Blog Standard At Queen's University

Writer Tara West visits Malachi O'Doherty's blogging workshop as the new Writer in Residence finds his feet

Knowing I was developing a blog, a friend forwarded me the link to Blog Standard, a blogging initiative set up by Queen’s University’s new Writer in Residence, journalist Malachi O’Doherty. Appointed in November 2010, O’Doherty joins a long and illustrious line-up of Writers in Residence at Queen’s, but he is only the second to be known as the BBC Louis MacNeice Writer in Residence.

The partnership with the BBC was established in 2007 to acknowledge the Belfast poet and playwright’s contribution to broadcasting and the creative arts, and develop closer links between the university, the BBC and the wider creative writing community. Each residency focuses on a different theme or specialism, reflecting different aspects of MacNeice’s career. This year it’s journalism - a role that's tailor made for O’Doherty.

During his residency, O’Doherty will teach writing for radio on the Creative Writing Masters course and is pencilled in to teach on the new Masters degree in Broadcast Literacy. He plans to stimulate discussion about journalism in Queen’s and beyond, and raise questions about ‘how the new media interact with the old'. He will bring in speakers from the media, form links with the BBC College of Journalism, and run workshops on media and broadcast practice. One of the first things he on his agenda was to set up Blog Standard.

Reading through the posts on the blog, I learn that Blog Standard is intended to ‘foster discussion among bloggers, podcasters and all sorts of creative internet and new media activists… about what we are doing and where we are going with our democratised broadcast and publishing technology'. O’Doherty’s aim is to gather ‘all sorts of new media artists and exponents to reflect with me on where we are going and to exchange ideas and techniques'. It sounds lofty.

I missed the first meeting, but decide to go to the next one. I’m apprehensive as I make my way to the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, where the group meets. I expect a room full of Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs, pontificating, challenging and bouncing ideas around. Or, more worryingly, maybe I’ll find a clutch of geeks, ‘inadequate, pimpled and single', as Andrew Marr described bloggers at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

In the end, however, I enter the seminar room in the Seamus Heaney Centre and find an affable collection of middle-aged gentlefolk drinking red wine from plastic glasses, and wondering how to get rid of the picture of a tree when you’re setting up a Wordpress blog.

The seminar room, as O’Doherty points out on his blog, ‘normally caters for gatherings of intense poets comparing metaphors and scansion’, but tonight it is home to O’Doherty and seven other politely interested parties, including prolific local blogger Alan in Belfast. Half an hour in, we are 12 strong, spanning the spectrums of age and blogging experience. Tonight’s session is an introductory workshop to help the novices set up blogs, with advice from the more experienced participants.

The first thing we do is struggle to find a computer that works. O’Doherty’s computer has crashed and is busily restoring its system. Alan in Belfast donates his temporarily and the group begins to explore the differences between Wordpress and Blogger, getting to grips with the technical know-how. It’s not as dynamic or dramatic as I had imagined: no-one storms out over the ethics of blogging or sobs at the thought of censorship, but it is a useful introduction to the basics, and people learn how to operate the technology.

Then, suddenly, mid-session, I’m lost. And it’s not the blogging software that has me mystified. An experienced blogger demonstrates an audio recording he has attached to his blog and O’Doherty feeds back on the quality of the writing. So, now we’ve turned into a creative writing class? I am bewildered by the sudden switch and I leave feeling confused and dissatisfied.

I talk to O’Doherty about it later and his argument makes sense: blogging is writing and therefore creative writing advice has a place in the group. I’m not entirely convinced it works in reality, but one of the interesting things about O’Doherty is that when you feed back to him, he listens. He asks how I think we should structure classes in the future. I make a suggestion, but I don’t really know. The point is, he’s open to other ways of doing things.

O’Doherty’s loose, organic approach might be disconcerting for some, but it also allows new ideas to blossom, or die if they don’t work, and that’s exactly how blogs operate: comments influence content. Blog Standard is like a blog made corporeal, so if you want to know what it’s like, I suggest you go along. What it’s like is, in a way, entirely up to you.