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Blogs: Here to stay - with changes

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 2004

They're hip. Influential. Out there. By one estimate, there are 2 million of them posted on the Internet around the world talking about everything from knitting patterns to the war in Iraq. But as blogs - or personal weblogs - move into the limelight, they're also coming under closer scrutiny. And the conclusions are in some ways sobering.

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Except for a tiny number of blogs that have gained prominence, all this techno-chattiness remains just that: an immature form of communication that has yet to gain traction with the general public, experts say. Most are moldering in cyberspace, updated only sporadically or abandoned completely. But out of this fervid experimentation are coming some new forms of communication that are already influencing public discourse.

Take politics. David Winer says weblogs are going to play a huge role in politics. But all the buzz about politicians using them is overblown. The blog of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was just a "gimmick," says Mr. Winer, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and a pioneer blogger. And any blogs produced this year by President Bush or John Kerry will be "basically run by the ad agencies" - not the kind of honest, even intimate conversations that blogs can represent.

Here's his vision of how real "blogging" by a politician could work. A candidate for city council, for example, would write an ongoing blog to his potential constituents explaining his positions on issues. They could read his pitch and offer feedback, creating a kind of political dialogue that would be "based on substance more than sound bites," he says.

Visionaries such as Winer hope that this is the emerging world of blogs, a place where serious and substantial ideas can be shared. This Saturday he'll host BloggerCon II, a conference at Harvard Law School for both new and veteran bloggers.

In keeping with the egalitarian nature of blogs, no expert panels will speak: Moderators will encourage everyone to share ideas. Among the subjects tackled will be the role blogs may play in the future of politics, academia, business - and especially journalism. ("Are we journalists?" some bloggers ask.)

Blog reporters?

Although many of the most popular bloggers discuss politics and other news events, few observers say they believe blogs will replace conventional print journalism anytime soon. Instead, they say, blogs are becoming another place where news-hungry readers can go.

"Weblogs are good at providing timely information," says Rebecca Blood, author of "The Weblog Handbook" and a veteran blogger. "The form [of a blog] itself is 'new entry on top, new entry on top, new entry on top.' " But that doesn't provide the kind of story "weighting" that a newspaper or magazine provides, she says, when it arranges stories according to their importance, using headlines and placement on the page as signals.

Bloggers should be seen more as commentators and aggregators rather than reporters, Ms. Blood says, though "sometimes you'll find a blogger doing actual reporting on their site." One valuable thing a blogger often does is hyperlink to magazine and newspaper stories or other interesting blogs, she says. "[But] 99 percent of the weblogs being done could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered journalism," she says. "I most emphatically don't consider myself a journalist.... I always link to news stories that I find [and then add] my commentary. That's not news gathering. That's not reporting."

The form has come a long way from where it started in the late 1990s. That's when a few computer-literate Internet users who knew how to write software code began to share their opinions, blog-style, with anyone online who discovered them. In 1999 software arrived that made it easy for anyone to create a blog. Soon the stereotype of a blogger became a teenage girl writing in her online diary, obsessed with her own world.

Now that the model has given way to a version of Chairman Mao's "let a thousand flowers bloom" - with subjects ranging from making wedding plans to tech talk and political raves - people who may have heard of blogs but never read one are left scratching their heads, unsure what they're all about.