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What is a blog?

The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright 2005 by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at

The word "blog" sounds like one of those "techie words" that describes some black magic understood only by programmers, systems analysts, and others who regularly invoke incantations not understood by mere mortals. In fact, blogs are actually very simple, perhaps even simpler than the Web page or e-mail message that you are now viewing at this moment. You can read blogs easily, even without a technical understanding of the underlying technology. In fact, if you are reading this article on the web right now, you are already using a blog, perhaps without realizing it. The purpose of this article is to help de-mystify the word "blog" and to explain how you can use the benefits of blogs.

Blog is short for "web log." The web site defines a blog as "a web page made up of usually short, frequently updated posts that are arranged chronologically - like a what's new page or a journal. They contain information related to a specific topic." Does that sound familiar? Yes, this newsletter has been a web log, or blog, for almost ten years, even though the word "blog" was not invented until recently.

In some cases blogs are used as daily diaries about people's personal lives, political views, or even as social commentaries. In other cases, a blog is an e-newsletter. The truth of the matter is that blogs can be shaped into whatever the author wants them to be.

The roots of blogging can be traced back to the mid 1990s although the concept did not really take hold until 1999. The original "weblogs" were personal commentaries full of links to other web sites. Today, however, blogs have evolved into news sites and other web content.

Blogs come in several formats. They can be written as normal HTML pages like any other web page. In fact, this newsletter has been a blog in HTML for years. However, in the past few years, specialized software has been developed which simplifies creation of blogs and also allows easy "syndication" (republishing of articles elsewhere). You may not recognize the names of the tools, but then again, you don't need to know much about them, not even if you want to create a blog of your own. You may see programming terms like XML, RSS, RDF or Atom bantered about, but as a user, all you need to do is open a Web browser.

Most blogs will let you read their documents either in a standard web browser or by using special "newsreader" programs that use a format called RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Newsreaders take the best of two worlds - web ease and email familiarity - letting you read the news you want simply and quickly. In most cases, the newsreader will download new blog items the same way your email program downloads new messages; you can then read your blogs offline at your leisure, something that dial-up users will especially appreciate. Unlike e-mail programs, however, these newsreaders are not subject to spam messages or spam filters because they do not use mail servers. Also, even though the blogs are a kind of web page, newsreaders let you choose the information you want to read; you are never bothered with unwanted advertising intrusions from third parties, pop-up windows you never asked for, or mazes of Web pages that make you forget where you started.

There are many newsreader programs available today for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux systems. In fact, there are even newsreaders available for the handheld Palm and PocketPC computers. These are excellent methods of reading the latest news, weather, and sports while riding the commuter train or elsewhere that you have "idle time" available.

Many newsreaders are available free of charge. Some come bundled in with other software; for example, both Firefox and Opera, two excellent free web browsers, already have a built-in blog RSS newsreader. I have read reports that the next release of Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express also will include RSS newsreader capabilities. Finally, there is even an online newsreader, which I will describe later in this newsletter.

A free newsreader for Windows that I have been using lately is called Feedreader. This is a Windows program with a user-interface that looks like a combination of a web browser and an email program. Like a browser, it has an address bar at the top that lets you view a blog without forcing you to first subscribe to it. Like an e-mail program, it has a familiar three-pane user-interface. The pane on the left lists the blogs you subscribe to instead of the mailbox folders you have for your email. Instead of a list of new messages at the top right, you see a list of item headlines in the currently selected blog. Lastly, item contents fill the bottom right pane where your email program would display a message. Also like an e-mail program, it periodically checks for new items. But the best part of all is that, unlike an email program, you don't get bombarded with spam. I find this program very simple to use. Feedreader is available free of charge. A special version of it has been created for readers of this newsletter. You can download it at

You can find a lengthy list of newsreaders for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Palm, and PocketPC computers at

One free RSS (blog) newsreader is web-based: it requires no software installation in your computer and works equally well on Windows, Macintosh, Linux, and other operating systems. BlogLines is very popular, probably because it is so easy to use. For more information, look at

Most blog newsreaders also allow you to look at several news sites that are publishing in RSS now. It's hard to imagine the speed and ease of displaying exactly what you want, but people who try a newsreader seem pleased and even relieved with its simplicity. It only takes a mouse click to quickly move between this newsletter, world news, stock market info, and your favorite comic strip, all in one application that is as easy to use as an e-mail program.

