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Rashmi Sinha

Bloggers on Blogging, October 2005

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Rashmi Sinha created Rashmi Sinha's Weblog: Thoughts about Cognition, Design, and Technology in 2001 when she launched her consultancy. In January 2002, Rashmi created a group blog, DialogNow, in the aftermath of the December 2001 standoff between India and Pakistan. Seeing that face-to-face communication was no longer possible between people in these countries, Rashmi created her website in order to keep them talking.

Rashmi has a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Brown University. For her thesis she studied how people make categorization decisions "e.g., how they tell a dog from a wolf, learn whole taxonomies, and absorb new concepts and categories". After graduating, she and her husband founded a user-experience consultancy, Uzanto (Esperanto for "user"). Rashmi grew up in Calcutta and Allahabad, India, earned her PhD in Providence, RI, and has lived in various parts of the Bay Area. She says "I think of myself as Indian and American; someone who belongs to both countries and cultures and feels most at home on a plane — when I have just left one place and am going to the other." She lives in Mountain View, California with her husband.

What is the first weblog you read?

Not sure which one was first — maybe Metafilter. I know that in the beginning I paid more attention to the collaborative weblogs than the individual ones.

What about that blog appealed to you?

“ I had never got the hang of academic writing. The personal voice on blogs appealed to me so much more. ”

Since I cannot remember what other blogs I saw, let me just talk about Metafilter. It was fascinating that so many people with different voices, and opinions could be in the same space and loosely coordinate to find "the best of the Web". I think it was through Metafilter that I came across many of the early individual blogs.

The more I read blogs, the more fascinated I was by the writing style — the informal, honest writing in the first person voice. In academia, you get used to reading and writing a certain way. Its more formal, jargony, mostly not in the first person voice. I had never really got the hang of academic writing. In fact, that was one of things I did not like about academia. The personal voice on blogs appealed to me so much more. It allowed the story to come through.

Why did you start your weblog?

My weblog started in an interesting manner — while in a research position at UC Berkeley, I was toying between remaining in academia or going to industry. I started reading a bunch of weblogs and fell in love with the Web. I also realized that one does not need to be in a University to have a peer group to share ideas with. At UC Berkeley, we had been working on a search interface called Flamenco — we were writing it up for publication in academic journals, and also receiving feedback from weblogs, mailing lists etc.

I realized that the honest, fast-paced, give and take from weblogs was far more enjoyable than being caught up in the academic cycle of publish, review, revise. My main fear in leaving academia was leaving behind the community, the give and take of ideas. With that fear removed, I decided that to give consulting a try for a year, got the domain name, and started blogging. There has been no looking back!

How has your site changed over the years?

As I have made the transition from academia to industry — my site has changed along with me. Earlier I used to mostly write about cognition and design, now I also write about business, technology and open source. I realized this the other day when I was reading some of the commentators on my blog — somewhere along the line, my interests broadened, and my readership did as well. Its interesting how a blog can chronicle one's life's and interests.

The frequency of posting has definitely increased — but it still does not go beyond more than once in 2-3 days. I write more about my personal life than I used to — still not much though.

How much traffic do you get?

A few hundred unique visitors on an average day. It goes up when I write a post that gets passed around.

What is your blog's rank on Technorati?

I looked it up just to answer your question. Its 22,000. I really don't buy into these general popularity lists. They promote a really silly type of popularity contest between otherwise sane people. Why on earth should I care how my site compares to that of Jeff Jarvis or Daily Kos. Whats important is that people who are interested in the topics I write about, can find me. They subscribe to my RSS feeds, comment on my blog, and send me email. I get feedback for the ideas I am thinking about.

“ I really don’t buy into these general popularity lists. They promote a silly type of popularity contest between otherwise sane people.  ”

Do you make money on your site? How?

Yes, I have the standard Google ads on my site, and I do get a check from time to time. Its nice to get the money. But it has very little to do with my having a weblog.

Which tool do you use? Why?

I use Movable Type. I started off with GrayMatter (now defunct), and then switched to Movable Type about 3 years back. I have not upgraded in a while now. I am interested in experimenting with WordPress. I have used it in other contexts and would love to give it a try on my blog, whenever I have some time.

