Thursday, September 13, 2007

The seedy underworld of Blogger.com

Have I done the right thing moving my blog to Blogger.com? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself the past two days.

My doubts started when I found I couldn’t upload a small profile photo to my blog, and I started trawling through the Blogger help forums looking for clues as to what was wrong. I’ve never seen help forums with so many desperate posts from bloggers whose blogs had disappeared, bloggers whose blogs had been hijacked by sex sites, bloggers that couldn’t upload photos, bloggers with layout problems, bloggers with linking problems – in fact anything that you could think might go wrong, had gone wrong, and it seemed that thousands of bloggers were affected. Maybe my impression from the demo that Blogger was easy to use was misconceived.

I’d already uploaded a profile photo to a Picasa web album. I figured that because that was a Google sister site, it would be the easiest picture to which to link. Picasa makes it easy to link because after opening a photo in an album, you see a box in the bottom right hand corner of the album page that says “Link to this Photo” - and in the box there is a URL to copy and paste somewhere else, or some HTML if you want to embed the picture somewhere. So I copied and pasted the URL into the URL box for the profile photo on the profile edit page in Blogger, and pressed the SAVE button. Nothing happened, even though a brief message appeared in red letters saying “Fetching profile photo.” After attempting that a few times without success, I ‘tested’ the URL by pasting it into my browser and found that it didn’t bring up the photo, but the whole album page instead. So obviously the URL provided by Picasa for linking was not the right URL for the photo.

Out of curiosity, I copied the HTML script from the box below the URL box on the Picasa album page to see if it contained the same URL. The URL copied from the first box was this:

http://picasaweb.google.com/banyanman/BanyanmanPhotos/photo#5108971107085451762

And I noted the same URL was in the HTML script which looked like this (I’ve changed the angle brackets to curved brackets to avoid embedding the picture again into this page):

(a href="http://picasaweb.google.com/banyanman/BanyanmanPhotos/photo#5108971107085451762")(img src="http://lh6.google.com/banyanman/Rua2J0WQAfI/AAAAAAAAABc/_ADJiKewhrA/s400/small-mug-shot.jpg" /)(/a)

But I also noted there was a second URL in that script, namely:

http://lh6.google.com/banyanman/Rua2J0WQAfI/AAAAAAAAABc/_ADJiKewhrA/s400/small-mug-shot.jpg

I copied that into my browser, and it turned out that was the correct URL for the photo. Then I tried pasting that second URL into the URL box on the Blogger profile edit page, and it worked. My profile photo appeared and the problem was solved.

So my particular problem wasn’t with Blogger after all, it was with Picasa (you do wonder how they can make such a silly mistake!)

That temporarily provided me with a sense of relief, but that didn’t last for long as I started browsing through some of the other blogs on Blogger.

I clicked on the “Next Blog” link at the top of the page and immediately my Avast virus protection software sprang to life with a loud siren and an onscreen warning that the blog I had linked to was trying to download malware to my computer. I disconnected, went back to my blog and tentatively clicked on “Next Blog” again. This time no malware download, but it was just a page of links to hardcore adult videos. So onto the next blog. This had just one paragraph of gibberish and a page of advertisements for sex sites, pills for erectile dysfunction, gadgets for enlarging penises, so-called penny stock tips and some pop-ups that my browser blocked. On this page the menu bar at the top disappeared, and there was no more “Next Blog” link, so I pressed the back button to the last blog, and tried the “Next Blog” link from there.

Another site trying to download malware appeared - more siren and another warning. So after disconnecting again, I went back to my blog and tried the “Next Blog” link again. The next blog was in Polish, so I skipped that. Then one called ‘Carvalho City News’ came up, which looked quite interesting, but it was in Portuguese, so I couldn’t read that.

After about the 12th attempt, I eventually came across a ‘genuine’ blog in English. It was written by a guy from Alabama in the US, who described himself as “ravaged by mental illness and alcoholism from an early age” and who had a best friend who was “an ex-prostitute and crack cocaine user”. I read a few of his posts. They were well written and quite interesting, but overall the blog was rather depressing.

