Homemade News Hits the Road With Moblogs

By Paul Thomasch

Cranking out a column after a presidential debate or publishing a prize-worthy photo of the next catastrophe just got a whole lot easier -- no matter where or who you are.

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others have started to offer simple-to-use tools that let anybody with a digital camera or personal computer create blogs and produce homemade news.

When twinned with new technology like camera phones and handheld computers, it's now possible to publish pictures or jot notes from anywhere: the street, a beach, a restaurant. Seconds later the information is posted to a Website for the world to read -- and suddenly you've got a mobile web blog, or moblog.

"Text messaging and camera phone have put two powerful storytelling tools in the hands of millions of vpotential correspondents around the world," Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review at University of Southern California's journalism school, said in an e-mail exchange.

"So it is now inevitable that when something newsworthy happens in public, someone will be there to document that event online instantly."

The recent tsunami in South Asia gave evidence of moblogs' power and widespread use. Shortly after it struck, dispatches began appearing on blogs, often beating mainstream media to the unfolding story. One such blog was Waveofdestruction.org, created by Australian Geoffrey Huntley and made up of video and photos taken at the scene.

Adam Greenfield, who helped organize the First International Moblogging Conference, is credited with coining the term in 2002. But moblogging -- defined as using a mobile device to publish on the Internet -- dates back to the 1990s.

Most believe Steve Mann was the first to put photos on the Web from a mobile device, a bulky computer he carried with him.

His first entry is hardly dramatic: "Feb. 22, 1995: most of my day was quite boring, walking to lab, pizza at food trucks etc." But when he later comes across a building on fire, he records the scene in about

45 Internet photos -- in what would now be thought of as moblogging.


Yet it took a decade for moblogging itself to catch fire. Today its popularity largely revolves around photography, thanks to the rise of cheaper and better camera phones.

The Internet, of course, had an earlier fling with online photos back before the dot-com bubble burst. That business centered on photo storage and hard copy reprints, which were then stuffed into the family's picture book.

These days online picture sharing is all the rage. Kodak's EasyShare Gallery and sites like it are awash with albums of The Smiths at Niagara Falls, Madison's First Birthday or Me at Graduation.

But those virtual albums are exclusive; only those invited by the photographer can take a peek. Google (blogger.com), Yahoo (flickr.com) and MSN (spaces.msn.com), among others, are taking it a step further.

Take Yahoo's Flickr, a blog site it bought from a husband-and-wife team in Vancouver. A Flickr account can be created so that only friends and family can browse your pictures, but it can also be opened up to a broader audience as a blog, or in many cases, a moblog.

The pictures can also be tagged with labels -- making it easy to search for snapshots of everything from the tsunami to Tiger Woods. Though slightly different, Google's blogger.com and MSN's Spaces are based on the same idea: creating a global network of people sharing photos, news and commentary.

"Families, friends, and co-workers will form there own social spheres through mobile blogging and so too will citizen journalists," Biz Stone, Blogger Senior Specialist at Google, predicted in an e-mail exchange.

"There is more hype around the idea of real-time breaking-news bloggers than there is around a family that shares on-the-scene wedding and baby photos, but they are all the same from our perspective of enabling self-expression and sharing."

Like most business battlegrounds, Yahoo, MSN and Google are squaring off over blogging and moblogging because huge money could be at stake. Already, MSN's Spaces is running ads.

"The online advertising market is massive and growing faster than any one type of media," OJR's Niles said.

"By controlling the publishing tools with which grass-roots reporters and other Web users communicate with each other, these companies control billions of page views through which they can serve the ads they sell."

Of course, the popularity of moblogs -- both as a commercial venture and a publishing tool -- is itself a subject for bloggers. One recent posting on

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even touts an upcoming competition for the best cellphone photos -- with a C$500 prize.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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