Thursday, December 16, 2004

Whole lot of blogging going on

With 5 million or more blogs clogging cyberland, it is a wonder that "blog" was the most frequently researched word this year in Webster's Dictionary. You'd think most everyone either penned or read a dandy, self-published online journal like this one.

Wait a little longer, and just about everyone will. Researchers at Pew Internet & American Life, a genuinely unbiased organization, reckon that 15,000 new blogs are being launched each day. Other public-opinion poohbahs project there will be 10 million of them by the end of '005.

You don't have to author a blog to add your voice to the Net. By posting pictures, responding to surveys, adding opinions to consumer sites and in many other ways, some 53 million Americans, or nearly 20% of the population, have posted content of some sort on the Net in the last year, according to Pew.

With all due respect to the original Napster, spam, online porn and the Drudge Report, blogs really are the most significant development to hit the Net since Al Gore invented it. That's because the blog is the first medium truly native to the Net.

Napster didn't create the idea of stealing music; it merely scaled up distribution. Spam is just stamp-free junk mail. Online porn is a faster, better, cheaper incarnation of the world's second-oldest profession. Drudge reminds me of the seedy-looking guys with vacant eyes who used to scream at no one in particular from a soapbox in the park. He turned the Internet into his bully -- and I do mean bully -- pulpit, and saved his pipes in the bargain. Notwithstanding, the traffic at his racy soapbox sometimes runs neck and neck with the New York Times as one of the 200 most-visited sites on the Net. (On a slow day, Drudge still is among the 500 busiest sites.)

Blogs are the first truly innovative development in the short, lively history of the Internet, because they simply could not have been possible without this technology.

Prior to the Internet, the power of the press, to quote A.J. Liebling, belonged only to those who owned one. In the olden days, you could type up a fistful or carbon copies or run off a few hundred mimeo sheets, but how would you distribute them? How would you know who was interested? And, significantly, how would they know about you?

The Net changed all that. No sooner did blogging catch on than a host of smart engineers began figuring out ways to track and index the blogosphere, much as Google has indexed the web and now modestly plans to digitize all the world's books. Blog indexes create a worldwide, 24/7 audience for a mega-tsunami of continuously refreshed (and occasionally refreshing) information. So stupendous is the power of the web that someone, somewhere actually may be reading this!

Beyond solving the research and distribution problem faced by wannabe publishers, the web enables near-instant response from a world full of eager blogophiles. With their active participation -- for good or ill -- a story can take on a life of its own. Blogs propogated the cheesy charges against John Kerry by the Swift Boat Vets for "Truth" and they outed Dan Rather for foolishly mistaking a contemporary computer printout for a 1970s-era typewritten memo.

Recently, a self-appointed cyberposse investigated a businessman suspected of swindling several thousand dollars from his customers. I am not going to link to the site, because I don't know if it is true. And that underscores a scary dimension of blogs: Lots of people accept what they read as fact, regardless of the source.

With the publication of information turning into a free-for-all, news, as we used to know it, is corrupted by rumor, urban legend and outright cynical manipulation for fun and profit. As people become their own editors, which admittedly is well within their rights, they appear, sadly, to be navigating to superficial, trivial and base topics. In short, this may not be an uptick in our collective intellect.

Like it or not: The beauty (and slight terror) of the Internet beast is that it cannot be contained. It will grow inexorably, keystoke by keystroke, developing a "mind" of its own.

Just like Hal the computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey."


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