Community beat online

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Many people in the Berkshires already do. Web logs chronicle events in the county. They tell people here what's happening and encourage them to join in. When does a blog become a community gathering point, like a coffee shop — or a drum circle on a downtown corner?

Gina Hyams, communications coordinator for Berkshire Theatre Festival, started her own independent blog, ginahyams.blogspot.com, last winter. She also writes freelance magazine articles and has published non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects. Blogging is not like any of these forms of writing, she said in a recent interview.

"I have had the good fortune of being published for 11 years. I'm always writing something that will be published. I've lost track of just writing for fun. In the blog, I don't have to please anyone but myself; no editor is the boss of me there."

Her blog is not a diary, she made clear; it is a letter.

"I have lots of responsibilities — as communications director, in my magazine writing, to my teenage daughter, my husband, my house, my dog," she said. "There's a great deal that's pleasurable. But the blog has become the one sliver that's not about taking care of anyone else."

A blog can be both public and private property, she said. She writes about local events, concerts, sweet corn, anniversaries. She reads books and interviews the writers: Chandler Burr, the New York Times perfume expert, and Rebecca Walker, and James Collins.

She writes what she wants to write, and not as a job. "I have enough jobs," she said. But she writes publicly, for the community to read.

"I'm not sure your coffee shop analogy works, unless your coffee shop happens to be filled with world-class professors, activists and experts consciously shaping their chatter for a global audience." said Ethan Zuckerman, a local blogger who writes about communities all across the globe, at www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog.

"In general, I'm suspicious of 'blogs are like' analogies. Blogs are like writing, because blogs are writing. Most writing is pretty trivial, even to the people who engage in it. Some is serious and important, whether or not the author meets widely accepted social definitions of importance — that's part of what's so powerful and interesting about blogging."

Berkshire Creative blog

Other community bloggers write as professionals representing both a business and the community.

Berkshire Creative has just converted its Web site, www.berkshirecreative.org, into a Web log. Helena Fruscio, director of operations, said the blog has a rolling format that can change instantly, and she can add new information quickly and easily. She hopes people will come back to the site regularly.

"I think our blog is both private and presented to the public," she said. "The posts themselves are not generated or editable by the community (although they are invited to suggest posts). They are also invited and encouraged to comment. Other blogs may have a more open user interface, or a wiki would be public, as it is fully editable by anyone who clicks in."

The Berkshire Museum needs an event coordinator. Next spring's Women's Day wants spaces to celebrate women in the arts. Assets for Artists announces the nine people it will support in its first round — a blues and gospel singer, a documentary film-maker, a stained-glass artist.

Fruscio said she posts information to the blog twice a day. It is so easy to find information about the Berkshire creative economy, and so easy to add it to the site, that they have to restrain themselves, Fruscio said. In less than a month, they have compiled news bulletins, collaborations, calls for submissions, events, job opportunities and achievements at places around the county.

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Fruscio and Kevin Sprague, communications director, set up the blog, she said. She hopes it will update people in the creative economy on what's going on throughout the county, encourage them to work together and promote businesses.

Writing that talks back

Fruscio also values the blog format because it is interactive — it can put readers in touch with each other directly. Berkshire Creative is looking for other interactive online opportunities too: It has also set up a Facebook page and formed a Linkedin networking site, she said.

Blogs allow comments; readers can talk to the writer and to each other. A well-read blog post can become a conversation. Hyams said she gets often gets responses to her posts, either on her blog or by e-mail.

"As more people read it, it feels more like a community resource, and more people read it every day," she said.

How many people does a blog reach?

When she heard that Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz were coming to The Mount to discuss their recent controversial New Yorker cover, Hyams posted about it — and sold 10 tickets. She learned that at least five people bought tickets after reading her blog post, and others joined in when they heard about her post by word of mouth.

Some blogs find readers more directly: Fruscio said she sends a weekly update of the blog's newest posts to 3000 people on the Berkshire Creative e-mail list.

Hyams said people find her blog from reading her books, from links on other Web sites, and by searching for subjects she has written about — Jell-o, farmers markets, a Daryll Hall concert. She estimated that about 20 percent of them live in the Berkshires. Some of her most loyal readers live as far away as California, Mexico, even Europe.

Blogs also talk to each other. Hyams said she is delighted by the correspondence she has begun with other bloggers: She comments on their sites, and they comment on hers. Communities overlap.

Why does blogging matter?

Hyams asked herself that, and she answered on her blog:

"As of this evening, the stat counter reports that I'm up to 1,497 returning visitors (out of 3,678 total unique visitors — lots of people obsessed with Jell-O and/or Daryl Hall). These aren't huge blogosphere numbers, but considering that I'm only linked to in one place that I know about (a kind stranger in Trinidad), it's miraculous. If I imagine you all in my backyard, it's quite a party we have going on here."

In our conversation, she said it differently:

"My tagline is a Mexican saying: 'While life lasts, laughter and molasses.' I write about anything I'm curious about or interested in — about why it's good to be alive."


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