What would your ideal blogging tool do, that is not currently offered?

Currently, I am mostly fine with Movable Type. I am used to finding plugins that I need, and adding them into my installation. One thing that has really bothered me recently is not having an easy way to add a Tag Cloud into my blog. I looked into it, and its still quite difficult to do with Movable Type. WordPress on the other hand, has a lot of momentum behind it, and adding a Tag Cloud seemed far easier. If I had time to devote to this project, I would probably shift to WordPress.

My ideal blogging tool would be a lot better at dealing with spam. Spam is really annoying; I have closed down the comments and trackbacks on my site a few times in frustration. Also, I would like an easier way to add photos to blog posts, and to be able to blog in Hindi.

How long does it take you to write an entry?

It depends. Some articles I research and write with all the care I put into an academic article. That might take days or weeks. Other entries might take 30 minutes to an hour or so. I am much faster at making a post than I used to.

How do you decide to what to write about?

I write about what is on my mind — what I have been reading about or what I have been working on. Often I write about topics I am consulting on. I never write about the consulting project itself most of the time (confidentiality agreements leave little room for blogging about it). But I do write about the topic itself. For example, recently I did some work on tagging for a project; the "cognitive analysis of tagging" article followed from that focus on tagging.

I do not blog very frequently. About once a week or so. I start blog entries quite often, but most of them remain unfinished. Only a few actually make it to the site. To be honest, I am quite lazy about blogging.

When did you start Dialognow?

I started thinking about it in December 2001, it actually launched in January 2002. After September 2001, like many others I started paying more attention to politics, especially international relations. In December 2001, there was tension between India and Pakistan after an attack on the Indian parliament.

I spent a lot of time reading both Indian and Pakistani newspapers, especially the "Letters to the Editor" and other citizen contributions, and realized that on a deeper level, there was more in common in viewpoints across the border. At least among the type of people who write Letters to the Editor. But the only place for people to express themselves in newspapers — there was no place for a direct dialog. Well, there were topical messageboards, e.g., Yahoo groups, where all conversation degenerates into flame wars.

I imagined something something different, a collaborative space which members felt that they co-owned and took responsibility for. A place to support intelligent and thoughtful dialog. I read Metafilter frequently, and liked group weblogs. I looked around for software and found Scoop to be the best fit at the time. It took about a month to set up Scoop the way I wanted to for DialogNow. I told a few interested others about it, but mostly let the word spread by word of mouth.

How much traffic does DialogNow get?

I don't know. I don't track DialogNow traffic, rank, or membership. The conversation on the site is interesting to me, not how many people are visiting it.

Which tool do you use? Why?

Currently we use Drupal. We used Scoop for the first year, but Scoop does not offer the flexibility that Drupal does. Moreover, with Drupal the user experience is far more customizable — this was important to me.

How many hours a week do you spend posting to and administering that site?

It has changed a lot. When DialogNow first launched, I used to spend 15-20 hours per week posting, replying, working on the site design itself. At some point, I reduced my participation, and now I mostly take care of the moderation, site upkeep. This is what I wanted all along — I did not necessarily want to be the person who was the main contributor, rather I wanted to create a space where others felt comfortable conversing about India, Pakistan relations, and others happenings in South Asia. It is not sustainable for any one person to keep a site going (especially if they also have a personal blog). So, I am really glad that I can step back and let others drive the conversation.

It took some time to get to this stage, however. In the beginning, I used to spend a lot of time moderating. I started out with this academic notion that if I designed the site to create a social norm of dialog in the beginning, and if the site grew in a slow, organic fashion, then that type of dialog would sustain. To some degree, that did happen. But there were a lot of hiccups along the way.

I was inspired by Metafilter and wanted to focus the site around links to content on the Web, whether a news story, or an article. But a lot of DialogNow members were far less tech savvy than the average blogger, and it was a challenge for them to create a well linked story. And the software I was using — Scoop — had serious usability issues, particularly with the interface for authoring stories.

Additionally, for many DialogNow members, there is a lot of emotion around the India-Pakistan issue — they wanted to write about their own experiences, and perspectives, not necessarily link to a story. I was resistant to this in the beginning and felt that this would dilute the purpose of the site — it would become a personal soapbox. But as is typical in case of a difference of opinion between site creator and the community — the community had its way. Many of the posts have a link, but the link is often a pretext for conversation about a topic, rather than the focus itself.

