright as being between the producers/authors/artists and the users. Dmytri Kleiner suggests that the struggle is really between content owners– who are usually big corporations- and users. From his socialist perspective he argues that it’s usually the “property owners” and no the creative artists who profit from copyright (Kleiner). Continuing with the land metaphor (and following David Ricardo), Kleiner says that “the interest of the landlord is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community”. Is it clear yet that Kleiner is against copyright? He believes in “copyleft”: no copyright at all.

Kleiner uses the land metaphor to discuss copyright because “intellectual property, including copyright, is the extension of property to immaterial assets, to information” (Kleiner). But how can non-rivalrous goods like knowledge and digital content be thought of in the same way as a limited resource like land (Garcelon, p. 1310)?

While copyleft opposes copyright altogether, the Creative Commons (CC) organisation works within the legal framework of copyright. Wanting a return to Jefferson’s ideals about copyright, Lawrence Lessig founded CC to help preserve the commons. The longer copyright lasts, the more it stifles creativity and the development of new ideas. Lessig believes that property and the commons must co-exist (Lessig, p. 325).

What Creative Commons provides are various licenses that if applied to your work, exempt it from certain (automatic) copyright protections. All licenses allow the content to be used as long as the original creator is attributed, but some prohibit “remixing” and/or use for commercial purposes. The CC website was started at the end of 2002 and CC licenses can be applied to music, images, and text (Garcelon, p. 1307). Apparently about half of Flickr’s photos have CC licenses, so in the realm of online photos, it seems CC has been quite successful (Garcelon, p. 1320). It’s also had some success in the field of education, with teaching materials being shared online under CC licenses (Fioretti).

But there are a lot of problems with the Creative Commons concept. First of all, it’s mainly limited to the Internet, and for the most part, English speakers (Fioretti). Meaning its usefulness is limited to tiny segment of the world’s population. And there are many countries where copyright laws aren’t respected anyway, so CC would be irrelevant (Fioretti). CC licenses are only useful if people respect copyright in the first place. In poor, developing countries piracy is often widespread and culturally accepted. Original copies would be unaffordable. There’s also the fact that copyright is a Western invention, one that’s been adopted or imposed on the rest of the world. Indian journalist Frederick Noronha observed that, “Generally speaking, copyright in any form, including CC, doesn’t fit too well with Asian ideas of knowledge” (Fioretti).

Pirated DVDs for sale in Cambodia. Photo credit: nogoodreason on flickr

Clearly CC licenses will not fix the problems of copyright, but one thing it is doing is making more people consider copyright laws- for better or for worse. I’m moved by arguments against copyright, but at the same time I know that the concepts of property and intellectual property have been central to the progress of the world’s most developed countries. And since I started my blog, I’ve found CC so useful. CC licenses tell me immediately whether I can use someone else’s work or not. Being able to search Flickr’s database of CC licensed photos has been a lifesaver. Without it I’d have to either screw the law or ask permission for every single photo I want to use. I think you know which route most of us would take… So at least CC provides a third option, which can’t be a bad thing.

The license I’ve chosen for my blog is ‘Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike’. The reason I wanted to use a CC license was because I felt people would otherwise assume that I wanted “all rights reserved”. This way anyone who’s worried about copyright can use my work guilt-free. I’m also allowing “remixing” because that’s the whole point of sharing stuff in the commons, isn’t it? But I did choose the ‘Noncommercial’ restriction. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so I chose the extra protection for now but I might get rid of it. The ‘Share Alike’ clause was also kind of confusing: “You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work” (Creative Commons site). My understanding is that if someone wants to use my work to create something new, they’ll have to put a CC license on that as well, which makes sense. If you want to take something, you better give something back.

Give a little, take a little.

Sources:

Creative Commons website.

Fioretti, Marco (2009), ‘The case for and against Creative Commons’.

Garcelon, Marc (2009), ‘An Information Commons? Creative Commons and Public Access to Cultural Creations’, New Media & Society 11.8, pp. 1307-1326.

Kleiner, Dmytri (2007), ‘Copyfarleft and Copyjustright’, Mute Magazine.

Lessig, Lawrence (2005), ‘Open Code and Open Societies’, pp. 349-360 in Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, eds. Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott A. Hissam and Karim R. Lakhani, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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the nitty-gritty of web design

First impressions matter. Especially when people are glancing at your blog and deciding in two seconds whether they’re interested or not.

After setting up my blog, the first thing I did was test the design themes. Because I’m using wordpress.com and not wordpress.org. Because I know nothing about html, I knew creating my own blog from scratch would mean spending hours (days? weeks?) trying to tweak the tiniest things. No thank you!

Browsing WordPress’ ready-made themes, I realised I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted: something clean, simple, and elegant. I was hoping to appeal to food blog fans interested in something a little bit different. But because I was aiming more for food blog than gross-out blog (which many weird food blogs are), my target visitor was sort of different to that of most other weird food blogs. Looking at blogs like Weird Meat and Deep End Dining, I like that they have simple, clear designs, but they’re not really the look I have in mind.

