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Pittsburgh Bursts into the Blogosphere

Were they alive today, would acclaimed western Pennsylvania-born writers Gertrude Stein, Nellie Bly and Rachel Carson be bloggers? It’s a subject one imagines populating the blogosphere, a venue for community engagement enlivening the region.

According to Blogherald.com the number of worldwide blogs exceeded 70 million in 2005. Unlike traditional media, blogs kick start conversation, extend debate in perpetuity, are free of commercials and often free of charge. Though a recent Indiana University study found that 70% of blogs are diary-style, scratching beneath the blogrolls and headlines reveals a virtual cocktail of Pittsburgh-based online activity.

To explore our regional blogs, there is no better cyber-place to start than Pghbloggers. Uniting bloggers on and offline, the site was founded by Mike Woycheck, Anne Brannen, Cynthia Closkey, Vanessa Kristoff Fine and Christina Schulman. The directory syndicates blog entries and displyas recent blogs listed weekly.

“People say Pittsburgh is backward and not progressive, but we are more progressive in blogging than in just about anything, “ says Woycheck, who manages Pghbloggers. Curiosity moved Woycheck to galvanize Pittsburgh’s blogger nation: he located a dozen active blogs in 2001, investigated software solutions, and hatched plans for a permanent hub for the burgeoning community. After recruiting a cadre of female bloggers who convened informally as “girly bloggers,” Woycheck launched the site in 2004. In three days, the directory went from listing 60 to 130 blogs. Today, Pghbloggers lists more than 400 blogs. With tens of thousands of visitors and hundreds of thousands of hits per month, Woycheck envisions mapping as the directory’s next feature. Because of its public service mission, the site doesn’t generate income.

With the clever tagline “Write Here in Pittsburgh,” Pghbloggers lists numerous upbeat blogs, including IHeartPgh. Chronicling the charms of the City of Champions, IHeartPgh features nifty pro-Pittsburgh swag, links to national media coverage of our fair city, and reviews of events and establishments. Lindsay Patross, finance director for Georgia Berner for Congress, co-founded the informal blog with Natalia Rudiak after the pair launched a homespun t-shirt line. For blog fodder, the pair patronizes neglected places, such as Irieites Afro-Caribbean Restaurant in Mount Oliver.

Patross, 26, believes blogs are “a good tool for getting public input on issues facing Pittsburgh from a larger pool of people previously not participating in the discourse.” A campaign worker for both Kerry and Peduto, Patross feels that not enough attention is placed on why people love Pittsburgh. With 2,000 unique visitors per day, the site receives Pittsburgh love letters from coast to coast.

Displaying a very different brand of affection is Chris Griswald’s lighthearted Overheard in Pittsburgh . Announcing, We’re Not Eavesdroppers. We’re Attentive Listeners, the site culls conversations—from the absurd to the sublime—caught in passing in coffeehouses, bus shelters and beer distributors. Like Woycheck, Cynthia Closkey is an online multitasker. Her personal blog,  My Brilliant Mistakes  receives about 70 hits per day. Closkey runs Butler-based Big Big Design  and also maintains marketing and writing blogs. Her blog triumvirate, she says, is “like three different people with different areas of interest.” One blog-based effort found Closkey cataloging her entire library in one week.

Mike Madison, associate professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh, began Pittsblog in 2004 as a collection of cultural observations. With more than 200 daily visitors, Pittsblog has received recognition as a dynamic forum framing Pittsburgh’s business and technology communities: Madison successfully leveraged his blog-speak into the city’s economic development, investor, education and legal sectors, a feat rare for a blogger. While the shift is gratifying, Madison is frank about not knowing where the process leads.

Yet starting conversations that “disrupt settled patterns and behaviors” remains at the core of his approach to the medium. Madison, who teaches Technology Law and Policy, enjoys exploring the social dynamic of blogs, and like many blogophiles, maintains additional sites, one dedicated to Mount Lebanon, where he resides, and one to law . Hailing from a journalism family, Madison believes blogs expand issues and conversations, unlike tradition-bound newspapers, where topics appear and fizzle. “Blogs can serve as the perfect blend of technology and community.”

One rising star embodying blog-business synergy is Aldo Coffee Company, located at 675 Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon.. Recently touted by the Kansas City Star as “the coffee hotspot because of its active blog,” Aldo’s marketing move reflects a keen awareness of how blogs can leverage business.

Weaving entrepreneurship and artistic vision is a blog operated by Northside-based Alphachimp . Founded by Peter and Diane Durand, Alphachimp explores visual learning in critical thinking, problem solving and strategic planning. Employing strategies like co-active coaching, graphic facilitation and information graphics, Alphachimp is part-social enterprise, part-think tank and part-missionary art studio. Creative Director Peter Durand underscores the medium’s significance: “Blogs are conversations. The phenomenon allows people to write about their lives. When you write about your life, you are forced to think about your life. We are in an era of greater reflection and awareness, with more people stating what they believe. This is one reason corporations are starting to get nervous about blogs.”

Creating a groundswell, Pghbloggers recently staged Blogfest5 at Finnegan’s Wake on the Northside. The giddy affair welcomed Robert Scoble, blog guru and author of Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, in town for a Pittsburgh Technology Council roundtable. As reported by Futuresoup.org, Scoble visited Aldo and plugged Pittsburgh: “…I expected grimy, economic ruin. But, I found a really pretty city that has great educational institutions and a vibrancy many cities wish they had.” 

BlogHER Innovator New media artist Elizabeth Perry is technology integration specialist at the Ellis School, a private girls’ school which she says, “cares very strongly about digital literacy and citizenship. We use blogs and podcasting,” she says. Perry’s work is an extension of region-wide efforts linking girls and technology, such as The Alice Project . Representing Pittsburgh’s education and technology communities, Perry speaks this summer at BlogHER  in San Jose, California, addressing the topic “Blog: Gallery or Canvas.”

In 2002, Perry designed and launched Woolgathering (http://www.elizabethperry.com/woolgathering), conceived as an 18th-century Commonplace Book brought to the Web. Woolgathering boasted 47,546 visits in March 2006. For blog-geeks, the site features annotated bookmarks, what Perry dubs “a blog within a blog,” an impressive BlogHER Roll, RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication), and e-mail subscription. Perry characterizes Woolgathering as “a slow motion, time-based medium, combining elements of performance.” Coining a new art-tech genre, Perry piques interest when introducing herself as a sketchblogger. She adds, ““I like the combination of the handmade with the infinite reproduction of the Web. Blogs are a cure for 20th-century isolation. It is turnkey publishing and barriers to entry are fairly low.”

Click here for information on the next Pittsburgh blogfest, coming up May 19th at Finnegan's Wake on the Northside.

Jennifer Baron, development news editor for Pop City, is co-founder of the Pittsburgh Signs Project and The Polka-Dot Life. Her blogs are found at Fresh Popcorn Productions and This Diary Belongs to.

Photo Captions:

Elizabeth Perry's sketchblog

Mike Woycheck and Cindy Closkey

Cindy Closkey's blog

Michael Madison

Elizabeth Perry

all photographs copyrighted by Jonathan Greene

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