The Power of the Blog
Four locals reshape an evolving medium.
by Patrick Dunn
Blogging was big in the late '90s and early 2000s, as an explosion of Internet users cottoned to the idea of sharing with their circle of friends through an online journal. These days, much of that content has migrated to social networking sites, and Facebook and Twitter are taking their turn in the spotlight. But blogs are still alive and well, and Ann Arbor has a number of vibrant local examples to prove it. While some follow the traditional model of a public diary, some seek to fill the void left by newspapers and traditional media. We spoke with four Ann Arbor bloggers from across the spectrum.
Ed Vielmetti got his first Internet account through the University of Michigan in 1985, when, he says, the online world was much more "mysterious." "There weren't really search tools back then," he explains. "There could be entire networks out there that you didn't know how to communicate with. In that sense, the Internet really has shrunk rather than grown."
In the late '90s, Vielmetti became fascinated by the then-new concept of the "weblog"--initially, he says, a kind of "annotated reading list" for Internet aficionados to share information that others might not easily find on their own. So in 1999 Vielmetti started his own blog, Vacuum (vielmetti.typepad.com). Vielmetti says people originally took note of Vacuum for his newsy observations on Ann Arbor, which actually translated into a paying job as AnnArbor.com 's lead blogger in 2009. Vielmetti and his department were eliminated in 2011; he says his and his colleagues' "grandiose plans" fell victim to the site's cost-cutting. "There were a lot of good ideas," he says. "It's just that it takes a long time to write something that's worthwhile to read."
Vielmetti's since returned to working in systems administration but still shows a news reporter's modest enthusiasm for occasionally "scooping" local media outlets; recently, he was the first to report on the closing of the Eastern
Accents bakery downtown. However, his blog has a broad focus; recipes and observations on the development of the Internet are as likely as local news updates to turn up on Vacuum.
Yet one of his most popular posts falls under none of those categories. In June 2011, Vielmetti posted some power outage maps after a major summer storm. The post drew considerable traffic, so Vielmetti added outage links for all fifty states. He says traffic still spikes notably after any major storm, as readers from around the country return to the data he compiled.
Vacuum's subject material is a hodgepodge, but that's because Vielmetti sees the blog very much in the classical context: as a personal, yet very public, journal. A longtime notebook keeper, Vielmetti sees Vacuum mostly as just another way to record and archive his own thoughts--although it recently hit a traffic milestone, with one million total page views.
"I still like it best when it's more or less notes to myself, rather than trying to publish something for a large audience," Vielmetti says. "I'm not really chasing traffic. When it comes, it comes, but you can't really predict that."
Ben Connor Barrie
Filling a niche
Only two years old when Ed Vielmetti logged on to his first Internet account, Ben Connor Barrie is not a witness to the birth of journal-style blogging but an active participant in its decline. He started just such a blog with a couple of friends while living in California in 2008, after graduating from Kalamazoo College. "It was pretty terrible because we had absolutely no focus," Barrie says.
That project didn't last long, but Barrie found inspiration for a new kind of blog when he returned to Ann Arbor, his hometown, as a grad student in the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. Back home, Barrie says he found himself "shining a lot of light" onto goings-on in Ann Arbor, giving friends advice on restaurants, events, and other activities. Barrie says he realized there was a niche to be filled, particularly for younger audiences. "There's like 40,000 students here, and AnnArbor.com doesn't ignore them, but it hasn't found how to engage them in the conversation," Barrie says. "So one of the reasons I started it was just the lack of a good resource."
Barrie launched DamnArbor.com in 2010, along with friends Ben Houston, Quinn Davis, Erika Jost, and Gautam Hans. The contributors function something like a traditional news team, making multiple short daily posts. They keep an eye on small-scale goings-on around town, pointing out new graffiti and campus amenities, promoting under-the-radar events, and providing man-on-the-street photo reports on fast-developing situations like accidents or demonstrations.
But Damn Arbor's contributors have the big picture in mind as well. Barrie's particularly fond of posting new maps and statistical breakdowns on topics ranging from Michigan "food deserts" to Ann Arbor commute times, and the blog often touches on political issues in the state legislature and Ann Arbor City Council. When the site hosted its first "City Council Meeting Viewing Party" at Arbor Brewing Company in March (sponsored by the Ann Arbor Chronicle's Mary Morgan), Barrie posted some drinking game rules (example: "If a lawyer representing [the proposed highrise at] 413 E. Huron says 'We will sue the crap out of you hayseeds,' finish your drink.")
Barrie, who majored in biology as an undergrad, says he's "terrible" at writing longer-form pieces, but he still serves as Damn Arbor's main voice. The reason, he says, is "dedication. In class or throughout the day, I probably check the Internet too much. I'm good at blogging, and that's what makes me in charge."
The blog now attracts a following of 250-400 unique visitors per day, and ads on the site bring in a slight profit for Barrie and his contributors. He explains his success as only a biology major could, referencing the way a fetus develops multitudinous neurons in the womb and then quickly loses all but the most functional ones in its first year of life.
