On the cover North Coast Journal


January 26, 2006

Heading Humboldt Blogs and the blogging bloggers who blog them


I went in for my semiannual teeth cleaning last week. As often happens at the dentist's office, where they know what I do for a living, someone asked what story I'm working on. In this case it was Judy, the practice administrator. When I told her I was researching blogs and the Humboldt County blogosphere, her response caught me off guard. "What's a blog?" she asked.

The day before I had signed up for my fifth or sixth web log (or blog, as they were dubbed some time around the turn of the century). It happened almost by accident. As part of my weekly routine I was scanning the web looking for info regarding which band is playing in what club for our "Music & More" page. I loaded a bookmark for the youth music organization Placebo and found their old page had been refurbished by a new webmaster. Accessing the new page required a sign-in with a password, which basically meant I had to set-up a blog with WordPress, one of a number of hosting/software companies that offers blog space gratis. Three minutes later I had another blog.

The WordPress main page included a list of "Top Posts from Around WordPress.com," most of which were in languages I did not recognize. A teaser for the No. 1 post read, "Blogging jumps the shark on AT&T ads." Clicking on it led to what appeared to be a seriously hot blogger, Robert Scoble, a self-described "Microsoft geek" who says he "began his blog in 2000 and now has more than 3.5 million readers every year." For the most part his blog is about blogging.

Scoble's post was short and sweet. He had seen a billboard that day near the Oakland Coliseum. He noted:

"It simply said:


In HUGE type.

Delivered. In smaller type."

The fact that the phone company assumes that everyone knows what blogging is (and what a blog is), yet Judy -- an otherwise well-informed person -- does not, might be indicative of the isolated nature of our rural region. A quick poll of the others in the office showed that most knew the word blog, with the younger people knowing more about them.

Andrea, who was cleaning the teeth of her next patient, called out from around the corner, "You mean, like, MySpace," referencing a network of bloggish personal webpages that boasts 48 million members worldwide and, according to a current stat sheet, "up to 170,000 new members join[ing] every day."

Humboldt's MySpace cadets surely number in the thousands. I can't tell you how many other local blogs are out there. There's no doubt the number is growing. Even the Times-Standard jumped on the blogwagon last week.

In terms of sheer numbers, the Journal outstrips them, blogwise. William Kowinski, our theater columnist, has 10 (details will come up in his section of our "Blog Humboldt" survey.) Journal gardening/books columnist Amy Stewart has three: one on gardening, another on worms and her latest, detailing the fascinating lives of her backyard chickens "along with crazy chicken news from around the world."

Even Journal editor Hank Sims has a blog, created so that his name will show up instead of "anonymous" when he posts comments on the local political blogs he's been frequenting. But its title, "idonotwantablogthanks," lets you know that he's not planning on updating it regularly.

Me? I'm up to seven and counting, most of them set up last week.

There are countless blogs in Humboldt, each one as different as the blogger who blogs it. We have no intention of cataloging all or even most of them.

Back to Judy's question: What's a blog? Blogger, a popular blog outlet owned by Google, puts it this way: "A blog is a personal diary. A daily pulpit. A collaborative space. A political soapbox. A breaking-news outlet. A collection of links. Your own private thoughts. Memos to the world. -- Your blog is whatever you want it to be."

Here's what a few local bloggers have made of theirs.

My blogs and welcome to them


I started blogging in 2002, and now have 10 different blogs where I post at least occasionally, almost always starting at my main (or "portal") blog, Dreaming Up Daily (dreamingup.blogspot.com.) And I'm planning to add one or two more.

So what's all that about?

Once I got past the name ("blog" sounded like something you might need medicine for) I saw immediately that the web log format would allow me to do what hadn't been possible before: To publish on the Internet easily, without limit and for free.

Many people use their blogs as a kind of online diary for self-expression and connection, something between the formality of a web page and the chaos of chat rooms. But I approached them as a freelance writer with two typical problems -- getting published and getting paid. I realized blogs would solve one of these. For my purposes, what's most important is that my host (Blogger) pays for the servers that keep everything I write on the Internet, essentially forever.

I'd been an editor (weekly newspapers in Boston and Washington) and a professional writer since the 1970s, publishing articles in magazines from Rolling Stone to the Reader's Digest and newspapers from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, with a book (The Malling of America) in 1985. But except for my client work, I found that way too much of my writing in the past too-many years was in the form of book proposals, article queries and unproduced scripts. My readers were mostly agents and editors, not the most satisfying audience.

