COLUMBIA — Jeff Porter, special projects director for the Association of Health Care Journalists, is adamant that his blog, "Stroke of Faith," isn't about him. In the "About Me" section of the site, Porter writes: "The term ‘About Me' is a default setting by the free blogging Web site and difficult to change. However, as the first post states, it's really not about me."
In fact, it took Porter seven years from when he suffered his own stroke, in May 1998, to start "Stroke of Faith." For those seven years, he tried to "push the experience away to a corner of my mind." Although he said he doesn't remember it, doctors told him he nearly died that day.
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"It was frightening," he said. "What was I going to do? It took maybe several years to come to realize I should probably use it."
Porter decided to use the experience when an older member of his church, a man he identified only as Lloyd, also suffered a stroke and lost the ability to speak, as Porter initially did.
"I went to see him and tried to be encouraging," he said. "It felt good, you know, to do that."
Visiting with Lloyd inspired Porter to start "Stroke of Faith," a blog about faith and stroke recovery.
"How could I be helpful to those people with that experience?" Porter said. "Maybe that's where I can fit in: to help people with the same experience."
That mission has become the core of "Stroke of Faith."
"The idea of the blog is to serve someone, anyone, who needs that kind of support," Porter said. "If I impact one person, it's worth it."
Blogs such as "Stroke of Faith" have become a part of daily life for Americans. According to Technorati, a blog aggregate and research service, blogs received more than 77 million unique visitors in August 2008. That compares to Facebook's 40.1 million visitors and MySpace's 75.1 million. According to Technorati's 2008 State of the Blogosphere, half of all Internet users read blogs.
"I think it certainly became mainstream with the introduction of free sites," said Donna Strickland, who teaches professional and civic writing in a digital context at MU. "It became easy to start one. You don't need to know code or even how to download software."
Strickland thinks free sites made blogging easy while the sense of community makes blogging attractive to people. According to Technorati, 62 percent of bloggers blog "to meet and connect with like-minded people."
"Other people read other people's entries so there's a support network," Strickland said. "If you share common interests, you can form a community."
Reaching the community
That sense of community led Columbia resident Zac Early to start his blog, "living in misery." Early had just moved to Columbia from Ohio and was missing connections to people in his new home.
"I wanted a community and I wanted to have the conversation," Early said. "I guess I didn't know enough people or the right people. I had no release."
Jennifer Enders, an institutional research analyst for MU, saw her blog, "Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings," evolve from a place to store and share vegan recipes with her friends to a way to connect with like-minded people in her area and to express herself. Enders and her blogging partner, Brett Wilbanks, with whom she lives, have expanded the scope of "Veg*n Cooking" from recipes and garden updates to include environmental, political and social commentary. "Veg*n Cooking" now gets between 50 and 100 visitors a day.
"It was a result of other bloggers," Enders said. "It showed me the value of the community. It spawns from the sense of connection."
"We've opened up a lot more over the last months," Wilbanks added.
That community inspired the pair to let "Veg*n Cooking" evolve and expand. While many blogs die after only a few posts, Enders and Wilbanks have found that the blogging community has helped them keep "Veg*n Cooking" alive.
"There is a sense of obligation," Wilbanks said. "The community does play a role in keeping the blog going."
The following of "living in misery" also inspired Early to keep the blog running and expanding. He now gets between 40 and 50 visitors a day and even once had a stranger who overheard him at a concert in Kansas City come up and talk to him about his blog.
"What really kept it going was friends commenting, and then I realized other people were following," Early said. "Sometimes it's cool because I'll say something worthwhile. Sometimes I'm a little weirded out."
Community participation is also a large part of what many bloggers use to determine the success of their blogs. According to Technorati, 58 percent of bloggers measure the success of their blog based on the "number of posts or comments on my blog."
"A lot of times, people will add things to it and bring their perspectives to the table or ask questions and that kind of thing," Enders said. "It's really nice."
Sparking a discussion
A large majority of bloggers — 79 percent — post "in order to speak my mind on areas of interest," the Technorati report states, while 73 percent blog "in order to share their expertise and experiences." Chris Willow-Schomaker of Columbia uses her blog, "branching out," as a way to do both.
"I have a love of so many things that it helps put it all in one place," Willow-Schomaker said. "I love to share."
Early also uses "living in misery" as a platform to voice his opinion on local, state and national issues. Much of his posting before the November election was in support of now President-elect Barack Obama.