The next blog was called ‘Sex Tape’ and apart from the fact that it had four Google ads at the top for adult dating sites and adult sex cams, I couldn’t see what the blog had to do with sex because all that was posted was a paragraph about fake trees made from woody vines which "are available in a range of sizes from a compact 12 inch all the way up to a large, dramatic 46 inch tall. Already popular on front porches in the Midwest - usually found with a string of clear lights - these 'trees' are a growing year-round trend." A strange blog indeed.

The header disappeared again, so back button once more, and then to the next blog (fortunately I had worked out by then that when you do that, clicking on the “Next Blog” link didn’t take you to the same blog again – they must be random samplings). The next blog had about 500 links to nude celebrities (I never knew so many of them took off their clothes) and ‘girls kissing’ links and lots of gay sex sites. Quickly moving on from that, the next was another list of sex links – this time to teenage sex photos (and some others I won’t mention) and more blocked pop-ups. At this stage I was starting to wonder where all the ‘real’ blogs on Blogger.com were, or had I gone and posted my blog to a site that’s nothing more than a front for sex links?

A few more clicks, a few more lists of sex links, a few more pop-ups, and then hey, this looks like a real blog. But then I realise it’s not quite what I’m looking for. An extract:

8:40 pm: Arrived home from work, had my dinner, watching TV.
9.50 pm: Brushed my teeth.
10.00 pm: Now snuggled in bed with a book.
10.20 pm: Trying to stay awake to finish the first chapter.
10.28 pm: Going to sleep now.
10.30 pm: Goodnight world. Love you honey.

Not quite what I was looking for. Surely there must be something better than this on Blogger. Click again, and this time the ‘blog’ seems to have been hijacked to run animated ads for funny videos (at least they weren’t sex videos again). So onto the next one, which was in a language that I didn’t recognise, but it was clearly adult content (and pretty gross at that) so another click and up comes the malware siren and warning again. At that point I gave up, wondering what sort of twisted cyberworld I had stumbled into. My browsing experience through Blogger reminded me of an episode of Futurama about the Internet that I saw on YouTube recently:



That was last night. I was feeling quite dispirited about whether there was any decent content on Blogger at all, but decided tonight to give it one more try.

My initial click on “Next Blog” looked encouraging at first. It was a genuine blog alright, but all the content was about a couple’s baby who was obviously the only thing that they felt was important in life. Baby pictures galore, and gushing comments like “We’re sure, real sure, she said dada today, we are so soooooooo sure. We are so sooooooo excited. We are by her side waiting for her next word. Will it be mama? Oh exciting and happy times for us here on South Street.”

Next click and the Avast siren sprang to life again – another attempted malware download – and then two more sex link sites and a couple of sites advertising dubious personal products, complete with pop-ups. Then another baby site – but this one was all ultrasound pictures because the baby isn’t born yet (“Doesn’t her forehead and nose look like her daddy’s?). And then, hallelujah, a blog that wasn’t about sex or babies – a guy who described himself as a graduate of a culinary arts college had posted a blog comprising videos showing how to prepare various ‘fine dining’ dishes. For someone whose culinary skills doesn’t extend much beyond preparing baked beans on toast, it wasn’t a blog I got excited about, but at least it was a REAL blog, and it helped start to restore my faith in Blogger by showing that there are some decent blogs on this site – if you can find them amongst all the junk and the porn. The next blog I came across reinforced that conclusion. It was called ‘Accountants Are Cool’ and was written by a young female auditor in Texas. I’m not so sure about the ‘accountants are cool’ bit, but the blog had some intelligent posts and many of them were interesting to read.

After a bit more experimenting I discovered that the best way to browse for worthwhile blogs, is to include your interests in your profile, and then click on those links to bring up blogs of people with similar interests. There’s still a few that pop up that are nothing more than bogus blogs with links to sex sites, but at least browsing that way brings up more blogs that are genuine than are not. Using the “Next Blog” link in the header at the top of the page seems to take you into the seedy underworld of Blogger – like that explored by the Futurama characters. So now I know.

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