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When I was a very young boy I found my older sister's diary. I picked it up, looked at the cover and hesitated -- I knew I shouldn't open it, but still… just a peek. I'd read the first page and I promised myself I'd put it down. I popped open the cheap latch and looked at the first entry.
"Mark is a bum," was the first line. Lesson learned.
Of course, back then, diaries were supposed to be the private thoughts and dreams of the writer. If you found a journal in your sister's sock drawer, you knew it was your sister's, and you knew you weren't supposed to read it. Nowadays people pour their hearts out in the town square of the global village where anyone can learn about what you ate for breakfast, your thoughts on U.S. foreign policy, or that you think your brother is a bum.
Welcome to the blogosphere.
A blog (short for web log) is essentially a website, frequently updated. Most are set up in such a way that the most recent entries are on top of the page, with others following in reverse chronological order. Many allow readers to post replies to the bloggers' entries.
Although pinning down numbers is almost impossible, there are quite a number of McGill students and staff that have set up their own blogs.
"It's very much about personal expression -- even if your audience is quite limited," said Robert Sim (cim.mcgill.ca/~simra/), a computer science PhD student who works in the centre for intelligent machines.
Sim would know -- he's been running his blog for three or four years now, which makes his ancient by internet standards. True to his profession, he isn't even using commercial software to run his site, but rather a program he designed with Scott Burlington, a former fellow student.
His site started as a forum to share "geek-related stuff" -- news from Silicon Valley, news sites and the like. It also contains his cv for potential employers that might happen by, reviews of books he's read recently, general thoughts on world events and pictures of his new daughter for friends and family that live away from Montreal.
"Sometimes I'll post something that's a little more revealing about my political views," said Sim, " but I'm not really comfortable doing that a lot."
For that, one need only leave Sim's site, get on the information highway and hang a right to Dave Mader's domain (maderblog.com). The history student has no qualms about sharing his political views with the world -- that's the raison d'être for his site.
"I'm a news junkie. I first read about blogs in spring of last year, and someone forwarded me a link to instapundit.com. I started reading him, and I thought it would be a good thing to continue reading the news and offer my own insights," he said.
"It reflects my own ideas of what I think is significant and my political slant."
Keeping up with current events these days is hard work. Mader spends about an hour and a half every day on the site, not counting all the reading ("Which I would be doing anyway") he needs to do to marshall the material.
"At the beginning of the [Iraq War] bombing I was trying to stay on top of it, but there's so much to do, and there're many people that are doing it better.
"I see it as a hobby. It doesn't pay me, and it doesn't grade me, so I do it when I can."
Mader received some good feedback on his site -- other political blogs link to him. He's also received some negative feedback -- he recently got into a drawn-out virtual argument with a reader from Australia who vehemently disagreed with his pro-U.S. views.
Lest one be tempted to dismiss the political and/or personal ramblings of individual undergrads as insignificant, think again. Robert Sim pointed out that while blogging is often a content-free medium, it can have a real impact on how we receive information. For instance, blogging has had an effect on Google, one of the most popular internet search engines in the world, which ranks sites both by key word and the number of other sites that link to it.
Here's how it works. Sim explained that the phrase "second superpower" had been a concept used by anti-globalization activists to describe the influence mass-movements could have on political events. Then a Harvard professor co-opted the phrase in an article he wrote defending the World Bank, an anti-globalization bogeyman. Because the article was circulated and repeatedly linked in sympathetic blogging communities, when a browser types in "second superpower" now, his and related sites are the first hits. On Google, at least, the phrase has now changed its meaning.
In the words of Sherwin Tjia, that's all part of the "global mind" talking to itself. Tjia is the proprietor of hiplessboy.blogspot.com, which is a collection of columns he has written for the McGill Daily. Good old-fashioned pride in his work was his motivation for entering the blogosphere.
"Usually things in newspapers are consigned to an early doom," said Tjia. Rescuing the fruits of his labour for posterity led him to the internet.
Though the Daily is on hiatus for the summer, Tjia may continue to add more pieces to his site. Right now his writings are a mix of fiction and descriptions of events in his week. These aren't blow-by-blow accounts of his day, but rather carefully constructed vignettes.
"I've always written for the long haul. When something's useful, it's useful for a long time."
He's also a blog reader.
"While most people are interesting, their blogs often aren't," he said, adding, "Still, when someone stops updating their blog it's kind of sad."
Well, maybe they just moved. Cedric Sam is a hard man to pin down in cyberspace -- he has two or three blogs on the go. For a man who is putting his personal thoughts on the web, it seems odd to me that he declined to have his blog address mentioned in this article, but it is consistent with his approach.
"I used to belong to a blog ring [a community of web logs linked to each other] but that was too easy, people would always check out each other's sites and comment on them," he said.
He prefers to do things the hard way -- linking to sites he likes and hoping they'll link back, or having people stumble across his site through Google searches. He also makes an effort to play with the layout of the site to keep it visually interesting. His tracker tells him what links people followed to get to his site. Many are through Google searches for bands that he mentioned in his entries, but one surfer ended up on his site from a Google search for 'giant squid in Antarctica,' the result of an news article he had posted on his site.
Having one's own space on the internet can also lead to pretty existential moments.
"Another time I was looking for song lyrics on the web and I found myself," he said. For the most part Sam's postings read as if he's having a conversation with a friend; and indeed, some of the motivation for the site came from a trip he took through Asia. Blogging proved easier than mass emails to his friends, and cheaper than postcards.
He does, he admits, keep a barrier up: his journal is no confessional, and he limits how often he posts. "I try not to write every day. Then it's like you're blabbing."
Rebecca Lo, a.k.a Kalypso (kalypsobekka.blogspot.com), updates fairly frequently, but blabbing does not describe the computer science student's oeuvre. She uses her blog more for a creative outlet -- Lo is a prolific poet. She started her internet project after a group of her friends did, though hers is hardly a traditional "log."
"It's easier to put up poetry. It's less personal, you don't see the author behind every poem," she said.
"I don't know who reads it. It's nice to think someone's reading it, but if you know who is reading it it's a bit intimidating."
Although she doesn't know who her audience is, she does admit that putting the site up has drastically increased the amount she writes. It's a direct result of blogging communities.
"If a lot of people are sitting at a table having a conversation and you haven't spoken in a while you feel you should say something. Blogging is a lot like that," she said.
Conversation is what Jonathan Ho's site is about as well. His site is just another way for the architecture master's student to communicate with his friends.
"I started it about a year ago when I was visiting my parents in Hong Kong. I was really bored," he said.
His site (adobo.blogspot.com) is updated about every week, and usually contains the kinds of stories you'd tell friends you don't get to see too often (sample quote: "So a guy from the McGill Reporter emailed me to ask me about my blog. Interesting.").
"I write pretty much as I speak," he said. "It's an outlet for my thought processes."
As with many of the others interviewed for this piece, Ho reads a number of other bloggers' sites, many of whom are friends of his. Seeing their online journals gives him a fresh insight on old acquaintances.
"I'm interested in reading other people's perspectives. With a lot of my friends you really find out what's going on in their heads."