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CYBERCULTURE

Online Diarists Bare Their Electronic Souls

Publishing: A new breed of scribes seeks to capture an audience with its insightful (sometimes) musings.

August 05, 1996|CHARLES BERMANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert Seidman had never worked for a newspaper or magazine or gone to journalism school, and the jobs he held at Sprint and MCI and IBM certainly had nothing to do with writing. But Seidman had a calling, so several years ago he began sending out a weekly dispatch, via e-mail, called "In, Around, and Online."

His quirky, insightful writings about cyberspace quickly became a hit among the Internet cognoscenti, and a couple of months ago Seidman left Big Blue for a full-time position as a columnist for NetGuide magazine.

Seidman is among the most successful of the many writers who have employed widely available electronic tools to publish themselves in cyberspace. Some manage to garner audiences in the tens of thousands, while avoiding many of the curses inflicted upon others in the profession--editors, deadlines, editorial calendars and other creativity-restricting elements.

It's hard to know exactly what to call this new breed of Net writers. David Winer, a San Francisco software developer whose online musings--known as Davenet--go to anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 people, refers to himself as an online columnist. But that doesn't quite describe what are often highly personal dispatches.

Certainly, the writing model owes a debt to the newspaper column in its first-person orientation, and it's like a serialized novel in that the action is carried from one installment to the next. In another respect, though, it can be like the keep-in-touch letters that some people send out during holidays. Perhaps "diarist" is the best term.

Anyone equipped with a computer, a modem and an e-mail account can get in on this new medium, simply by developing an electronic mailing list. But though the mechanics may be easy, the content is not: Finding something of interest to say to thousands of people, and saying it in an interesting way, is a lot harder than it might seem.

Online diarists tend to make liberal use of quotes, borrowed passages and links to other places on the Internet. Copyright enforcement is informal, but credit is always given. Writings are not subject to the fact checking and quality control of newspapers or magazines, but they can offer personal insight that traditional publications may not.

"You will judge this in the same way as any other medium," Seidman said. "If you like the subject or the writing, you will keep reading, or even subscribe. Otherwise, you'll just throw it away."

Winer's missives, for example, tend to center on technology and the computer industry. (Winer once owned a software company.) But between the commentary about Apple's foibles and Internet freedom is a lot of personal stuff; you get the feeling that if Dave were to fall in love or have a prostate operation, you'd certainly be able to read about it.

There is no way to accurately estimate how many online diarists are out there, but the number is at least in the hundreds. Rich Santalesa, a New Yorker and executive editor of NetGuide who credits Winer as his inspiration, said he started RichNet as an outlet for his non-computer-related interests, including art, music, media and life in the city.

"I use this as a means to hone my writing skills, keep my name out there and have fun," Santalesa said. "This is nothing earth-shattering. The best thing it's accomplished, though, is to keep my eyes, ears and mind open as I scour the streets of New York City."

Some diarists have more businesslike ends in mind. David Strom, a writer-consultant in Port Washington, N.Y., who contributes to InfoWorld and Forbes, sends his Web Informant letter to about 1,400 people about three times a month.

His letter requires technical skill beyond the text-only process used by the others, since it arrives in the World Wide Web's HTML format, complete with links. (HTML, or basic hypertext markup language, is the computer language used to design Web sites.) Strom's letter is also available on his own Web site.

"As a writer, I just send my stories off to a magazine, and that's the end of it," he said. "Here, I have to deal with several publishing issues, such as writing headlines, using fonts and making sure that the whole thing looks good."

Strom said that several business contacts have emerged from this effort.

"People don't read InfoWorld or Forbes to hear what I'm doing," he said. "This is an immediate push for my ideas that enables me to stay in touch with my community."

For Santalesa, the "why" ultimately isn't as important as the "what."

"The are many reasons to do something like this, both personal and business," Santalesa said. "But if you can't generate meaningful content on a regular basis, don't do it. You'll just be wasting your time."

Freelance writer Charles Bermant can be reached via e-mail at cbermant@interramp.com

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