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Online: Bloggers to unite under common threads at conference 

Looking quickly at the blog's message board, it'd be hard to believe they were talking about any place but Pittsburgh.

"There is more inbreeding and incest in all these governmental agencies and authorities than in most royal families," one reader posted on June 28.

"If there is one thing we do better [here] than anybody else, it's shady backroom dealing," another wrote on July 2.

The blog in question is Outside Erie (www.globalerie.com/blog/), maintained by Erie expatriate Peter Panepento, but the discussion could just as easily come from any number of other Rust Belt cities' blogs with equally striking similarities.

There is gushing about fireworks on Dig Michigan (www.absolutemichigan.com/dig/), and griping about how their city is portrayed nationally on the message walls of fix buffalo today (fixbuffalo.blogspot.com).

This weekend, for the first time ever, bloggers from the entire region are being invited to meet face-to-face at a formal conference. The Rust Belt Bloggers Summit will take place in Erie, on July 11-12, giving members of the often faceless new media a chance to shake hands and swap notes.

Jim Russell -- coordinator of the summit and author of the blog Burgh Diaspora (burghdiaspora.blogspot.com) -- says he's not entirely sure what will come out of it, but thinks the type of networking and collaboration that already take place in Pittsburgh (through online communities like PodCamp Pittsburgh) could grow outwards.

"I think there's some awareness of [the commonalities,]" he says, "but there's definitely a bunker mentality. ... Erie is a universe unto itself. Milwaukee is a universe unto itself."

Russell, an Erie native who lived in Pittsburgh for six months before moving to Colorado for graduate school, says he became the summit's coordinator "by default" and was reluctant to take the helm because "I live in Colorado."

But he's had help in keeping the ball moving from a number of local writers and members of the social network Rust Belt Bloggers (rustbelt.ring.com).

"We've had a couple of events in Pittsburgh and those are great communities," says blogger Cynthia Closkey, of My Brilliant Mistakes (mybrilliantmistakes.com). "It would be interesting to extend those communities."

The motivations for the summit range from the grand -- Russell talks about bloggers leading the way in creating a more regional push to combat decades-long economic slides -- to the personal.

"I find it easiest to follow blogs once I know who's involved with them," Closkey says, admitting: "It is counter to the impression most people have [of blogging's anonymity]."

For a lot of reasons, it's not surprising that blogs in Youngstown, Cleveland and Pittsburgh would hit some of the same notes.

"All of us have the same problem: There's a mass exodus of youth," says Douglas Derda, blogger at www.douglasderda.com and half of a craft brew-drinking podcast team called Should I Drink That? (www.shouldidrinkthat.com). "In 20 years, who's going to be here to run the thing?"

Russell hopes the summit will get bloggers from Rust Belt cities to start seeing each other as collaborators instead of competitors. But as a black-and-gold bearing son of a Browns fan, he's not getting ahead of himself.

"I don't think people know how to upscale this project," he says. "And I'm not convinced a lot of bloggers want to."

On a smaller level, networks for blogs already exist throughout the Rust Belt. Outside Erie is one of more than half a dozen sites connected through globalerie.com, for example.

But it remains to be seen whether they all can peacefully co-exist digitally as one cohesive region.

"Can this work? Will it work?" Russell asks. "I don't know."

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