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Matt May: the blogger interview

Filed in: blogging, Mon, Feb 16 2004 06:03 PT

Kynn Bartlett, of Maccessibility and Shock and Awe, interviewed me for a class he’s doing on blogging. I kind of went overboard with my answers. And it’s in that spirit that I share my overboardness with you.

What’s your blog about? Do you have one blog, or several? How did you choose the topic(s) for your blog(s)? Who is audience?
Mine is pretty general-purpose. My most popular topics are, in no particular order, politics, the Web, media, technology (i.e., geek toys), design and accessibility. I never really bothered with an audience because I was mostly interested in finding out what I think is most interesting. From the first blog I did in 2000 to the one I started at the end of 2002, the spread of the topics has shifted pretty substantially.
What’s your background, career-wise? How did you get into blogging? Why?
I worked as a news intern for a local TV station and for the college newspaper when I was 16-18. That was where I acquired most of my writing skills. (The rest of it was learned picking fights online.) I really got into technology and online communities around 1992, and so I merged my writing and geeking into a freelance career writing articles and columns on tech. It was around 2000 that I threw together my first blog, mostly to figure out why someone would do it. I’m still working on that, and when I’m done, well, you’ll probably see me keynoting, writing books, or just making big hand-waving gestures in hotel lobbies.
What software do you use to create your blog?
I wrote my own, called Entropy. (More on this later.)
What software do you use to read blogs? (Browser, RSS aggregator, etc.)
I use NetNewsWire, an aggregator for Mac OS X. It has a smooth UI, uses the Mac’s built-in HTML rendering, allows me to open up multiple tabs in Safari in the background, has beta support for Atom, and has never misbehaved.
What are your favorite blogs to read, and why? Which small, overlooked blogs are deserving of greater attention?

Tim Bray, Ongoing
One of the original developers of XML.

uggabugga
I can’t recommend this one highly enough, despite it not having an RSS feed. He’s a liberal blogger who quite often takes complex stories and diagrams them, creating some really incredible visuals. The thing I always preach, even when I infrequently practice it, is that it’s not just about words. People who can create interesting or meaningful visuals (or sounds!) can be outstanding bloggers.

Jay McCarthy, makeoutcity
This guy, I don’t know how he does it, but he’s subscribed to 1100 RSS feeds, and quotes large numbers of them daily. His RSS feed is regularly around 200k, and generally captures a wide span of topics, from libertarianism to library science to my first trip to the gym.

All of my feeds

How much time per day (week, month) do you spend blogging? Why is it worth it?

I do about 1 hour a day, when I can help it. That consists of maybe a 5-minute pass through the aggregator, and the balance of the time reading and/or blogging about what I’ve selected.

I get a lot out of that hour, from news to technology to personal connections. I know what’s going on around the world — especially in the UK and France, where I read a number of news feeds that aren’t exactly what I see on CNN during the day. It’s not good enough for me to find the stuff I’m looking for: I want a better idea of the things that I’m even tangentially interested in, and I can do that simply by subscribing to, say, a feed on making music on the computer.

Where are blogs going in the future? Is it just a fad, or a normal outgrowth of the Web’s evolution, or is it a revolution in how we share information?
I think that when we look back with the 20-year lens, blogging will be more or less forgotten, having been assimilated as a common model for writing content. The term “blogger” will be understood as the prototype for a (commonly overtly biased) individual journalist (or, alternately, the first authoring tool for millions). People will still have journals and so forth, but I have this feeling that what we see in this space 5 years from now will be as different from the current state of the art as 2004 is to 1994. That is, it wasn’t a revolution: it was merely the knee of the curve.
What’s so cool about being a blogger? What’s the coolest thing that’s happened in connection to your blog?

I have to say, a lot of people think they’re cool because they’re bloggers. I don’t get that. I think it’s a personal statement that you spend too much time staring at your navel. I do it because I think I have a point of view that a lot of others aren’t going to have, and I like knowing that a few dozen people a day come just to see what I have to say.

As for cool things, I’ve had someone quote myself back to me more than once. That’s good stuff. It shows that my name doesn’t have to stick with people for my ideas to.

Why is accessibility important in blogs, blogging tools, and blog tools?
Because it’s cheap and easy. Most accessibility efforts are a big pain because you’ve got thousands or millions of pages that need to be fixed, and they’re all scattered between sites and authors and whatnot. But with a blog, you have two major reasons to do it right: because you usually only have two or three templates to fix, and because your stuff is going to be around for a long time. Blogs are designed for long-term archivability (permalinks, date-based archives, etc.), so if you can make your stuff accessible as it’s published, you’ll end up with years’ worth of good, sturdy content that everyone will be able to search and make good use of. And if you’re not writing something that someone will find a use for, then you really have to wonder why you’re bothering in the first place.
Do you know any bloggers with disabilities? How do they blog?

Well, I know lots of bloggers with personality disorders. Does that count? 😉

Mark Siegel is a lawyer. He’s got a blog at the19thfloor.net, and spinal muscular atrophy. He edits his blog via a single switch device. This is an article about him and his blog.