My first post was a satire that combined the phenomenon of crop circles as dramatized in the then-current movie, Signs, with the traffic circles then appearing in Arcata. It was a fictional interview with two British ufologists (Bruce and Nigel) whose theory was that Arcata's traffic circles were the work of not-very-bright space aliens. A shorter version had inspired no interest in our esteemed local press, so I published it myself. Having recently published a paperback version of The Malling of America with a new print-on-demand company, I was especially keen on self-publishing.

At about the same time I began another blog (Kowincidence) to essentially archive on the web some of my favorite past published pieces. I created definitive versions by combining drafts, restoring some cuts and adding updates. I also posted assigned articles I'd worked very hard on, but for one reason or another were never printed. That was especially satisfying. Now that Google and other search engines show results from blogs, this work is accessible to the world, way beyond what it once was or could have been in print.

Except for that first piece, I didn't write much about Humboldt until 2004, when I started This North Coast Place (thisnorthcoastplace.blogspot.com) as a blog to explore North Coast identity, mostly through interviews and reporting. It was a way to use a North Coast Cultural Trust grant that didn't provide enough to cover print publication. Now that Blogger allows readers to post comments, I'd hoped to start a dialogue there. But getting comfortable in the "blogosphere" is a gradual process and a lot of people aren't there yet. Familiarity is definitely growing, though.

William Kowinski's Soul of Star Trek blog.The Internet is international, so even a blog about the North Coast can get readers far away. I posted interviews about North Coast geology and earthquakes right after the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami that got more hits from Asia than from Humboldt. My Soul of Star Trek (soulofstartrek.blogspot.com) has readers in Israel and Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and Kuwait -- in fact, on every continent but Antarctica. My political blog has a reader at the Pentagon, though I have mixed feelings about that.

Why so many blogs? Partly to reflect my range of interests in separate blogs for readers with just one of those interests, but also to see what attracts more readers. I introduced Soul of Star Trek after I wrote an article on Star Trek for the New York Times. It got noticed on the largest Star Trek websites, which still link to new posts. "Hot links," or the ability of readers to click directly from one site to another, is a major medium of exchange on the Internet now, and is one of the primary ways to bring readers to your site.

Posting on large "community" blogs, often political, provides the potential of tens and even hundreds of thousands of readers, which can also attract visits to your own blog. This is especially so if your commentary is voted onto the "recommended" list, or is "fronted" -- elevated to a blog's "front page," which several of mine have been, including the highest achievement, the front page of Daily Kos, a blog with a circulation (it claims) higher than any cable TV news station or all but five U.S. newspapers.

Your blog also gets known by being linked from a permanent list on other blogs, especially the larger ones. Dreaming Up Daily is linked from E Pluribus Media, where I seem also to be valued as an experienced elder to bright and sincere younger web journalists, a congenial if unfamiliar role.

So blogs solved one of the writer's problems. What about the other one -- getting paid? Blogs can carry advertising, as mine do, but it takes daily traffic far beyond what I typically get before advertising pays anything at all. So I haven't made any money, except perhaps indirectly. I've sold essays to the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle and to the LA Times based on my blog posts. I also create blogs for some of my communications and publicity clients. In my Star Trek blog I've tried out writing meant for what was going to be the official Star Trek 40th Anniversary book. (Its publisher decided that Trek nonfiction wasn't selling well enough, so there won't be one. Of course, that won't stop me from self-publishing.)

While I'd love to get paid, especially when the time spent blogging gets excessive, I'm not interested in blogging just for dollars, as some now do on commercially oriented blogs. Getting paid to write about what I care about is a goal in any medium, mostly because it means I can afford to keep doing it.

Humboldt politiblogs


photo of Fred Mangels, proprietor of Fred's Humboldt BlogWithout a doubt, the king of the local blog scene is Eureka resident Fred Mangels, proprietor of Fred's Humboldt Blog (humboldtlib.blogspot.com). For a start, Mangels writes more frequently than any other local blogger, and he comments on just about everything that anyone else is saying. Also, he possesses two qualities rare in blogdom: He's got the guts to write under his own name, and he has a sense of humor about himself.

As the current chair of the local chapter of the Libertarian Party, Mangel's musings on local news naturally comes with an anti-government slant that can range from mild to rabid, depending on his mood and the subject at hand. Mangels doesn't limit himself exclusively to matters political -- he'll take a moment to wonder why Humboldt County now goes all wussy when bad weather strikes -- but he does favor the topic above all others, following local politics like a Red Sox fan follows baseball. Closely, in other words.

