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Extra! Extra! Blog All About It!

Blogging is all the rage these days, with bloggers even receiving press credentials from the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. But until recently, I’d never quite seen the point in having a weblog, given that I have a full-fledged publication in TidBITS, and a moderated mailing list in TidBITS Talk. What could I want to say that I couldn’t say in one of those two places? Quite a lot, it turns out.

A brief aside. Last week, those of you who receive the HTML edition of TidBITS know that our server initially sent you a blank email message instead of the issue, and later you received the text edition instead of the HTML edition. Geoff discovered the blank message problem around 10:30 PM for me (7:30 PM for him), and we spent the next two-and-a-half hours on the phone trying to figure out what had gone wrong and rectify it. Around midnight my time, after a few attempts at reconfiguration and resending the HTML edition failed, we tried sending the text edition (with an explanatory note to help defuse all the well-intentioned mail from readers telling us of the problem we already knew about), and that approach succeeded. Unfortunately, our efforts this week to determine why the trouble occurred and to fix it were unsuccessful; we couldn’t see any reason the problem should have reared its ugly head. The entire process is highly automated, the automation has worked perfectly for years, and short of the particular words used in last week’s issue (which shouldn’t be a concern – the message format itself was structurally sound), nothing has changed in those systems. In short, we have to watch the sending process in person again this week to make sure the problem doesn’t crop up again.

How is this related to blogging? Although we’re not shy about documenting our systems here in TidBITS, we usually draw the line about telling you all about troubles we have with the servers or other things that go on unless there’s a larger context (like this article!) into which to weave the report. We intentionally limit the length of TidBITS issues (to avoid overloading readers), and there’s only so much room for infrastructure stories about how we valiantly protected our list server from a nefarious dictionary attack by a spammer, particularly when no readers were affected and when few people use the same aged hardware and software as we do (making it hard to draw broad technical lessons). At the same time, when a problem does occur, as with the delivery of the HTML edition last week, we don’t have a good way of providing what is essentially a status report. And with the number of readers we have, answering email from everyone who writes in to alert us to a known problem (even with Eudora’s boilerplate text feature) is time-consuming.

But status report-type postings aren’t the primary reason we’ve become more interested in starting a weblog. Over the years, the TidBITS formula has gradually evolved into a couple of short bits about events of the week or particularly interesting product releases, anchored by two or three longer and more detailed articles. These articles generally require some time to write, and every one of them is edited by at least two of us before publication. That’s great for ensuring accuracy and eliminating the last few typos, but it makes the entire process top-heavy, the end result being that we shy away from shorter, more informal bits that would feel awkward without additional context in an issue (brief opinion pieces in particular), that are amusingly unimportant, or that we simply lack the time or enthusiasm to flesh out sufficiently for an article. Ironically, given that blogging is considered to be a relatively recent development, that sort of writing is exactly what TidBITS started with fourteen years ago.

It is for these reasons that we’ve started ExtraBITS, in which TidBITS editors will wax blogosophic about the kinds of subjects you enjoy reading in TidBITS. The pieces will be shorter, breezier, and yes, less complete and exhaustively researched. They should be, in their own size and context, no less useful or enjoyable than our regular weekly content, just different. I anticipate them being more like the letters sent home (for publication in the local paper) from foreign climes by the correspondent of yesteryear. It’s possible that a few of these ExtraBITS postings will grow into full-fledged articles that will later appear in TidBITS, but I suspect that will apply only to a small minority. I more see ExtraBITS as occupying a currently empty space between the formal publication approach of TidBITS and the discussion-driven TidBITS Talk.

Of course, there are other reasons I’m setting up ExtraBITS now as well. From the technical standpoint, although I’m sure there are many blogging packages to choose from, I’m using the Weblog plug-in for Web Crossing, which took me about five minutes to set up and integrates with everything else I’m doing in Web Crossing. It provides all sorts of niceties, such as support for RSS readers (even to the category level), the option to subscribe so you receive postings in email, and spell checking when posting. More important, it’s the next step for me in becoming familiar with Web Crossing’s low-level capabilities in preparation for the design of our content management system. Who knows, perhaps we’ll even appropriate some of the now-commonly understood weblog interface elements in our final design.

For instance, one thing I want to look into for our content management system is the integration of article-specific comments with a mailing list, thus enabling people to post comments about an article and automatically have those comments both end up in mailing list threads and remain attached to the root article. That’s roughly what we have working now with articles in our database and threads in the TidBITS Talk archive, but making the link between a thread and article requires the manual inclusion of an appropriate URL (usually by me, during moderation), making it an error-prone process.

Another potential benefit of ExtraBITS from my perspective, once it gets going, is increased traffic to our Web site overall, and particularly throughout the week (most of our Web traffic comes on Tuesday and Wednesday, decreasing throughout the week). Most of our current readers consider TidBITS an email publication, and while that won’t be changing, it’s difficult in these spam-ridden days to increase the readership of an email publication. By making our Web site more of a frequent destination, particularly in the weblog medium that has become so popular and heavily used, we hope to introduce more people to TidBITS as well.

Adding up all the benefits – a place for pieces that would otherwise go unwritten, a chance to learn more with Web Crossing’s capabilities, experience with a slightly different publishing medium, and increased traffic to a more regularly updated Web site – I think ExtraBITS will be a winning combination. Check it out, complete with posts from the last week, at:


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