Power To The People

Affordable and user-friendly technology could provide an exciting new platform for discussing planning and development issues.
July 14, 2003, 12am PDT | Abhijeet Chavan
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 Abhijeet ChavanDuring the Iraq war, global media networks used 21st Century technology to bring unprecedented real-time war coverage to live television. Networks used video phones, satellite imagery, live video feeds, and anything else to attract viewers. Meanwhile, a different kind of low-tech "war coverage" was captivating World Wide Web readers.

Someone calling himself "Salam Pax" and claiming to be an Iraqi living in Baghdad was maintaining a diary on the Web. His diary -- also known as a "weblog" or "blog" in web parlance -- offered readers a unique first-hand account of life in Iraq before and during the war. His acerbic and irreverent reports became immensely popular with readers. In stark contrast to the advanced technology used by war correspondents, Salam Pax needed only a computer, an Internet connection, and blogging software to reach his world-wide audience.

A Web Phenomenon

Salam Pax's weblog may have gained instant popularity but blogging itself has been around for several years. A weblog is usually a running commentary with links to other sites, news, or resources. A weblog can be personal diary, a soapbox, a collection of links, observations about a particular topic, or just random thoughts.

A blog is an inexpensive form of communication but it can be an effective one. It does not require sophisticated technical knowlege thereby making it possible for just about anyone to set up a blog. Weblogs offer instant publishing; with the push of a button it is possible to broadcast a thought to anyone who is interested. But above all, good weblogs are appealing because they offer a diversity of opinions that is often lacking in mainstream media coverage. Weblogs demonstrate the power of the World Wide Web to bring "push-button publishing" to the masses.

Today, the web phenomenon of blogging has achieved widespread acceptance. Universities are including blogging as part of journalism courses. Businesses are using weblogs to reach out to customers and build communities around products. Scholars are using weblogs to collaborate on research. You can find an overwhelming number of weblogs of varying quality on any topic you can think of.

Well...almost any topic.

Try searching for weblogs about urban planning, architecture, housing, urban issues, and related topics, and you are likely to find that the pickings are slim. Weblogs devoted to these issues are few or hard to find. (See Selected Weblogs). But if you are an architect or an urban planner, professor or student, journalist or citizen, or anyone else interested in planning and development issues, this may be a good time to start your own weblog and make your opinions heard. All you need is a web browser and an Internet connection.

Why would anyone want to run a weblog? If you find yourself emailing links and articles to colleagues and friends often, you are sure to enjoy blogging. If you participate in online discussion boards or mailing lists, you might find the weblog format compelling too. Weblogs are not limited to personal opinions; blogs can be an effective medium of communication for your company, non-profit, neighborhood organization, or professional community.

Get Started

Start by monitoring a few good weblogs. It will help you decide what you want to write about and for whom. Next, find the right blogging software. A wide variety of packages are available; you need to find one that fits your requirements and technical skills.

Try the popular Blogger (see Resources) which offers an easy-to-use blogging service and web hosting; you can be blogging in minutes without spending a dime. All you need is a web browser. The "regular" service is free and you can upgrade to a subscription-based "Pro" version for additional features if you want to. Userland Radio is another popular choice that employs user-friendly desktop software for publishing weblogs. It also includes a news reader that can conveniently collect news from other websites for you. After the 30-day free trial, you can purchase a subscription which includes web hosting. If you have access to a web server and the required technical skills, try Movable Type which can be downloaded for free for non-commercial use. If either of these don't work for you, there are numerous other options available for different computer platforms, budgets, and skill levels. Experiment -- it's part of the fun.

Then start writing. Be creative and original. Offer something new to your readers -- links to little-known resources, thought-provoking observations, or well-written commentary. It's your weblog so you can write what you want -- there is no editor or publisher to stop you. However, if you are running a professional, technical, or business-related blog, you need to be your own editor and be selective about what you write. If your blog is about urban sprawl, your readers may not be interested in a blog entry about your musical preferences. Stay on topic. Update your weblog frequently but not just for the sake of updating. Get rid of the jargon and clever language -- write in a personal voice. Most importantly, have something interesting to say.

Become Famous

Once your blog is established, you can promote your weblog by letting your friends and colleagues know about it. Include the address of your weblog in your email signature. Post comments on other weblogs. Submit your weblog to search engines. Syndicate the content of your blog using the RSS format. This allows other sites to easily feature links to your blog entries resulting in more readers discovering your weblog. (Refer to your blogging software or service for information about RSS.) You will know if your weblog is successful when other bloggers start referring and linking to your weblog entries.

Whatever happened to Salam Pax, the mystery blogger from Iraq? After the war, it became known that the "Baghdad Blogger" is a real person. Salam -- that is indeed his first name -- is a 29-year old Iraqi architect. He is a fan of the architecture of World Trade Center design competition winner Daniel Libeskind. Salam continues to blog. And he now writes a regular column for the British newspaper The Guardian.

Do you read weblogs that you would recommend to other PLANetizen readers? Do you run your own weblog? Let me know.


Blogger: www.blogger.com
Radio Userland: radio.userland.com
Movable Type: www.movabletype.org

Selected Weblogs

Here are a few weblogs to get you started. These weblogs appear to be active at the time of this writing.

Archlog: archlog.editthispage.com
Beyond Brilliance, Beyond Stupidity: www.646industries.com/beyond/
Citistates: www.citistates.com
City Comforts: www.citycomforts.com/blog.html
Civitas: civitas_society.blogspot.com
EDPro Weblog: www.edpro.blogspot.com
M1 – City Planning: www.m1.blogspot.com
Transport Blog: www.transportblog.com
Urbification: urbification.blogspot.com

Abhijeet Chavan is managing editor of PLANetizen.

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