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.
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.)
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.
"When you try to draw a circle around blogs and say what they are, you always come up with exceptions," Winer concedes.
The website technorati.com says it is tracking 2.1 million blogs.
Bloggers who write from exotic locations, such as war-torn Iraq or secretive North Korea, or give juicy insider views of Washington politics, have given blogs a cachet. They've attracted the attention of mainstream journalists, who in turn write about them. And though blogs represent only a tiny portion of the content on the Internet, they've grown large enough to carve out their own niche, the so-called blogo-sphere.
"It is an important phenomenon happening on the Web," says Amanda Lenhart, the principal author of a recent survey that asked Americans about blogs and was conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington. It showed that between 2 and 7 percent of Americans have created blogs and about 11 percent of Americans have read at least one. "It is not a large number in the grand scheme of the Internet," Ms. Lenhart says. Nevertheless, she says, that's 4 million to 9 million people, not an insignificant number.
The survey also found that most bloggers don't update their blogs very often - once a week or less. Only about 10 percent make a new entry at least daily. That dovetails with a study last October, conducted by Perseus Development Corporation, that estimated 4.12 million blogs were online (more than half written by teens) but also noted that two-thirds of them had not been updated within the previous two months, meaning they had been either temporarily or permanently abandoned.
Perseus projected that the number of blogs would exceed 10 million by the end of 2004, and compared the makeup of the blogosphere to an iceberg.
"An iceberg is constantly dissolving into seawater, and the majority of blogs started are dissolving into static, abandoned Web pages," wrote Jeffrey Henning, chief operating officer of Perseus, in the report. "Right now, though, this iceberg is moving so quickly into Arctic waters that it is gaining mass faster than it is losing it. The key is that an iceberg is never what it appears, and so it is with today's blogging community."
As more people read and write blogs, their influence will keep growing, online observers say. More and more people will look to them to find out the buzz of the day. Politicians will find it important to know what blogs say about them. And smart companies will begin to pick up on what's being blogged about them, says John Palfrey, executive director at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center. Right now, that's mostly true only of tech firms, who might follow what's being said about a hot product like Apple's iTunes player, which downloads music from the Internet.
"On the one hand, it's a very, very simple technology that lots of people can use. And on the other hand, it's a very, very powerful technology in terms of what you can use it for," Mr. Palfrey adds in a phone conversation. Bloggers don't even need their own website: They can go to places such as blogger.com, typepad.com, or livejournal.com and tap out their musings for little or no cost.
Although making a living just blogging is nearly impossible, a blog can have a great deal of career value by demonstrating one's expertise and writing skills, thus serving as a "reputation builder," Blood says by phone from San Francisco. "You can quickly establish yourself as an expert in your field by becoming a kind of one-stop source for information."
And while existing software has made blogs cheap and easy, Blood predicts that the limitations of the form will drive bloggers into other forms of publishing.
"Once we have easy-to-use tools for other kinds of publications, like ezines [online magazines], or even tools that allow citizen journalists to contribute to their local papers, we'll see those kinds of publications explode as well," she says.