Behind the screens, a community link

For many in the region who share their lives online, it’s the ‘at-a-distance familiarity’ that keeps them writing

Peter Sachs / The Bulletin

When 30 bloggers filled one of the rooms of The Blacksmith restaurant at happy hour one evening last month, it was the first time many had met face-to-face.

Pints of Mac & Jack’s African Amber beer and cocktail glasses in hand, the crowd chatted like a group of high school alums meeting again several years after graduation. People quickly found connections with each other through online screen names and blog posts, then filled in the details - faces, real names, and professional and personal lives.

“I imagine that’s going to be a group that gets together again and again,” said Jon Abernathy, who writes three blogs: Chuggnutt, Hack Bend and The Brew Site.

The gathering was the real-world manifestation of the behind-the-computer-screen blog scene in Central Oregon. There are hundreds of people who write blogs in the region — everything from personal journals for family and friends to rants on politics and real estate to discussions of small business and beer-making.

Some blogs have only a handful of visitors while others, like Jake Ortman’s Utterly Boring, attract thousands each day.

Julie Anderson, who writes the Chubby Mommy Running Club blog, said she’s made many new real-life friends through her five-month-old blog.

“What a lot of this new media does is it gives you a chance to find people and meet people in person,” said Anderson, a 42-year-old marketing consultant and mother.

Topics range widely, too. There are explorations of the mundane, like Anderson’s travails bringing in groceries or sticking to a regular running schedule.

There are topics that gain wider attention as well: rumors of Trader Joe’s opening, or last spring’s controversy over Baltazar Chavez’s policy discouraging parents from bringing their small children to his Mexican restaurant.

More than ‘pasty white geeks’

Ortman, who started writing his blog in 2002, said there were fewer than a dozen bloggers at the first organized gathering in 2004. He was “floored” by the recent turnout at The Blacksmith.

At the Bend confab, some were mothers, some software developers, others focused on nonprofit grant writing, reviewing restaurants or, for one, satirizing the local real estate industry through the persona of “Sally Heatherton.”

Some, like Ortman, admit to being the “pasty white geeks” that many people assume spend their days glued to computer screens, writing blogs. Others, like Anderson, have been blogging for only a short time or, like business owner Duncan McGeary, do it to discuss ideas.

“You don’t have to be a techie like Jake Ortman to start a blog,” said Shannon Hinderberger, who writes two blogs. “There’s a lot of tools out there that make it really simple.”

Ortman’s Utterly Boring blog compiles links to offbeat news stories, videos and online games. He’s gained a certain amount of notoriety for it, he said.

“I am amazed that my blog is as popular as it is, as I really didn’t start it to get popular,” Ortman said in an e-mail. “I started it mostly just to keep my thoughts and links organized and share them with the world.”

That sentiment is common among Bend bloggers.

Hinderberger said she started blogging four years ago, when she moved to Bend, to keep in touch with friends and family in the Midwest. As more people found her blog through online searches of the topics she was writing about, she began to meet others.

And when she moved to Central Oregon, she made a point to start e-mailing with other bloggers in the area.

“I reached out to them because I didn’t know anybody and actually met them in real life,” Hinderberger said.

Now she, Ortman and Abernathy are close friends.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Abernathy said. “Maybe it’s the blogging that ties us together. I don’t know that it’s people we’d run into otherwise.”

When businesses meet blogs

Keith Cevoli noticed a trend soon after he opened his Speedshop Deli on Wall Street in downtown Bend. One person after another came in asking for his signature “nuke paste” hot sauce on sandwiches and referring to the Bend, Oregon Restaurant blog.

“When they come in and say, ‘Oh, I need to try this nuke paste,’ I know it’s (his blog),” Cevoli said.

The blogger, a tall and stocky man, takes pains to remain anonymous, taking up the pseudonym “Boris” given to him after the recent blogger gathering. He doesn’t pretend to be anything more than someone who likes to eat good food.

And his blog has meant more than 20 new customers for Cevoli’s business.

“Every time he comes in, I thank him and he says, ‘Hey, you know, I love your place, I love your food,’” Cevoli said.

A block away, McGeary doesn’t know if his blog has attracted any new customers to his store, Pegasus Books of Bend. He doesn’t even track how many people read his nearly daily postings on “Best Minimum Wage Job a Middle Aged Guy Ever Had.”

Standing behind the counter of his downtown store one recent morning, he reflected on running a small business and on Bend’s economy, discussing some of the same topics with his regular customers that come into the store as he does in his blog.

And while he started his blog as a personal journal of sorts, he uses it to get ideas on running his business, too.

McGeary outlined his plans to pack even more products into his store on his blog several weeks ago. Anime DVDs, graphic novels, action figures, Steinbeck novels and comics jostle for space in the store, yet everything has its own distinct section, and he admits the desire to add more products.

“It’s not entertainment to me as much as it is (ideas),” McGeary said.

“I like ideas and I like to figure out how things work and I love information.”

Affecting local opinions

McGeary, like other bloggers, picked up on the phenomenon of Sally Heatherton last September.

The blog appeared on Ortman’s Bend Blogs, which compiles postings from more than 200 area blogs, and quickly ignited a firestorm of discussion in the blogosphere. Sally Heatherton poked fun at Bend’s real estate agents and Awbrey Butte residents who objected to clotheslines on their neighbors’ properties.

“I just thought that was a lot of creative effort,” McGeary said.

The man behind Sally’s persona was at the blogger gathering, but declined to be interviewed for this article.

“There is definitely a place in our society where we’re looking for well-told stories to share experiences,” Anderson said. She pointed to the Heatherton blog as one that people gravitated toward because no matter how absurd and fantastical, it was still a well-told story.

There are true stories that circulate through the blogosphere, too.

Last year when Bend restaurant owner Baltazar stopped providing highchairs to parents with children at his restaurant, local e-mail lists and blogs picked up on it first. Bloggers took sides themselves, actively discussing the issue.

More recently, Abernathy’s Hack Bend site posted the opening date of Trader Joe’s grocery store a full month before the date appeared in the news.

“I do think that local blogs are certainly having an affect on local opinions and local media,” Ortman wrote in an e-mail.

“There are times that a story will break from some blogger on before it’ll appear on KTVZ, The Bulletin, or KBND,” he added - though some rumors posted on blogs turn out not to be true.

Back at Pegasus, McGeary joked that he was “at the hermits conclave when the bloggers met” recently. He likes to think of blogging as “at-a-distance familiarity,” in that people only blog about the parts of their lives they want to put out in the open.

“If I can do it in a way that engages other people and they can comment on what I’m saying, that gives me more ideas,” McGeary said. “Plus, I admit, it gets kind of addicting.”

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