I know that “clean” and “simple” are ridiculously vague descriptions of the aesthetic I like. I mean, Weird Eats has a relatively “simple” design but it’s so not what I aiming for. This blog’s subject matter is actually really similar to mine, but the site is just instantly unappealing. The red wave design of the header feels unsuited to a food blog. All the text is way too tiny. And the page is completely dominated by the white background.

The clean sort of design I had in mind was based on some of my favourite food blogs, like Smitten Kitchen. These blogs generally have plain white backgrounds, clear black font, a main column for posts, and a smaller sidebar. I admit, part of the reason I wanted “clean” was to appeal to my OCD tendencies, but also because it helps new visitors to easily navigate the site. And it makes it easier for them to focus on and read the actual content of the blog posts. Also, I think the neutral background and uncluttered design typical of good food blogs really suits the subject matter. Like a simple dining table, it falls back and allows focus to be on the food (photos in this case).

Most well-designed blogs also have clearly divided sections, usually columns. You can see it’s the design of magazines translated onto the web, especially the bare simplicity of gourmet food magazines and photography. In his book The Laws of Cool, Professor Alan Liu describes the influence of modernist graphic design on the aesthetic of Web (Liu, p. 207). By trying to bring the familiar formats of pre-existing media to the Web, the Web’s creators were also transferred the characteristics of modernist design conventional to print media (Liu, p. 211).

However, Liu states that modernist design and the Web are fundamentally incompatible because modernist design is based on a grid structure. And the Web’s “lack of fixed spatial dimensions defaces the concept of design” (Liu, p. 225). Apparently, the concept of “antidesign” is more true to the medium (Liu, p. 222). Antidesign is against the “asymmetry, unity, and clarity” of modernism (Liu, p. 219). See, Liu discusses these difference approaches in his quest to understand what makes “cool” design. The overall message seems to be that “cool” is modernist design but also “fundamentally antidesign” (Liu, p. 216). Very helpful.

When I think of antidesign, I think of the wacky amateur aesthetics of the 90’s described by Olia Lialina. The amateur design of that period is now considered the pinnacle of bad taste. But MySpace is still filled with examples of garish amateur design, like this MySpace page. This isn’t an extreme example, but the busy background, glitter graphics and glitter butterflies mean it definitely qualifies. According to Danah Boyd, MySpace and Facebook represent a class division- a fascinating observation that seems to be pretty true (in Lialina). Boyd highlights that aesthetics are more than visual appeal, they’re “culturally narrated and replicated” (in Lialina).

The social significance of design aside, I feel like amateur design is fine is what you want is a crazy visual buffet, but it just wouldn’t serve my purpose. Like the modernists, I want “clean, efficient visual communication for an age drowning in media” (Liu, p. 199). I want visitor’s focusing on my written content and photos. The last thing I want is decorative clutter, especially when the Web is so cluttered with information. I want my blog to be easy to read and scan, unlike the crazy site for Ling’s Cars.

So, the WordPress themes I considered for my blog had white backgrounds, nice black font, and customisable headers. I wanted to customise the photo in the header so it would immediately point to my blog’s subject and style. The first couple themes I tried had headers and subheadings that were too small and not bold enough. The theme I finally chose was PressRow. The header is large and bold, and the font is reminiscent of print media but not too formal. I also like that the post headers are quite large, and clearly demarcate different sections of the blog.

I might not have the perfect theme for my blog niche, but it works pretty well. Except I only realised recently that the text of my posts are in a (mild?) serif font, which some view as unsuitable for reading on screens. But I did a bit of research and found out that san-serif fonts aren’t necessarily more readable (Poole). Even better, I noticed that one of the top food blogs, La Tartine Gourmande, uses the same font as me. So it can’t be that bad!

P.S. Check out this little cartoon about the stereotypical professional/amateur divide: ‘How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell’

Sources:

Lialina, Olia (2007) ‘Vernacular Web 2’, http://www.contemporary-home-computing.org/vernacular-web-2/.

Liu, Alan. (2004) ‘Information is Style’ in Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Poole, Alex (2005) ‘Literature Review- Which Are More Legible: Serif or San Serif Typefaces?’, Alex Pool- Interaction design and research, http://www.alexpoole.info/academic/literaturereview.html.

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it’s quite a small pond

It’s clear that a lot of people want to “analyse the market” or “gage online trends” before deciding what to blog about. Well, those bloggers want one thing: MONEY.

I think some of the best blogs are started just because. On a whim. And I decided to blog about food because that’s what I like to read about (besides celebrity garbage). But there are already SO many amazing food blogs out there. So many it would be a full time job to keep up with them all. Now imagine how many mediocre or BAD food blogs there must be out there.

After deciding on food I definitely needed to somehow find a much smaller niche within this huge niche of the food blog. Then inspiration struck (Thanks, SBS. I knew all my TV watching would come in handy one day).

