If you chose two words that people hear daily in May 2006 that they never heard five years ago, the words might be "iPod" and "blog."
We all know about Apple's iPod. It has revolutionized the music business, becoming not just a way to listen to music, but also a fashion statement.
Then there's the humble blog (short hand for Web log). Blogs have been with us much longer than iPods, but have developed in the past few years into a cultural force. Like the iPod, having your own blog is also a status symbol.
As it happens, blogs are showing up faster than ants at a summer picnic. There are some 37 million blogs in the world, with a new blog created every second, according to a report by David Sifry, founder of Technorati, a website that tracks blogs and blog use (www. sifry.com/alerts/archives/000433.html). Since Mr. Sifry released his report May 1, the number of blogs tracked by the site has climbed to 39.6 million as of this past weekend.
But wait, there's more....
The "blogosphere" (according to Wikipedia, the "collective term encompassing all Web logs or blogs; blogs as a community; blogs as a social network") doubles in size every six months. It is now 60 times bigger than it was three years ago, with 1.2 million new postings each day - about 50,000 per hour.
Even more interesting, English is not the most popular language of the blogosphere - it's Japanese. Thirty-seven percent of blogs are written in Japanese, 31 percent in English, and China is rapidly rising in third place with15 percent.
But unlike the "Field of Dreams" in an Iowa cornfield, if you build a blog, don't expect a lot of people to come. Only 6 percent of online consumers read blogs, according to a study of 68,000 households by Forrester Research in September 2005 (www.forrester.com/ER/Press/ Release/0,1769,1028,00. html). This figure, however, is only a snapshot of the US consumer - not how blogs are read or used worldwide. No doubt many blogs written in the United States are read by people abroad, particularly blogs on pop culture and politics.
In fact, a study done for Jupiter Research says that blogs have a "disproportionately large influence" on society. The reason? It's not how many people read a blog, it's who reads it.
The Jupiter study, which focused on blog use in Europe, found that while "active users" of the Internet make up a small portion of overall Internet users, they were starting to dominate public discussions and even have an impact on people's buying habits.
AOL Music, for example, recognizing that blogs can make or break a music artist, is letting bloggers use its music charts and information for free. Using RSS feeds, a music fan's blog can now offer readers the latest music trends and news, helping them (and AOL Music) sell more music.
"We're seeing this growing," Julian Smith, an online advertising analyst with Jupiter Research and author of the report, told the Guardian newspaper in London. "The strongest part of their influence is on the media: If something online suddenly becomes a story in the local press, then it matters."
Mr. Smith added that while media organizations who follow blogs should not overestimate the power blogs have, it's hard to ignore the impact they have on public discussion.
This observations is particularly true in the US, where well-known political blogs like Instapundit, Daily Kos, ThinkProgress, Wonkette, Captain's Quarters, and RedState not only break stories from time to time, but also generate discussion about issues that the mainstream media often ignore.
The best example of this occurred in 2002. Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi made comments at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond that seemed to many people to insult African-Americans. It was largely ignored by mainstream media. But liberal bloggers, such as Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo, and conservative bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, found out about the comments and refused to let them be forgotten. Eventually publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post started to follow the story.
Bloggers also played a key role in 2004 proving that the charges made by CBS News about President Bush's service in the National Guard were false.
While these political blogs don't have the audiences of large media institution, they are often read daily by people who work for those media outlets, and by key political thinkers in Washington, D.C.
But for all the impact that blogs have, an 800-pound gorilla lurks in social network sites such as MySpace.com. Already, MySpace has more postings (1.4 million daily) than in the entire blogosphere, and 250,000 new people sign up daily.
The bottom line: For all the accuracy charges leveled against blogs or safety concerns expressed about social networking, these Internet-based activities are increasingly the way people communicate.
According to an April 2006 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 88 percent of 18- to-29-year-olds in the US now go online, and 84 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds do so. The influence of the Internet is only going to increase.