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CalStuff bloggers CalStuff bloggers (l to r) Cooper Nagengast, Andy Ratto and Ben Narodick. (Steve McConnell photo)

Free speech, online: The best of the Berkeley blogs

– The Free Speech Movement, which celebrates its 40th birthday this week, is alive and well at UC Berkeley. Wondering where all the crowds of opinionated students, faculty, and staff debating ideas are? Try looking for them not on Sproul Plaza, but on the Internet. That's where you'll find hundreds of blogs - the nickname for online journals ("Web logs") - offering everything from articulate left- and right-wing rants about the 2004 election to reviews of local bands, economics primers, and musings on Berkeley's wonders and warts.

But who has time to read hundreds of blogs? Well, this summer, for the sake of journalism, I found time. For hours I jumped from URL to linked URL on the "blogrolling" lists of each site. (The word "blog" conveniently lends itself to all manner of hackneyed neologisms — ergo "blogosphere," "blogorrhea," and so on.) My goal was to come up with a highly unscientific shortlist of must-reads among the Berkeley blogs: those that a wide cross-section of the campus community could conceivably find enlightening, educational, or just entertaining. (Skip to the list.)

Nationally, the blog spectrum ranges from the personal to the political, along with specialty blogs on technology or Lord of the Rings and other fetishes. Blogs by UC Berkeley students, faculty, and staff are no exception. Most blogs by individual Cal students, particularly the ones to be found on blog aggregators Xanga or Live Journal (which also includes this Cal community blog), contain the sort of entries you'd expect to find in old-fashioned leatherette diaries with tiny keys. With one important difference: these students threw the lock away long ago and prefer to leave the diary in the shared coed bathroom for anyone to peruse. "I can't wait to walk down the aisle with butterflies, and have a tear in my eye, right when I say 'I do.' I guess that's just me: Always so hopelessly falling in love with the idea of love itself," writes Berkeley student "LittleMissMai." That's not to say that personal blogs can't be riveting: check out "Not a Web Log," below.

Other student bloggers, however, eschew the personal in favor of collecting, and commenting on, the news of the day. The four students who run the blog "CalStuff," for example, see themselves as a filter for Berkeley-related news and happenings - and view their blog as a supplement to the Daily Cal, not a replacement for it. "We all recognize that the Daily Cal is the No. 1 source for students and we'll never have the manpower to come close," says Andy Ratto, a third-year political science major and one of four regular bloggers for CalStuff (profiled below). "That's not what we're trying to do. There are certain things that a blog can do differently and better than a print newspaper. We can cover a local event in more detail, like when we posted 24 photos of the Michelle Malkin protest, and if we're talking about the state budget, we can link to an L.A. Times article about it or to the budget itself," which even online newspapers rarely bother to do.

Blogs' genetic link to the Free Speech Movement is most evident in the comments sections. Even the most basic blogging software (no programming knowledge is necessary to blog) comes with a comment module that allows visitors to the site to compliment, challenge, or heckle the blogger. Sometimes the comments can get nasty, but it's a point of pride for bloggers to respond to rather than delete them. "I thoroughly enjoy the comments section," Ratto claims. "Some people are just being snarky and insulting, but every so often we'll have four or five people on a thread who are very knowledgeable and I'll learn from them."

The number of comments can also indicate a blog's popularity. The posts of distinguished UC Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong, for example, regularly receive 40 or more comments. Despite its bland title, "Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal" is one of the heavyweights of the blogosphere. It gets more than 10,000 hits per day, is ranked No. 15 on BlogStreet's list of the 100 most influential blogs, and is regularly given props by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. That's partly because DeLong feeds the beast every few hours with fresh snippets of text about politics, economics, and journalism, from all over, framed by often scathing (and screamingly funny) sarcasm.

DeLong is such a prolific blogger that one wonders if he has a clone who handles his teaching and publications duties. "Don't think it's more impressive than it is," writes DeLong in an e-mail. (Bloggers tend to be a lot more reachable electronically.) "Saying 'DeLong has posted 17 things on his weblog so far this week makes it sound really big. But 13 of those 17 are just clippings - grab a bunch of text I'm reading with the mouse, type a couple of sentences to frame it, two mouse clicks and it's posted. That doesn't take much time (or, alas, thought)." Cutting and pasting those snippets might be easy, but the masses of wide-ranging reading DeLong appears to do daily still boggles the mind.

The Birdhouse's Scot Hacker sings the praises of blogs

How many readers do you have?
I get about 15,000 unique visitors per month.