But before starting my “weird food” blog, I should check out the neighbourhood. See what I’m up against. And maybe find a blog to idolise, since I’m not familiar with territory. A quick search reveals that there are lots of posts and articles about weird food, but very few dedicated blogs. I knew the niche was small.  Further research reveals just how small.

Teeny tiny.

According to Google Trends (link) “weird food” is a very untrendy search term. Isn’t anyone else out there curious about the same things as me? Despite the research results, I do not despair. On the Internet there’s an audience or market for (almost) everything. That’s the beauty of the internet. Online space is not limited, it’s infinite1! There’s room for every subject, however obscure, boring, or downright creepy. My blog would definitely fit into what’s called “The Long Tail”. The theory of the Long Tail is all about demand. On a graph of product demand, the most popular products are “the Short Head of hits”, and less popular products create the Long Tail (Anderson) . According to media guy, Chris Anderson, producers used to be more focused on the Short Head and products that were as broadly popular as possible. Today more attention’s shifted to the Long Tail, and the Internet’s definitely played a major role in that. Imagine: before the Internet, every dog bootie enthusiast might have thought they were the only one in the world. Now with the Internet, they can find each other, and share their passion. Isn’t that a nice thought?

Back to the point: Since I’m not trying to gather followers a la Ashton Kutcher, I’m perfectly fine with appealing to only a narrow segment (hopefully that segment is at least one person wide).

Searching for blogs in my niche turns up only a handful of results. A couple of them get zero comments and are pretty sad. Will I find a weird-food blog to idolise or is this the fate of all weird-food blogs?

Thank god I found a couple blogs that weren’t too bad:

Weird Meat

Weird Meat is a food and travel blog written by a young American guy named Michael. The blog documents his experiences trying foods from different cultures, foods that according to mainstream Western culture would be considered “weird”. Like spider in Cambodia. Rooster testicles in Taiwan. Definitely Fear Factor territory, so not exactly the same focus as my blog. I will not be tasting any animal organs for the sake of this blog.

Despite turning my stomach, Weird Meat is definitely a readable blog. The writing is good- personable and humorous. Posts aren’t too long and wordy, and there are lots of pictures. Pictures are really essential for good food blogs: if you can’t taste or smell it, you should at least be able to see it. I also like the fact that the blog design is really clear and simple, making it easy for new visitors to navigate. How many people actually visit the site and who they are, I can’t tell. But every post seems to get at least a few comments, ranging from 2 to 220 (a big debate exploded about eating dog meat).

Deep End Dining

First off, Deep End Dining seems more commercial than Weird Meat (which seems like a hobby blog). There isn’t any clear advertising, but they sell a huge range of merchandise with their logo on it. And for some strange reason the right column randomly features a link to Aquasana under the heading ‘Water Filters’, just above the post archives. Am I missing something here? Or is that just a weird method of advertising? The right column features a message encouraging visitors to use their site for advertising.

This blog is about dining out on strange and exotic fare, mostly around Los Angeles. I guess because it’s based in Los Angeles the food is definitely a lot less “weird” than on Weird Meat. Again it’s hard to know what kind of following the blog has, although posts typically get about 10 comments. But while the blog doesn’t appear hugely popular, it must be doing something right, because it’s apparently been mentioned before in the mainstream media, and the most recent post is about the main contributor appearing on Top Chef! The blog definitely has some sway. But I’m actually sort of bothered by the layout. The text column is so wide that I find it hard to read. The posts can be quite lengthy, and I think the width of the text column makes it feel even more so. I’ve realised written content definitely has to be kept scannable and manageable. Which is ironic considering the ridiculous length of this post…

Source:

Chris Anderson, ‘The Long Tail, in a nutshell’, http://thelongtail.com/about.html.

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starting is the hardest part…?

With much trepidation I’m officially starting this blog. I’ve been putting this off because I’m just not a blogger. The mini blogs I’ve made in the past were purely academic. This blog on the other hand is a little bit of business/pleasure. But I do think I should mention off the bat that creating this blog is part of a university course. So posts may sometimes veer off on tangents- blogging related, but perhaps not food blogging related.

Back to the pleasure aspect. This is a food blog!. But I’ve decided not to become one mediocre food blog lost among millions (millions?) because:

1)      Who’s going to pay for me to dine out all the time?

2)      I sadly don’t have the time or skills to cook amazing things at home every week either.

So I’ve decided to blog about weird food. Well, I don’t know if “weird” is the right word.

Unusual food?

Strange food?

Unique food?

Unexpected food?

Anything out of the ordinary, but not necessarily things they would make you eat on ‘Fear Factor’. Because I hated that show. The show I’m thinking of is ‘Heston’s Feasts’ (because it was just on SBS last month). He’s like a mad scientist in the kitchen. His inventions are sometimes revolting and sometimes Willy Wonka-esque. But that’s my inspiration and I’m running with it.

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