Personally, I think there are more blogs about accessibility then there are blogs actually written by people with disabilities. There are three possible explanations for this:

  1. The tools aren’t accessible to them. While there are a handful of tools that are close to accessible, and any number of them are working at it, there isn’t a single one that can claim with a straight face that people with a broad range of disabilities can use theirs without a lot of problems. And the fact that I even have to say that after W3C/WAI has been prodding them for six years absolutely sucks.
  2. Bloggers with disabilities are marginalized or ghettoized. While not quite as abhorrent as 1), if correct, that’s still a drag, especially since they’re not alone. Many other groups, such as LGBT bloggers, various ethnic groups, and other minority populations, do not get as much attention by bloggers outside their social or cultural circles. Where it’s reasonable that affinity groups are formed by the linking between bloggers, there’s really got to be more to it than every liberal pointing to Calpundit and Daily Kos, every conservative pointing to Instapundit and Andrew Sullivan, and everyone else being on the short end of the power-law stick. Look around! Point to the stuff you like! The stuff that’s different! Get people to tiptoe out of their own comfort zones! That’s what you get to do when you blog.
  3. There are actually thousands of PWDs with blogs, and I just don’t know it because I can’t tell a difference. Where this is true, this is a testament to the equalizing power of the Internet. But until access for all is reached, and participation by all is valued, we haven’t reached the net’s full power.
I’ve seen some debates that moved from your blog to others, back and forth across blogs. How hard is it to keep up on a cross-blog dynamic like that?
It’s hard. Hard enough that the previously mentioned Jay and I have been bouncing ideas back and forth on how to create a commons for the discussion of a given thread. Something that will be a permanent holding area for cross-blog arguments, or collaborative discussion, without becoming the center of attention. There’s a disconnect between the sort of essay communication that happens on blogs, and the live-action arguments you see on TV. You can reach a deep understanding of each participant’s views online, provided they’re lucid enough to give you one, but it’s hard to arrive at synthesis. With real-time communication, it’s easy to synthesize, but also entirely too easy to oversimplify or omit relevant information. There’s got to be a middle way.
You’re working on writing your own blogging software called Entropy. What’s cool about it? Why create your own tool instead of using one off the shelf?

Actually, when I did my first blog in 2000, I wrote my own app called publish.pl to do the management. At the time, Blogger had just started up, and having seen what I could do with that, or with the big systems I could waste lots of time installing with little discernible benefit, I decided to build my own. There’s a part of me that’s more interested with the sociology of blogging than in the content, and having a system that I know inside and out lets me experiment a lot more than I can with another package.

Right now, I have to say nothing is cool about it, because the latest version isn’t working. 🙂 Theoretically, Entropy works entirely on the author’s machine, and functions with an API like Blogger, Metaweblog, or Movable Type. So you can (again, theoretically) set it up locally, and then run your blogging app like you’ve set it up on some server. The big deal about this approach is that the apps out there either need to be installed on a server (e.g., Movable Type) or are out of the author’s control as far as content retention (Blogger, Typepad). So if you don’t know how to mess with a server, or don’t have the privileges to, or you really value having the stuff you write 100% under your control, Entropy will rock your world.

In practice, however, I get to figure out how to write a threaded XML-RPC server, because while it successfully does each API call atomically, the apps that call them tend to pipeline them, and Entropy throws a rod.

How important it is to use CSS and XHTML? Do Web standards matter for bloggers? If so, why?
If you as an author care about people referencing your work five years from now (and, realistically, even if what you write is only potentially useful to someone else, you should think about this), valid code is a must. Browsers have been cleaning up after poor code forever, and relying on what IE 4 fixed to remain usable when IE 7 or 8 or 9 comes out, or when a new browser like Safari arrives, sooner or later you’re bound to be really disappointed, and your life will take an unexpected unpleasant turn. And, of course, valid and semantically-correct code (e.g., using lists when you mean to do lists, instead of just line breaks and bullet GIFs) helps things like screen readers interpret and represent content properly for users with disabilities.
Do you use blogs at work? Does the W3C have any interest in the whole blogging phenomenon? Will there we a set of accessibility guidelines just for blogs?

There are a lot of us at W3C who blog ourselves, and we have an interest in the phenomenon because the W3C — and its director, Tim Berners-Lee — has always envisioned a two-way Web. Until blogging apps appeared, even with such apps as Dreamweaver and FrontPage, it wasn’t easy to put it all together, and have a real individual presence online. The fact that there are celebrity bloggers (and blogging celebrities) indicates that people get this whole idea, and when they look harder at it, they say, “hey, I can do that,” where they were reluctant to do so previously. So it’s obviously a good thing for the Web, and we like things that are good for the Web.

Now, for accessibility. If you write a blog, you need to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. If you write a blogging app, you need to follow the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines. ATAG target applications include content management systems, and blogging apps are really only simple CMSes. Of course, as a co-editor of ATAG, I get to be a guinea pig with Entropy. (See: hoist at one’s own petard.)

Is it true you have a posse?

True.

So do you. 🙂

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