It's taken a year or so, but it seems like the pseudonymous Captain H.H. Buhne of the Buhne Tribune (buhnetribune.blogspot.com) has finally hit his stride. In the past, the BT has floundered somewhat -- the Cap'n briefly tried his hand at restaurant reviews, celebrity sightings and other short-lived features -- but lately his meat-and-potatoes subject has been the battle between the Times-Standard and the Eureka Reporter, which he approaches with the tabloid sensibility he has honed over the last year or so. (Sample headline: "NEWS BLACKOUT SHATTERED: ER Courageously Breaks Silence On Iranian Nuke Program.")

But there's more to the Cap'n than yucks like this. In previous posts, he has written on the disturbing likeness between a police sketch of the abductor of Karen Mitchell, the Eureka teenager who went missing in 1997, and Robert Durst, a billionaire real estate heir who later killed his neighbor in Galveston, Tex. Durst lived in Trinidad at the time of Mitchell's disappearance. Recently, the Cap'n stayed at one of Eureka's fleabag long-term-stay motels to see what life was like there. He began writing up his experiences last weekend.

Following the Cap'n's lead on the news front is Snollygoster Half-Sheet (snollygosterhalfsheet.blog-spot.com), which sprang into life earlier this month as a place for the mystery author's pessimistic "thoughts on news media in Humboldt County." The best that can be said about Snolly is that she -- why does one want to say "she"? -- doesn't seem to have a dog in the fight. The Times-Standard, the Eureka Reporter, the Arcata Eye, the Journal -- each has tasted her scorn, and each has been awarded one of her coveted "plaudits." On at least a couple of occasions, the author has pulled off some interesting and impressive feats of close reading and deep analysis.

The worst that can be said? Around half of Snolly's output to date has consisted of sanctimonious finger-waggings for alleged violations of one imaginary rule of journalism or another. Just a couple of weeks out, and she's already suffered through more than her share of slow news days. Hence her (unfair) nickname around the Journal offices: "Penny-ante Half-Baked."

Eureka resident Dave Berman keeps track of national news about potential electronic election-rigging on his Guvworld blog (guvwurld.blogspot.com). Berman is gaining some stature in the larger blogosphere, but local residents may want to stop by to check up on his long-running spat with county Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams over the security and tamperability of Humboldt County's electoral infrastructure.

The Plazoid (theplazoid.blogspot.com) is the spot for all things schwag. If you're looking for the latest several-thousand-word manifesto from Arcata homeless activist Tad Robinson, this site should be your first stop. Likewise, if you're looking for new angles on the fascist conspiracy between the Arcata Police Department and the Chamber of Commerce, you could do worse than to stop here. In short, The Plazoid is all about the conjunction of homelessness and politics, with a strong pro-homeless slant.

Like the proverbial Plaza-lounger that gives the blog its name, The Plazoid is erratic. One week there'll be a flurry of new posts, with debate between pro- and anti-homeless forces running hot and heavy in the comments section, then suddenly there'll be no new action for a month.

In the meanwhile, those nostalgic for 2004 -- a magic year in the annals of Arcata oddity -- can browse over to nickbravo.blogspot.com to catch up on the musings of one of the city's most memorable eccentrics, the two-time City Council candidate and all-around enigma Nicholas Bravo, who went into exile in small-town Nebraska sometime after the last election. Bravo is nothing if not persistent, and his blog is frequently updated with characteristic pensées on God, romance and the secret Illuminati quest for global mind control. Proving that he's still a Humboldter at heart, Bravo is a frequent commenter on many of the blogs listed above.

Save Ancient Forests (saveancientforests.blogspot.com), which began in December, barely qualifies as a blog. It consists mostly of press-release-quality updates on various Pacific Lumber timber harvest plans and related activism. There's no writerly voice behind it and no discussion or debate in the comments. Still, it contains photos and information that PL-watchers would not easily find elsewhere.

Nothing proves the maturity of the Humboldt County blog scene quite so much as the Times-Standard's announcement last week that it would be getting in on the game with its own multi-blog site, Tsblogs.com, featuring several of the paper's columnists and (so far) one unaffiliated blogging newcomer.

Amongst the above-mentioned blogerati, the reaction to Tsblogs was swift and fierce. Mangels yawned: "It doesn't look like I'll have to worry about any competition with my hard hitting (sic) commentaries. Blog on, T-S." Cap'n Buhne recast the development in Star Wars terms, with the paper playing the role of an evil, conquest-bent Sith Lord. Snollygoster Half-Sheet wondered if the Times-Standard was suffering from a case of "hipsterdoofism" and asked the most pertinent question: "To open a TSblog, you must submit five to 10 writing samples to the newspaper's editor ... Why would an unpaid blogger wish to write under an editor's thumb when editorial freedom is a click away?"