"When all this Web 2.0 stuff started, it was exciting," he says. "Anyone could do something and put it on the Internet. But at a certain point you're going to lose all the stuff that's not as good or not as meaningful or doesn't impress as many people. So I think this [Damn Arbor] is here to stay."
Bringing blogging to the table
One of Ann Arbor's newest and most ambitious food writers is slowly navigating the waters between personal project and public following, but he's still keeping his identity to himself. A2GastroBoy, author of a blog of the same name, says he works a food marketing job in Ann Arbor but wants his culinary criticism to "stand on its own."
He started the blog in 2010 as a vehicle for conducting a poll on Ann Arbor restaurants, analyzing which establishments residents visit most and like best. The survey has continued on an annual basis (Mani Osteria took the top spot this year, followed by the Common Grill and Pacific Rim), and the blog has taken on a life of its own, with what GastroBoy describes as "a meditation on the art and science of great food in Ann Arbor."
The blogger's fascination with food goes back to his childhood in the suburbs of Detroit. "I was raised with Italian parents and grandparents who cooked," he says. "It wasn't sustenance as much as it was a core tenet of our lifestyle." He worked restaurant jobs while attending Michigan State University ("the big dirty secret about GastroBoy is I'm a Spartan") and settled in Ann Arbor in 1995.
His blog entries combine thorough reviews of new restaurants with posts that take painstakingly comprehensive stock of the local scene for various specialties. A recent essay on cocktails breaks down the history of mixed drink recipes, the elements of a good drink, and a guide to Ann Arbor's best cocktail spots, complete with shout-outs to various bartenders and a tantalizing reference to a rumored bottle of coveted Pappy Van Winkle bourbon at the Ravens Club.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, readers have begun to respond-- GastroBoy.com now draws about 500 unique visitors per week. He says he's learned some valuable lessons from their feedback, particularly when he has "less-than-stellar" words for certain restaurants. "It's not my private journal," he says. "The things that I write affect other people. I'm learning there's a way to critique or be satirical without being biting or sarcastic."
GastroBoy says it's that sense of serving an audience that keeps him interested in blogging. "If I didn't have a tribe, and if I didn't have folks that were egging me on or responding to my posts, this would have died a year ago, if not longer," he says.
Compelled to comment
Blogging is a genuine compulsion for Mark Maynard. The Ypsi resident and voice of MarkMaynard.com bluntly notes that he has obsessive compulsive disorder, and his blog is an outlet for it. "OCD's not all bad," he says. "I just feel like I need to keep working. There's just some things that need to be dealt with, you know?" And dealing with them often keeps him up until midnight, sometimes turning out two lengthy posts in a single night. "I'll see something or I'll hear something on the radio, and I'll be thinking about it all day," Maynard says. "I get home, I put my kids to bed, and then I write."
That writing often focuses on Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and state politics, and Maynard's investigative spirit and outspoken tone have made him a news-breaker on multiple occasions. Most recently, his angry report about a "Pure Michigan" ad touting the state's new right-to-work law beat the Detroit Free Press, the Huffington Post, and other news outlets to the punch.
Maynard enjoys his scoops, but says his focus is on laying a foundation for the community to solve problems. "I think I can provide a forum where people can actually have substantive discussions instead of just 'Go home, commie!' or whatever," he says. "On AnnArbor.com a bunch of people will start screaming at each other in the comments section, and nothing will get accomplished."
When it comes to his own views, Maynard is outspoken and left-leaning, describing himself as a liberal after the fashion of FDR. However, he says he's "not the liberal version of Ann Coulter. I try to be fair at least." In a clever reversal, when a commenter repeatedly made anti-gay remarks on a post Maynard wrote about Ozone House, the teen shelter and support center, Maynard responded by calling for his readers to make donations to Ozone House in the commenter's name. More than $1,000 was raised.
Politics isn't the blog's sole focus. Maynard also devotes plenty of time to covering Ypsi's entrepreneurs and innovators. He expresses frustration with his own efforts to join their ranks, noting that he's "tried and failed" to start both a community newspaper and a bicycle-powered outdoor movie series. "I get mad at myself for wasting all my time on the blog, because I think I have really good ideas that I could pursue if I focused," he says. "Maybe blogging is what I need to do to keep from doing that, so I don't ever have to actually risk anything." What would he be risking? "Just failure," he says.
But Maynard says that having a blog lets him participate in his community. "I think I'd always wanted to have a positive impact on where I lived," he says. "And in Ypsi I can do that.
"I don't want to say the community needs me," he adds. "I think the community needs everybody."
[Originally published in June, 2013.]
On June 30, 2013, John wrote:
Blogging is still going strong. I'm an Ann Arbor blogger who has been publishing GolfBlogger.Com since 2004, and I have seen nothing but growth. The key is to have something to write about that people want to read.