Web loggers build a wired community

Web loggers build a wired community

By STEPHEN T. WATSON
News Staff Reporter
2/27/2006

Eric Levinson wanted to open a vegan-friendly restaurant in Buffalo, but he didn’t know where to put it or how to publicize it.
His boss put Levinson in touch with the folks at the Buffalo Rising blog, who put an article on the Web site asking readers where Levinson should go.

“What I was looking for was feedback from the community. The people on there commenting are very involved in the community,” said Levinson, a Rochester native and University at Buffalo graduate.

Blogs such as Buffalo Rising, which is an outgrowth of a magazine founded by Newell Nussbaumer, have exploded in popularity over the last couple of years, and their numbers are reaching a critical mass in Buffalo.

A blog – short for Web log – is an Internet site where people regularly post comments, links to other articles and pictures or video clips.

Though still in its infancy, the technology is building a social network and providing a new, freewheeling forum for political debate, bloggers said.

“Martin Luther was able to get the word out because of the invention of the printing press. Bloggers are able to get the word out because of this technology today. It’s the same thing,” said David Torke, 42, a student at Buffalo State College who hosts the Fix Buffalo blog.

Blogs combine the online diaries or personal home pages that became popular in the 1990s with the technology to make them more interactive, including feedback from visitors.

The Technorati Web site reported this month that it currently tracks 27.2 million Web logs, and this “blogosphere” doubles in size every 51/2 months. The site tracks about one new blog created every second.

A Gallup Poll from December, however, found that just 20 percent of Americans read blogs frequently or occasionally.

“It provides for a chance to enter into a new level of conversation,” said Alex Halavais, a UB assistant professor of communication and a blogger. “It gives you an opportunity to form and maintain communities.”

Buffalo ranked 63rd among American cities in blog density, according to research conducted by Halavais and graduate student Jia Lin in late 2003. Berkeley, Calif., ranked No. 1.

The Buffalo and Western New York Web ring, founded by Jennifer Smith, lists 41 locally based blogs, though that is an incomplete number.

They started blogging for a variety of reasons and tackle topics ranging from the war in Iraq to boosting a new business in Buffalo to an odd dream they had the night before.

One of the earliest bloggers was Smith, 32, the switchboard receptionist at a local nonprofit, who has hosted her All Things Jen(nifer) blog since late 2002.

One fellow blogger calls Smith the “grandmother” of Western New York bloggers, because she worked to set up a network of local bloggers who read and link to each other’s sites.

“I think it is here to stay,” Smith said. “Every other person I meet has a blog or seems to know someone who has a blog.”

Those bloggers include Smith’s housemate, Erin Nappe, whose site is Erin-Go-Blog.

“There’s a group of people who say, “I live here, I like it here, and I want other people to know why,’ ” said Nappe, 31, a substitute teacher and part-time college professor.

Some grew out of a sense of social activism.

Paul Visco started his Elmwood Strip blog in September 2003 after watching an employee at the Wilson Farms at Elmwood and Auburn avenues berate and threaten a homeless person.

Visco’s first post was a copy of a letter he wrote that urged the company to discipline the employee and called for a boycott until officials took action.

Tops, which owned Wilson Farms at the time, investigated the complaint and later fired the employee.

Elmwood Strip has grown into a site that allows nearly 300 registered users to document their lives – using words, photos and video clips – while connecting to and interacting with others on the blog, Visco said.

“I think it documents an important part of what it means to be a Buffalonian that previously was undocumented,” he said.

The Fix Buffalo blog is an effort to preserve the city’s architectural heritage, particularly overlooked and undervalued structures on the East Side.

Every month for the last two years, Torke has taken pictures of the Woodlawn Row Houses, located near Traditional High School. The photos on his blog illustrate what Torke contends is the deterioration by neglect of the city-owned houses.

“It’s a good communication tool for people who really love the city and are trying to make things better here,” said Alan Bedenko, the Clarence lawyer behind the BuffaloPundit blog.

The political debate on blogs can be raw and freewheeling.

Blogs and message boards are taking the place of the public square, or the office water cooler, where information spread in the past, said Kevin R. Hardwick, a Canisius College political scientist.

“Obviously, the politicians are looking at this stuff, and it can influence policy,” he said.

SpeakUp Western New York, for instance, is a magnet for anti-county government rhetoric. A petition started on SpeakUp collected 5,000 signatures opposing an Erie County sales tax increase for 2005.

The site, which started in April 2003 and is the passion of Anthony Fracasso, owner of Online Media, had 87,878 posts on 6,356 threads (a string of comments) on the message board as of last week, Fracasso said.

“Sunlight, someone mentioned, is the best cure. And that’s what SpeakUp is about,” he said.

As for Levinson, the prospective restaurateur, nearly 20 people responded to the Buffalo Rising posting, plugging spots on Hertel Avenue, the Elmwood strip and downtown.

Levinson found a spot he likes near Lafayette Square, after the leasing agent read the Web article and contacted him. He plans to open his restaurant, named Tammuz, by late May.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com


Whatcha talkin' bout Willis?