I realized one problem for sites with a political theme: what happens when the topic is no longer so hot? Thankfully, in the past year or so, India-Pakistan relations are much better than they used to be. There is less passion associated with the issue than there used to be. Which is one reason why short term dialogs around political issues might make sense. Because these topics ebb and flow. DialogNow used to have a lot more posts and comments than now.

When posting an entry to DialogNow, how do you decide what to write about?

Most of the time, I come across an article in a newspaper/magazine/blog, something that spark some thoughts. I consider whether this is likely to interest others at DialogNow, if it is likely to lead to an interesting discussion. Generally it is a topic that I have thought of a few times, rather than simply something that is the news of the day.

As regards the entry itself, it does not take that long to post an entry to DialogNow. Usually it takes fifteen or twenty minutes.

Do you ever write to deliberately provoke a reaction? Any tips on how to do that?

“ Find a rich textured topic that does not allow people to respond from their usual entrenched position. ”

Find a rich textured topic that does not allow people to respond from their usual entrenched position. I have done that at DialogNow when the conversation becomes somewhat repetitive with everyone having very predictable positions. It can be interesting to start a discussion that cuts across these typical perspective differences, forces at least some people to reach across their positions.

For me, some of the most interesting conversations at DialogNow are the different flavors of intergroup and intragroup discussion threads. DialogNow is supposedly about India-Pakistan, but the discussion is often about Hindu-Muslim issues, cutting across India, Pakistan. Sometimes its about Shia-Sunni, or about the caste differences in Indian society. Or it would be about East-West, or South Asians living in the West, and South Asians living in South Asia. Maybe this is more common in a discussion about South Asia because there are so many conflicting group identities. This is another reason why I changed the tagline of the site from "civil, thoughtful dialog" to "South Asia is a state of mind", because its really about and for people who are interested in South Asia, for whatever reason.

What do you see as the role of DialogNow for your readers?

On DialogNow, sometimes a new user joins who might make a series of posts full of anger — you can tell that he is using the site to vent. At first, when this happened, long-term members would get concerned that the equilibrium of the site would get disrupted. Over time, there has been less concern — as one longtime member put it: "DialogNow changes people more than they change it". I think thats true. People join, and start talking to actual members of the group they think they hate. They realize that those people are really similar to them. For many of them, this is an experience that changes them.

How do you handle corrections on your blogs?

It's much harder to do corrections on DialogNow than on my personal site. DialogNow is a group space; people respond to what I have written. Also, other members do not have the ability to edit their posts. As such it seems unfair for me to use that privilege. So, I try to avoid editing my own posts or comments. Interestingly, once in a while I get called on to remove / edit something another member wrote. I have received calls from the subcontinent in the dead of the night asking me to remove comments someone made in anger, then later regretted.

On my personal site, I make minor (grammar etc.) corrections pretty frequently. I try not to make major changes especially if the entry has comments, or has been linked to. It's a thought at a particular moment in time. If I change my perspective, it should be marked as an update.

“ It’s easy to disagree in person and do it in a civilized, friendly manner. This is harder to do in an online medium. ”

Do you ever receive abusive email or comments?

Not abusive, but I do receive emails and comments that are confrontational and are mostly a personal attack. If the comment / email is critical, but phrased politely, then I respond, and try to take it as constructive criticism. If it is a personal attack, then I mostly ignore it. I refuse to get into a pissing match on a public forum.

There have been times when such personal attacks have upset me, and almost made me want to stop blogging or remove comments from the site. Almost, but not quite. I am not sure my own approach (to ignore personal attacks) is the best way to deal with the issue. But it works for me. This is where some of the limitations of blogs and other online communication methods come into play. It's easy to disagree in person and do it in a civilized, friendly manner. This is harder to do in an online medium.

Do either of your sites support their own costs? Do they pay for your time?

Overall, Google ads pretty much support our site costs. But the sites do not pay for my time directly. Rather they do pay in terms of the type of people who get to know me. Often these are the same people who are interested in a consulting project. To me, my sites are really about self-expression though. I do it because I enjoy it. I would stop doing it the day I stopped enjoying it.

