WARNING: Don't read this column unless you have a lot of time to kill. The topic is blogs, a type of website so abundant and diverse, you can't read just one.
Blogs, short for weblog, are the self-published musings of everyday folks and off-duty journalists that cover TV and politics, war and vegetarianism. In fact, your next-door neighbor is likely creating one right now so he can discuss the India-Pakistan threat and the movie he saw last night.
Blogs have been around since about 1997, when Web-industry types first used them to discuss current events and share links. But now blogs belong to the masses, and the approach is increasingly being adopted by mainstream media (often a target of bloggers) and taught in journalism schools.
Conservative estimates place the number of blogs at about 200,000, with new ones arriving all the time thanks to software available on the Web (blogspot.com or antville.org, for example). That kind of software exploded blogland in 1999, when the number of sites grew from a few hundred to tens of thousands in just six months, says Rebecca Blood, author of "The Weblog Handbook," due out next month.
But it's not just numbers, it's the power of the medium that is turning heads. Most bloggers have no editor but only their opinions and interests to guide them. Unlike a static site, a blog provides daily updates and links to other information, synthesizing what's on the Web for readers who actively participate and respond to what's posted.
Popular sites can draw as many as 10,000 readers a day, with the typical well-read site attracting 1,000 to 3,000 readers, says Ms. Blood, who is herself a blogger (rebeccablood.org).
Some of the more talked-about blogs have a political bent, like the ones from former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan (andrewsullivan.com) and law professor Glenn Reynolds (instapundit.com). Mr. Reynolds and several hundred others created blogs when they wanted to muse about 9/11 and its aftermath. Their "war blogs" added more conservative and libertarian voices to the mix.
Blogs can be subject specific or very general. Often they read like party conversation. Some are diaries, some are dedicated to photographs, there's even one "written" by Julius Caesar (sankey.ca/caesar).
On her fun site, www.popculturejunkmail.com, Gael Fashingbauer Cooper compares bloggers to DJs. "DJs play other people's songs all day long, but a great DJ teaches you something about the songs, introduces you to new music you might never have found on your own, and puts it all together in this seamless, intelligent way that only enhances the music."
All this freedom to pontificate is causing a stir in media circles. There's some debate about whether blogs are a threat, but others in the media see them as an outlet for those who don't usually get heard.
"I think it's a more democratized form of commentary. It lets some other voices and ideas into that airless room that the media has become," says Joan Connell, executive producer for opinions and communities for MSNBC.com.
MSNBC.com launched its own blogs in May, including ones for shout-show host Chris Matthews and columnist Eric Alterman, who also writes for The Nation. It joins outlets like foxnews.com, and slate.com, which recently acquired political blogger Mickey Kaus. The Monitor, csmonitor.com, also has blogs, including one about the war on terrorism called Daily Update. (A list of journalists with blogs can be found at cyberjournalist.net.)
But perhaps a bigger sign that blogs are having an impact is that the University of California at Berkeley is planning to offer a course about them. Come fall, students at the graduate school of journalism will discuss blogs as a journalistic form and create one of their own dealing with intellectual property. Other schools, from college on down, have also been including references to blogs in courses recently.
Still, Blood sees blogs as a good opportunity for those who aren't formally trained. Her message for the masses is simple: "It's big fun, and you should join us."