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Better Blogging, or, “It’s more than just a blog, Virginia”

This morning I finally found (took?) the time to record my thoughts on how I blog and what’s wrong with how I blog. My general conclusion, for the sake of brevity, is that current blogging tools are difficult to use because they don’t fit with my typical workflow. Blogging is, for me, a way of recording thoughts, ideas and notes and sharing those in a psuedo-collaborative way. The requirement of an additional tool (in my case the excellent Movable Type web interface) is really a huge barrier to the actual act of writing and blogging. In short, blogging should be an extension of what I already do, and should integrate seamlessly with my current tools.

Since writing that post the thought of what would make a good blogging tool has been floating around in my head. What I’m realizing is that I need more than just a convenient entry point into the Movable Type interface. If that was all I needed, then the Webpanel Extender for Firefox would solve the problem nicely. If I only needed a generic XML–RPC client for a blogging tool, then mozBlog would fill the bill. What I really need is a web browser that learns about me and allows me to push information out to different locations on demand. Re-reading the previous sentence, even I’m not sure what it means, but I like it so it stays. Consider the following scenario, which prompted this entry: I’m working on a paper for my Politics of the European Union class at college . My topic is EU copyright regulation, and I’m at the university library working on some basic research. The method I find most effective for conducting research is to cast as wide a net as possible, and then slowly sift through the resulting information, discarding that which is irrelevant and keeping that which applies to my progressively narrower thesis. Working with online databases at the school library, I’ll print out journal articles and web pages, mark them up later this evening, and end up shredding half of what I print. This works relatively well for me, and allows me to follow the iterative pattern of research and writing that I’ve developed over time. But today, as I gathered my half-inch stack of output from the printer, I realized that if I could apply the same ideas I have for blogging to research, I could dramatically improve my writing process.

Consider for a moment the following revision of this scenario: At the university library, I log onto my account, start up Firefox and log into the academic journal databases. As I perform my search, I have a sidebar open where I can drag URLs, click a button to take a “snapshot” of a page, make short notes to myself and assign annotations and keywords to snippets of information I cut and paste from the open page. Each piece of information retains it’s source URL, history that got me there and access time: basically, everything I might need to construct a bibliography entry for that piece of information. Tonite, at home, I fire up my browser, and review the information. Data that fits with my continuously refined thesis is sorted into one “pile” and that which is extraneous is filed elsewhere. Even later, when I go to actually write my paper, I have the ability to cut and paste text from articles instead of typing the quotes into my word processor. In short, my research process, streamlined and improved.

For those of you still paying attention, you may be wondering what this has to do with the title, which mentioned blogging. Everything, I say. To my way of thinking, a tool like this that integrates into our existing applications empowers not just blogging or research, but all sorts of building on and improvment of existing work. The fact that in some cases I publish the resulting annotation as a small text file which PyBlosxom picks up instead of keeping it in a private store is only a semantic difference: the important (and exciting, to me) thing is that all the information that passes through my browser daily becomes available to me at a later date. Both blogging and academic research (and other tasks, I’m guessing) are really just acts of remixing existing works and ideas.

Sure, the online database has a “feature” which allows you to log in and create what they refer to as “persistent searches”. But how many web service accounts do I really need? At what point do I decide that keeping windows open for EBSCO, Lexis-Nexis and ACM Digital library, just so I can cut and paste, is too much? At what point does the overhead become overwhelming? And why should I keep each database hermetically sealed? Isn’t there some validity to the idea that remixing information from the ACM and Lexis-Nexis could yield interesting results? Surely there’s some intersection of the two. And that intersection is best served by a tool which empowers readers, writers and researchers, instead of restricting them.

Bookmarks? Ha! Those are so 2003.