Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Isabella Bird on the Internet

Sharon Wildwind

Does the name Isabella Bird ring a bell? In 1854, at age 23, she travelled, unaccompanied, from Britain to America to visit relatives. The next year she toured Canada and Scotland. Before her death at age 73, she had travelled through and written about Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Viet Nam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Tibet, Korea, Morocco, Persia, Kurdistan, and Turkey. She rode horseback 800 miles across the U. S. Rocky Mountains and was courted by a mountain man. She eventually married an Edinburgh doctor. After his death, she took up the study of medicine at age 55, and went to India as a medical missionary at the age of 60. In 1892, she was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographic Society. If there was ever a woman for whom the phrase “good stout skirt” was coined, it was Isabella.

About a year ago September, I started on my own journey, albeit one that took less packing and was probably a lot more physically comfortable than what Isabella undertook. Pith helmet firmly on my head—yes, I own a pith helmet. It’s a long story.—I went in search of the Internet.

I knew exactly where the Internet was: at my fingertips. However, once I got in there I was as lost as Isabella must have been listening to Anu speakers in Japan. I had a Facebook fan page. I went there once in a while and stared at it, thinking, “Yes, this is my Facebook page.” I tweeted — about as often as a full lunar eclipse happened. I even went as far as bookmarking half a dozen blogs that had caught my eye. Once a week I’d visit them, discovered that there had been either no new entries or so many new entries that reading them seemed an impossible task, so I’d close the folder and quietly go away without reading anything.

What I did know well, and what I saw slipping away was the ten Internet groups that I’d been a part of for a decade. Back in the distant past of 2000-2001, they were fountains of information, full of spirited discussion, helpful information, and camaraderie that led me gently—okay, sometimes pulled me kicking and screaming—into being a published writer. What had happened to all of them collectively was a slow, inexorable slide into, in my humble opinion, useless places for people to brag, commiserate, and offer blatant self-promotion.

Yes, this was my tribe. Yes, I had emotional reactions to people having a happy publishing event, facing health crises, having bad things happen to significant others, and having life dissolve around them. If I had a relationship with an individual outside of the group, I’d send them an e-mail or e-card or maybe rarely mail them a real card with a stamp and everything. If I had a less distant relationship, I would add them to my good thoughts list.

I grew so tired of endless messages essentially saying, “I’m thinking about you,” in which the poster a) repeated in their entirety the stream of previous messages that led to them posting and/or b) recounted far more details about their own brushes with illness, divorce, or publishers than I thought should be shared in public. From my point of view, private lives are private and celebration, support, and commiseration should stay private as well.

I also became a survivor of FAQ Syndrome. It was fine with me the same Frequently Asked Questions came from people new to the list, or new to a particular situation. Asking questions—and reading archives—are how people learn. What I objected to was instead of giving a thoughtful and accurate answer/opinion, too many people responded with. “What a good question. I blogged about this topic. Visit my blog to find the answer.”

I did a little private and unscientific tracking. In the past two years, those ten groups to which I belonged, universally reached a level of personal congratulatory/commiseration and go read my blog messages being 85%-90%, and helpful information being 10%-15%. Truthfully, for the past year I’ve used them most as an obituary early warning system because the thing they continued to do well was report who in the mystery community died, often before any death notice hit the media.

So if I gave up on those groups, where was I to go as an alternative?

Fortunately, at the same time that spent less time on groups, I spent more time somewhere besides the Big Internet Four (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo). I’d dug into Digg, looked at LinkedIn, braved Bloglines, and had a nodding acquaintance with Ning. My question was, “What can this site do to help me immerse myself in the mystery community?” Sometimes the answer was nothing. Other times, I’d have a faint hint of a goat trail leading through the underbrush to some place interesting.

Enlightenment arrived on one of those goat trails one day in the shape of a square orange button with white arcs. I’d discovered RSS feeds.

RSS = Really Simple Syndication. In plain English that means that the computer knew when a blog had a new entry and added a number to the folder on my web browser to tell me I might want to check it out.

If a blogger didn’t publish for a month, fine with me. The day she did publish, I’d know about it. If a blogger published three times a day, fine with me, too. I got to set my own limits of how many new entries I’d allow to collect before I checked that blog.

I decided to see how many blogs I could collect and started right here with the Daughters site, copying-and-pasting all the blog links on the left side of the blog into a file. As I visited those blogs, I’d copy down link lists that they had. When I’d collected A LOT of blog names, I sorted them, removed duplicates, and set aside one morning to visit all of them.

My criteria for “a keeper blog” were
1) Written in English
2) Had a high percentages of intelligent, well written blogs related to mysteries and mystery writing
3) Had RSS feed capabilities

The last one almost drove me crazy. That wonderful orange square is only one dozens of RSS feed services, though I do believe it was the grandmother of all of them. People put them in the most ungodly places on their blog pages, included hidden three pages into the blog.

One breakthrough came when I discovered that if I was having trouble finding the feed button, I should scroll to the bottom of all of the posts. There just might be a line at the very bottom that said Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom). Clicking on Subscribe to Posts got me just the messages; Subscribe to Comments got me comments to the posts. In each case I opted for Posts only.

A second breakthrough came when I discovered that, even if there wasn’t an RSS button visible, if I clicked to bookmark it, there might be an RSS button in the bookmark window.

Result to date? 26 blog sites feeding from the U.S. or Canada; 19 blog sites feeding from other countries, from which I’ve chosen mostly English, Irish, Northern Ireland, Australian, and Scandinavian bloggers. This means that I now follow 45 mystery blogs on a regular basis.

So how much time does following all of those blogs take me? Less than 20 minutes a day. It’s like scanning the headlines in a newspaper. I open up the blog, see what the new topics are and decide if it’s something I want to skip, read now, or read later. Even if I decide to skip it, at least I know it’s out there and I’ve had really good success going back several days later and finding a blog that I’d skipped.

Comments? Maybe occasionally. If I really have something to day, I can click on "Read more" at the end of the RSS blurb. That takes me directly to the blog and to the comments. But mostly I lurk, read, sometimes send private e-mail to the poster.

All the while I'm thanking my lucky stars that this turned out to be so much easier than riding horseback across the Rocky Mountains.


Sandra Parshall said...

OMG, Sharon, 45 blogs?? I don't think I could find 45 that I would want to read. But of course I think everyone should read Poe's Deadly Daughters every day! :-)

Anonymous said...

Well of course I start with PDD. I'm not actually reading, I'm trolling and stopping at the interesting parts.

Liz said...

On Bird:

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sharon, I just set up a blog and was astonished at how many "themes" (templates) did NOT have an RSS feed. On one, it was the familiar orange stripe, in a shape best described as inkblot fish. What are they thinking?!?

Anonymous said...

Liz, thanks for the Isabella Bird link.

Leslie, after a through troll around blogs I've given up trying to figure out what bloggers are thinking. My favorite one so far was the artist who had done a lovely watercolor of the RSS feed square. The only problem was that the link didn't work. As I said in the blog, I've found the RSS button tucked in the most unimaginable places.