"It's really because I want my opinion out there," Early said. "I know enough people read it and that, if the conversation starts, I maybe can have an effect and make it easier to live here."
Early uses blogging because of its ability to reach a wider, more diverse audience and spark more meaningful discussion.
"I could go to a bar with a friend and have the same conversation, but no one else will hear it — except maybe the guy sitting next to us," Early said. "People need to look at it as a conversation and interaction."
"Branching out," which receives between 30 and 50 hits a day, is a way for Willow-Schomaker to reflect her personality in cyberspace. The blog features children's book reviews, midwifery and home birthing advocacy, updates on her children for friends and family and promotions for her own business, mamaroots, which sells "homegrown gifts for the childbearing year and beyond."
"It was a wonderful outlet for my business as well as my family," Willow-Schomaker said.
The networking business
"Branching out" allows Willow-Schomaker to connect with her customers as well as lead potential customers to her business' Web site. The blog also allows her to promote her business in her own way for free.
"There's a really interesting networking part," Willow-Schomaker said. "If you have a small business, it's a great way to promote yourself."
Using blogs to promote businesses, or to make money on their own, is common in the blogosphere. According to Technorati, 14 percent of bloggers blog "to attract new clients to my business," while 24 percent write "to make money or supplement my income."
"It's another way of communicating," Strickland said. "It can create a different sort of ethos for a business."
Darbi Gibson started her blog, "Darbi G. Photography," in 2007 to go with her photography business of the same name. Gibson uses the blog to inject her personality into her work in a way her Web site doesn't let her.
"A blog is a good way to get your personality across," Gibson said. "It should reflect the person or business."
Customers' responses to her blog have been positive, Gibson said. Clients can preview photos before they're printed, read what Gibson writes about the pictures and events, and leave their own feedback. Customers can leave comments and questions, and the blog format allows Gibson to respond in a more personal way.
"Clients are excited to be on it," she said. "It keeps the dialogue open."
Gibson's blog has become an integral part of her photography business.
"It's one of my favorite things to do in the photography process," she said. "Someday, when (photography is) my full-time job, I'd like to marry the two."
Changing the way we get news
Blogging has also had an effect on large media outlets. The constant stream of information that blogs offer is influencing how news sites present content. The mindset of the bottom-screen ticker on CNN and Fox News has moved to the Internet.
"There's an immediacy to blogs," Strickland said. "I look at news sites and they take the logic of blogging and update frequently."
Most news sites, such as CNN, Fox News and the Missourian, all have breaking news sections. The sites constantly publish new stories online and update those already published in print or online. These sites also publish Web-only stories and multimedia content.
However, blogging has also started to work its way into mainstream media, changing the way news and information is disseminated.
The New York Times now has 40 active blogs, the Chicago Tribune has 33, the Los Angeles Times has 27 blogs and the San Francisco Chronicle has 26. These blogs cover topics including traditional news, entertainment, sports and lifestyle topics, such as parenting, green living and fitness. The St. Louis Fox affiliate hosts an entire blog network, the "MyFoxSTL community," which has more than 20,000 active participants.
Increasingly, "citizen journalists," as people with news blogs who aren't professional journalists are often called, are stirring debate over what a journalist really is. Columbia resident Mike Martin, who is a freelance reporter, has published the "Columbia Heart Beat," an online newsletter, since November 2005. Martin publishes the newsletter, which has about 5,000 e-mail subscriptions, free of charge.
"It's my volunteer service to this community," Martin said. "This is important stuff."
The role of blogging in reporting and the definition of a journalist are hot topics of discussion among members of the National Press Club, Martin said. "The term 'citizen journalist' has become passe," he said. "So many professional journalists blog now.
"Things have just changed a lot. Expect more changes in a dynamic environment."
Despite the business and economic possibilities of blogs, blogging remains a largely personal endeavor; 75 percent of bloggers measure the success of their blog by personal satisfaction, the Technorati report stated. Porter still keeps Lloyd in mind as his target audience, almost three years after starting "Stroke of Faith."
"I write it for Lloyd," Porter said simply. "I have no idea if he reads it, but that's who I write it for."
For Willow-Schomaker, who updates "branching out" every day, blogging has helped her notice her surroundings. Her blog topics come from inspiration she finds in her everyday life.
"I find that they happen every day," she said. "When you start blogging, you start noticing the world around you. It's really all around."