Friends, Tribes, Knitters and Rockers


If all you know about blogging comes from Time, Newsweek or network news broadcasts, you probably think that most blogs are political in nature. Once you take a look around in the so-called blogosphere, you soon realize that that's a misconception. Blogs reflect the vast array of interests of the bloggers who make them.

A chicken blog? Why not? One, or a dozen, about knitting? Of course. Band blogs, dance music blogs, circus blogs, personal blogs about nothing in particular -- you'll find all of them here in Humboldt. And they're not hard to find.

There are a number of search engines specially crafted to steer you to the blog you're looking for. Technorati leads the field, but I used Google's Blog Search (still in beta). Looking for pages in my vicinity, ones that include the word "Arcata," was complicated by the fact that the political side of the blogosphere was buzzing about the City Council's recent impeachment resolution.

The first non-political hit demonstrated a typical use of blogging. The post, just an hour old when I found it, was on a Livejournal.com page for a 21-year-old Canadian woman using the nom de web Arraicha, who had arrived in Arcata that very day. The journal entry for this new HSU student touched on the travails of her "long and scary and annoying" flight and first impressions of her dorm room and new roommates -- accompanied by a link to photos she had just uploaded to another page. Her thoughts and feelings -- and the very basic message "I'm here!" -- were instantly relayed to a network of 49 friends who have linked LiveJournal pages.

One of the selling points for blogs is their ability to create a network, be it friends, colleagues or just people sharing a common interest. The McKinleyville-based Bitch Blog is home to Tosh, a knitter who shares digital photos of her works in progress and completed projects, along with details on her daily life outside the knitting and blogging world. A recent post told tales of a powerless Humboldt New Year's Eve that found her dining in the Safeway parking lot on lunchmeat she rinsed in the dog's water bowl after it fell on the floor of her car. She's also part of the Sexy Knitters Club, a group with more than 100 members from across the U.S. who form a virtual stitch and bitch association sharing yarn knowledge.

For those interested in some serious networking, MySpace is all the rage, particularly among teens, 20- and 30-somethings, and anyone connected to the music world. The 48 million members mentioned earlier include 660,000 artists and bands who use MySpace to promote their tours and albums and to engage fans.

While the interface isn't exactly elegant, it's DIY and relatively easy to use, requiring no webmaster or hosting fee. Another plus: In addition to blog space (which many ignore) it allows for posting photos, vital stats and -- a key draw for musicians -- a way to upload several songs that play automatically on a standalone digital jukebox.

Through an invitation process known as "friending," MySpacers build an affinity group, one that's easy to communicate with. Just about every local indie band has a MySpace page, from Gypsy jamrockers The Absynth Quintet to metal monsters The Hitch. Both of those bands also maintain more traditional web pages; others only have a MySpace page.

DJ Dub Cowboy seems to be the local master of friendsmanship. His MySpace network links 1,022 friends and serves as a targeted e-mail list to help him promote his radio shows and DJ gigs.

The marketing potential is not lost on musicians who have already hit the top (and their labels). Bjork has a MySpace page. She has 33,784 friends. Beck has one with 49,160 friends. Their impressive friendage is dwarfed by Death Cab for Cutie's: 198,559. Of course, it's unlikely that the artists ever visit the sites, which seem to be maintained by record company drones.

While Dub Cowboy spends more time on (or in) MySpace, he's also a Tribe.net member. He confirmed my supposition: The local dance and neo-hippie jamband crowd tends to favor Tribe, while the rockers use MySpace. This may have to do with the relatively egalitarian structure of Tribe.net, which is, as you might guess, more tribal. Groups and sub-groups play an all-important role.

A classic example: The house music aficionados of Deep Groove Society, where the DJs and dancers tend to be tech-savvy. When the loose-knit society came together a few years ago, they used an online bulletin board to announce house parties, club dates and other gatherings. When Tribe.net went up, the BBS fell by the wayside.

It was bound to happen. The reason why blogging seems to be taking off -- this is my own dime-store psychology -- is that they've made it so easy. Blogger, WordPress, Typepad and all the others take only a moment to set up, and even someone with very little computer experience can find himself blogging away within moments. All you need to start is a computer and something to say. If it's interesting, readers will find you. The cost of entering the marketplace of ideas has never been lower.



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