What makes for a compelling blog?
An eye for the unusual, rather than being part of the "hall of mirrors" reflecting pool that the blogosphere tends so often to be. An articulate, personal perspective on whatever is being covered ("link farm" blogs can be useful too, but don't make for good reading per se). The ability to discern between topics of interest only to a few friends vs. interesting to the world - one can write on personal experiences in a way that still gets readers to think about their own lives. Your opinions on an old LP that you just bought are probably of interest to a lot of people if well-expressed, but your thoughts on the quality of burgers at the work cafeteria are of interest only to a very few.

What do you personally get out of blogging?
For me, blogging is a way of trapping experiences, thoughts, observations for posterity, since I have a terrible memory. I also like the discipline of trying to write something every day, even if it's just a link with the smallest amount of commentary. It's a way of encapsulating my life and bouncing atoms off topics that interest me. There is the hope that something I write or post about will have some small political effect, or turn someone on to something I think is worth thinking about. And of course it's a form of connection with the online world.

Do you miss it if you don't do it? Sometimes it's all I can do to not blog rather than working. Other times it's a struggle - I have weeks where the temptation is to slack off and not post anything, but I fear the world will think Birdhouse is a burn-out and stop visiting, so I keep challenging myself to come up with something almost every day. Sometimes it's a joy, something I look forward to, other times it's more like doing push-ups. I think it's healthy, so I make sure it happens on a regular basis.

But my favorite blog - the most digestible on a day-to-day basis - is "The Birdhouse," the blog belonging to Scot Hacker, the webmaster for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Hacker writes brief musings on everything from the difficulty of networking his home audio system to how Georgia Senator Zell Miller really should have checked the facts of his Republican Convention speech on Snopes.com. The Birdhouse, in summary, is the ideal dinner-party guest: witty yet understated, insightful without being shrill.

The site's charm probably has something to do with the amount of time Hacker has spent working on and thinking about blogs. He has helped set up several group blogs for journalism classes, such as "The Presidential Reporting Project" and "China Digital News," offers website and blog hosting through the Birdhouse, and knows the software inside and out as well as … er, a hacker. But most important, he understands intrinsically what makes for a good blog: "the ability to discern between topics only of interest to a few friends vs. interesting to the world," as he puts it. (To learn more about Hacker's philosophy, read the Q&A at right.)

That's the difference between speech that's merely free for the taking, and speech that's liberatingly, demandingly, even infuriatingly free. Below are brief profiles of six Berkeley blogs that meet those criteria for me, followed by a list of eight more that would be an entertaining way to spend a lunch hour in front of the computer. If you think I've overlooked one, drop me an e-mail - enough omissions and we'll do a Best of Berkeley Blogs, Part Two.

The Birdhouse

blogger Scot Hacker, webmaster for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
scope Hacker's a magpie, collecting and commenting on bits of politics, culture, technology, and UC Berkeley news
frequency Semi-weekly
comments Occasional
sample post "In June, I posted about Pittsburgh's Ghost Bike project, in which activists memorialize bicyclists killed by cars. To create a ghost bike, an old bicycle is painted solid white and chained to a pole along with a sign designed to raise consciousness of passing motorists.
A couple of months ago, Matthew's widow and I retrieved the bicycle Matthew was killed on from police storage, and discussed the possibility of making it a ghost bike. Then last week, passing through Emeryville, I discovered that someone had already put up a ghost bike at the site of Matthew's death."

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

blogger J. Bradford DeLong, Berkeley economics professor and former economic adviser to the Clinton administration
scope Quotes from multiple news sources, uses economics as a springboard to jump on the Bush Administration
frequency Practically hourly - it's a wonder DeLong has time to eat, let alone teach
comments Torrents
sample post "Suppose that all of us who would otherwise buy coir doormats for $26.99 at Cost Plus World Market read Seth Stevenson's article in Slate, obey his injunction to become 'better than Debbie' by not buying our coir doormats — or 'any other products made by Third World labor.' What happens then? Demand for coir doormats drops through the floor. Cost Plus World Market stops selling them . What are the people who used to sit in their huts and make coir mats doing instead? We don't know. But we do know one thing: Whatever they are doing, they would rather be making coir mats. Those who took up the option of making coir mats did so because it seemed to them to be the best available option. And we — by trying to preserve our moral purity by not becoming polluted by physical contact with the products of Third World labor — have stolen that option from them."