Blogs are becoming popular among genealogists, both for news and for keeping journals of research activities. They obviously work well for newsletters. Family societies are discovering that blogs are also excellent methods of coordinating research among several members. There are a number of genealogy blogs available today, including:

This Newsletter's Problem and Solution

Delivering an e-newsletter via e-mail is becoming a very frustrating experience these days. Five years ago I could send lengthy e-mails containing the newsletters, and 99.9% of them would be delivered to the addressees. Sadly, that is no longer true. The reason is simple: spam.

Five years ago, spam mail was simply an annoyance. Since then, spam mail has mushroomed into a huge problem for people who maintain e-mail servers. I have seen estimates now that 80% or more of all e-mail sent is spam, or "unsolicited commercial e-mail" (UCE). Thousands of mail servers around the world have crashed because of the unplanned load that spam mail placed upon them.

Out of self-defense, almost all mail server administrators have installed some sort of filtering software in an attempt to identify and delete unwanted junk mail. Unfortunately, many of these mail filters also delete wanted e-mails, such as this newsletter. Several genealogy e-newsletters plus Harvard University, the New York Times, Consumer Reports, several stock market newsletters, the Disney Corporation, Yahoo, Macromedia, Amazon, and many others have reported similar difficulties with their e-publications.

In one controlled experiment, e-mail expert Fred Langa sent 10,000 e-newsletters to subscribers who had volunteered to participate in the test. Langa wrote a lengthy newsletter and used several "sensitive words" and phrases. The result? 40% of the newsletter messages were never delivered. You can read more about this experiment at

So how can this problem be corrected? Luckily, there are two possible solutions.

First of all, it is easy to move the newsletter to the Web. In fact, I have done that. The Standard Edition of this newsletter has always been available online at, and last year I started placing the Plus Edition online as well. Since then I have expanded with an "Other News" section that highlights genealogy-related news items on other web sites and recently added a new section for genealogy-related announcements.

Publishing on a web page avoids the spam filter problems, but it is less convenient for many readers. Instead of having each newsletter arrive automatically in e-mail, the subscriber has to remember to go online and read the newsletter on the web site. I find that it is easy to forget such things.

The second solution is one that I like better: publish the newsletter as a blog. In this manner, it can be read by anyone using either a regular web browser or one of the newsreader programs described in this article. Anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to install a newsreader will find that reading this and other blogs is as easy and convenient as reading e-mail: the newsletter articles will arrive automatically as long as the blog reader is running. In other words, it works in a similar fashion to e-mail. Even better, a blog is not subject to spam filters since it does not use any mail servers. Another benefit is that anyone using an RSS blog newsreader doesn't have to worry about spam: the only thing he or she ever receives is the information that he or she has asked for.  There is no mechanism for delivering unsolicited messages.

This Newsletter's Blogs

I am now publishing the newsletter as a web log, or blog. It can be read with any web browser, such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Netscape, Opera, or Safari. It can also be read with any RSS/Atom-compatible newsreader, which gives the reader the advantages of speed and convenience described earlier.

If you have an RSS-capable newsreader, point it to Of course, those who prefer their normal web browser are never required to use blog-reading software. You can always point your web browser to

If you have yet to try reading your newsletter as a blog, you can use any newsreader mentioned in this week's issue. For your convenience, you may choose the free special version of Feedreader for Windows created for readers of this newsletter. You can download it at

Welcome to the spam-free world of blogs!


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