Has your weblog led to any other opportunities?

It has lead to some opportunities. Its hard to disentangle the effects from my other activities — I also submit papers to academic conferences, know a lot of people through academia and consulting. People who contact me generally know of me apart from the weblog as well. I think a weblog reinforces an intention to contact me for speaking, writing etc. They know that I am around, and thinking about the topic.

Do you have a background in writing?

The writing professions have always attracted me. A few of my articles have been published in Salon. A long time ago, I wanted to write fiction. Then I wanted to be a journalist. I am always dreaming of writing a book on a completely different topic, maybe travel stories, or about living between two cultures. So, writing has been a theme in my life.

How many hours a day do you spend online?

I spend a LOT of time online — hard to give number of hours. In fact, I go to cafes (that do not have wireless) if I really need to focus — so that I do not get distracted. I recently moved, and I have been without DSL at home for two days now. Its really hard. Even when I go to India now, most of my friends and family have DSL, so having a fast internet connection has become a way of life.

Do you have any can't-miss sites?

Some of the sites I read regularly are Metafilter, Slate, New York Times, Times of India, BoingBoing, Om Malik's blog, Rajesh Jain's Emergic, Google Blog, and Yahoo Blog. My Bloglines url is a pretty good representation of my daily reading.

What do you see as the role of your weblogs in your life?

That's a hard question to answer without sounding overenthusiastic. I love what has happened with this democratization of personal publishing. I love keeping up with people whose writing I enjoy, its fun coming across random blogs on random topics — the other day I came across a blog devoted to ways of tying shoelaces. Blogs allow me to keep in touch with whats happening in India in a manner that newspapers and magazines do not allow. I am always encouraging friends and family members to start blogs.

Why do you blog?

I enjoy it. Its self-expression. When I was at a University, we would run into each other in the hallways and talk about ideas. Its my replacement for those hallway conversations.

How has your weblog changed your life?

On the positive side, I have met a lot of people through my blog. I can hardly keep up with all the emails I receive. On the negative side, its one more thing to do. I get this nagging feeling if I have not blogged for a while. Like right now, its been a while since I blogged...

With regard to blogging, what was your most memorable moment?

Its not one moment, but for a few months almost half the traffic on my blog was people looking for high-heel shoes, or shoe fetishes. I had written an entry about my search for high heel comfortable shoes — the classic looks versus usability conflict. I also posted a picture of a woman's feet in high heel shoes (all images have now been removed). I have no idea why, but the image and post got linked from all the shoe fetish sites. The emails, the comments, the Google queries that lead to my site were very entertaining. I know far more about shoe fetishes than I ever wanted to.

What are three blogs you think deserve wider recognition, and why?

Rajesh Jain's Emergic: A technology blog thats a a refreshing change from all the US-centric techy blogs. He provides interesting links, and writes excellent original essays and has good guest posts from time to time.

Hypocritical: I love the style of writing.

Global Voices blog: Covering the blogosphere across the world. The brain child of Rebecca MacKinnon.

What are your hobbies?

Besides my work and blogging, I also enjoy reading, hiking and travelling. I would like to go next to South America. I also enjoy cooking — though my repertoire is fairly limited.

What is the most telling thing about you?

I wish I could dance Salsa better. I am forever planning to take lessons.

Mac or PC?

PC currently (ThinkPad T43). Have used a Mac in the past. I don't count myself in either the PC or Mac camp. I would be glad to give a Mac a try again, but most of the statistics software I use is not available for a Mac, or you have to make do with older versions. Additionally, I work with the Uzanto team in India — and Macs are not common there. Between those two factors, I could not switch even if I wanted to.

Would you read your site?

I hate to admit this, but probably not. There are far more interesting writers out there! My biggest criticism of myself is that I edit myself too much. I prefer blogs where you get a better sense of the writer's overall worldview and life.

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bloggers on blogging

2005: matt haughey | jessamyn west | heather armstrong | rashmi sinha | glenn reynolds | adam greenfield
2006: david weinberger | megan reardon | fred first | jason kottke | tiffany b. brown | scott rosenberg
2007: bruce schneier | trine-maria kristensen

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