bloggers "Campus personalities present and past" Rebecca C. Brown and Tommaso Sciortino, the current design editor and former editor, disrespectively, of the Heuristic Squelch, Berkeley's humor magazine
scope Life at Berkeley, tongue firmly in cheek
frequency A few times a week
comments Occasional
sample post "I swear to Baby Jesus, my Mass Comm. discussion section is populated by consumer culture apologists who can't comprehend existence outside their own little personal spheres of affluence and complacency. One woman in my class went so far as to claim that, 'Hey, we're products of overkill 1980s Reagan-era regulation-free advertising aimed specifically at unsuspecting children, and we turned out fine.' NO! No we didn't! We're not fine! We all buy way more stuff than we need, we all inject identity into ourselves via commodities, we all thoughtlessly produces tons of garbage each year and waste water and waste paper and waste plastic, and only see a product for its consumptive value and not the productive process that preceded our purchase of the product! Aggghh!"


bloggers Started by now-alumnus and former Daily Cal columnist Kevin Deenihan, torch since passed to current students Andy Ratto, Ben Narodick, Alex Eiranova, and Cooper Nagengast
scope Any and all things Cal-related
frequency Daily-ish
comments Active and heated
sample post "I think that it's amazing that the UC Berkeley administration, especially with Chancellor Birgeneau officially in office, hasn't openly and publicly met with Berkeley PD [police department] officials to discuss the apparent recent increase of all types of crime. While Berkeley is an urban city, and inevitably crime will be a part of our lives, Southside students should not have to read about problems like these with such frequency. It makes you wonder what exactly BPD night patrols are doing as of late."

Not a Web Log

blogger "Nadia", an undergraduate math/engineering major
scope A quietly articulate, lovely journal of a Berkeley student's day-to-day existence. Think "My So-Called Life" goes to college
Several times a week
comments Few
sample post "[I'm in] Cory, enjoying my sandwich and being mildly confused about a proof being given for some bounds on the size of some kind of Delaunay graphs, and the fire alarm goes off. Everyone files out of the building. People go slowly, because they know fire alarms actually mean that there's a midterm going on, not that there's a fire. Outside, I run into Nathan, who was in my 150 class..He tells me he's going to work for a corporation that builds B12 bombers, nuclear submarines, and all sorts of other "tools for the world domination of the American hegemony" (again, his words), doing control systems for space explorers, which isn't quite as evil. I said if he ever wants to get into a debate, I have some friends I could send him."

Res Ipsa Loquitur

bloggers/scope "Current Berkeley students and alumni unite to expose campus nonsense and support conservative causes." Can be quite informative, aside from its mild obsession about immigration issues and border security.
frequency Daily
comments Occasional
sample post "One of the fun parts of blogging in the Berkeley Blogscape is participating in some interesting sparring matches with our lefty colleagues. One of our antagonists, JonP from CalPatriotWatch, is no exception. A few days ago, after another of his tirades against Michelle Malkin, I suggested that people might take him more seriously if he had actually read her book. He responded thus: 'Dear Sweeney, Lend me a free copy of the book and I will read it, but I'm not going to give Regnery one dime of my money.' Fair enough, I thought. After all, I had the same reaction to Michael Moore's latest fakeumentary 'Fahrenheit 911,' only allowing myself to watch it in a medium by which Mikey couldn't profit from it."

honorable mention

Beetle Beat
Student "Aurora Drake" crankily (and often amusingly) responds to campus-related happenings.

SIMS graduate student Sean Savage provides great technology commentary - he coined the phrase "flash mob" - but seems to have abandoned his blog of late.

China Digital News
Journalism, L&S, and SIMS students aggregate news about the Internet's impact on China.

themoosum's Xanga site
(Cal student John Bertinetti's blog was suggested by a NewsCenter reader after this story was published.) A wry, smart-kid-hides-behind-class-clown style makes Themoosum a compelling read.

New Times Journal
Zen and the art of modern-life maintenance from Americ Azevedo, director of the Collaborative Intelligence Laboratory.

If Six Was Nine
Music-related reviews and musings by six current and former Berkeley students.

The Patriot Watch
Keeping a jaundiced eye on the activities of campus conservatives; written primarily by Cal student Jon Pennington.

The Presidential Reporting Project
Journalism students with phonecams blog from the 2004 presidential campaign trail.

Journalism professor John Battelle (cofounder of Wired magazine and founder of Standard Media) monitors movements in the technology industry, primarily search engines.


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