B Y  R U S S  W I L L C U T T

It’s a world that’s somewhat stark, consisting of circuitry connected by cables, yet it teems with life. The “blogosphere” is populated with online citizens worldwide, all chiming in with blog—short for “Web log”—entries expounding on everything from the author’s favorite restaurants in Shanghai, to whether a Berlin band’s new CD actually lives up to the hype, to opinions about political platforms, activities, and rumors in the United States. But what real purpose do these millions of blogs actually serve, and what does their popularity say about the current state of professional journalism?

“I think the bottom line is that we’re no longer passive consumers of information,” says UAB communications expert Jonathan Amsbary, Ph.D. “Those days are gone—dead and buried—and anyone who wants to can now be a player instead of just sitting on the sidelines.”

Pipeline Opinions

Still, this newfound freedom can lead to some pretty strange games, Amsbary goes on to say. “In many ways, these blogs are bringing about a sense of democracy that people have never really experienced before. But with this ability to weigh in on every conceivable topic comes an awful lot of noise, and the reader has to do a little extra work to separate the legitimate information from the static.”

Part of that static has to do with the form blogs tend to take: a more off-the-cuff, conversational, sometimes profane presentation than is found in traditional media such as newspapers. “That’s because the editor has been removed from the process,” Amsbary says. “When you read a news feature or a magazine article, what you’re seeing is the result of the combined efforts of the writer and a whole host of editors, researchers, and fact checkers. But that’s not happening with a blog, which usually goes from the writer’s keyboard straight to the Web.”

That’s not to say that editing of some sort doesn’t occur; it’s just that in this case it’s handled by the blog’s audience. “There’s this real-time community of millions of computer-literate people who can do their own searches and check the accuracy of whatever’s been written and post their responses almost immediately,” Amsbary explains. “So even though the professional editors and fact-checkers have been taken out of the loop, this self-correcting function represents a new kind of editorial process.”

While Amsbary sees the utility in certain types of blogs—“it was helpful to read what people had to say about different camcorders when I was looking for one last Christmas”—he points out some inherent downsides as well. “I think the biggest danger is that people are reading blogs that support the way they already feel about things, especially if we’re talking about politics,” he says. “So blogs sometimes tend to solidify differences rather than creating any sort of meaningful dialogue between members of various parties. Blogs can be divisive, in fact, if that’s the only way they’re being used.”

Consider the Source

Mind-Blogging Numbers

Blogs range from the very personal to the very public—from a runner’s chronicles of her marathon training to major hot-button issues at both ends of the political spectrum. Some are password-protected—meant to be seen by only a small group of invited guests—and others are read by millions every day. Some blogs have been around for 10 years and are ongoing; others are created especially for weddings, births, and other finite events that limit the life of the blog. Sometimes, a person will even sign onto one of the major free blog software providers, such as Blogger or LiveJournal, and create a blog but never post to it. Because of these variations, strict definitions of what is or is not a blog can be hard to develop, and counting the number of existing “true” blogs is even more difficult.

One company, Technorati, which indexes blogs, stated in February 2006 that it was tracking 27.2 million Web logs. The blogosphere as they define it is doubling every 5.5 months, and it’s now more than 60 times bigger than it was three years ago. They say that about 2.7 million bloggers update their blogs at least weekly. Currently the sites they track are updated 1.2 million times each day, which means that bloggers are making 50,000 posts every hour. As Technorati CEO Dave Sifry wrote in his State of the Blogosphere this February: “It is literally impossible to read everything that is relevant to an issue or subject, and a new challenge has presented itself—how to make sense out of this monstrous conversation, and how to find the most interesting and authoritative information out there.”

Larry Powell, Ph.D., agrees, adding that this divisiveness can be more intentional than one might realize. A self-described “political observer” and chair of the Department of Communication Studies, Powell says that the style in which political blogs are written, and the speed with which new postings appear, can lead readers to believe that the content is spontaneous and fresh when that’s not always the case. “Especially during campaigns, the Republicans and Democrats alike will distribute talking points to all of the major political bloggers each morning with the hope that the information will be picked up and spread by other blog sites,” he says. “In that way, the blogger sometimes becomes an extension of the party’s PR campaign.”

At the same time, due to their sheer numbers, bloggers can actually be a boon to the newsgathering process. “The blogs will seize on stories that the major networks didn’t see as being newsworthy or didn’t have the resources to pursue,” Powell says. “A perfect case in point would be the imbroglio at CBS concerning the possible falsification of documents that they used in their reporting regarding the president’s military service. The reporters didn’t question the fonts, but the bloggers did, so that revelation was entirely the bloggers’ doing.”

Such revelations may eventually be the undoing of network news, according to Channing Ford, a UAB graduate student whose master’s thesis examined the effects of blogging on traditional journalism. “I really can’t stand to watch newscasts anymore,” says Ford, who earned her master’s degree this spring. “With all of the scandals that have occurred in recent years, you can’t consider a reporter’s affiliation with a major newspaper or network to be the official seal of authenticity it once was. It’s also easier to go to the Internet to learn about breaking news, where you don’t have to hear about what Britney’s up to before you get to the real story.”

Ford’s reaction to the way news is currently reported helps explain why blogs have caught fire. “When you read a blog, the writer will usually say ‘Hey, this is just my opinion. I could be wrong, and you can go here if you want to read what other people are saying.’ Then they’ll provide a couple of links that you can follow,” she says. “And I tend to trust that more than having to remember to read the ‘corrections’ section in a newspaper a couple of days after the story has appeared. Even if bloggers aren’t academically trained journalists, if they’ve done the legwork required to post a good story, then they deserve whatever credit they get.”

Transforming Traditions

Go online to any major newspaper’s Web site and you’ll find that blogs have been incorporated into its presentation. Powell foresees a day when this will evolve into standard practice—a two-tiered system in which news is reported traditionally at one level and blogs provide commentary at another. He gives a quick example of just how powerful blogs have already become: “In the 2000 presidential election, newspapers were keeping an eye on their own Web sites for breaking news,” he says, “but in 2004—along with the broadcast reporters—they were monitoring the bloggers.”

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