Blogs have become so influential in our society that 2004 was dubbed “the Year of the Blog.” These often wildly discursive forms of communication figured prominently during the Iraq war, the presidential election and the tsunami disaster, and continue to be a factor in our lives today. “For millions of critics, activists, watchdogs, partisans and just plain opinionated folks, online commentary is a way of drawing an audience,” writes Howard Kurtz, B.A. ’74, media critic for the Washington Post, in a recent column entitled “Throw Another Blog on the Fire.”
There is no sure definition of a blog (short for weblog), but it tends to be a Web site with some common characteristics: short entries listed in reverse chronological order, a set of links to other blogs and often an ability to comment on each item. One would think that, as more and more people become interested in blogs, the definition would become more stable. The truth, however, is that the “bloggy” way of doing things is increasingly leaking into other parts of the Web, making a definition difficult.
Why create a blog in the first place? Many people feel that the greatest advantage of blogging is the ability to meet like-minded people and exchange ideas, as you might do when you hang out at a bar or a coffeehouse. And, in the end, there are as many reasons to blog as there are bloggers. However, it is a great mistake to assume that the millions of “bloggers” out there constitute some kind of cohesive whole, or share a common set of goals.
According to a recent Pew study, more than a quarter of Americans who use the Internet say they read blogs, and that number is continuing to grow quite rapidly. The number of people who write for blogs is growing much more slowly, however. Just like any kind of writing, it seems not to have a universal appeal. While there are bloggers across a wide spectrum, the average blogger in the U.S. tends to be slightly skewed toward those who are urban males, 30 and younger, with higher incomes, better education and more Internet experience. Blog readers also are slightly skewed in the same directions, though they tend to be closer to mainstream America. It is a bit more difficult to know how this translates around the world, though it is clear there are substantial cultural differences in how blogs are used.
And while some individuals make a lot of money in blogging, the vast majority does not and engages in it for extremely varied reasons. In some cases, it may replace other kinds of writing: keeping a diary or a research journal, for example. In many cases, it is a way of keeping in touch with family, friends and colleagues in a public and non-demanding way. It is also a more effective, economically viable and socially acceptable way of espousing one’s own views than, say, publishing pamphlets or speaking on street corners.
Beyond the realm of personal interest, many of these new technologies—blogging, “wikis” (Web sites that may be collectively edited by their users) and other social software—are providing for new forms of scholarly communication and collaboration. Scholars are already engaged in the process of communicating discoveries and knowledge to a wide audience. As a result, participating in these blogging networks is fostering a new form of public intellectualism and is helping to build bridges from the ivory tower to the wider world. Just as important, it extends the kinds of global networks that scholars already have. At UB, for example, researchers in the School of Informatics have undertaken a long-term research project to study how information from blogs produced in specific American urban areas reflect the political agendas, opinions, attitudes and cultural idiosyncrasies of the general population of these regions.
As for the impact of blogs on news gathering, traditional news media have always been better at reporting the facts than they are at making sense of them. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but generally the globalization of media has made that interpretive role even more difficult. I think blogs satisfy an important need for readers and exist in a symbiotic relationship with news media.
I believe we will see some changes in how news is gathered and delivered, precisely because of the pervasive influence of this new form of discussing ideas. Blogging will, I think, tend to make the actions of corporations and governments more transparent. This will introduce new tensions, as organizations that traditionally have relied on obscurity will need to actively reshape which parts of their work are public, and which parts they believe should remain private.
Many have wondered if blogging is a passing trend or the future of communication. In my opinion, it has become clear that it is the latter. I suspect the word “blog” may not even be with us in two or three years, but the practices, processes and tools that blogging has already spawned will be with us for some time. Indeed, if you want to know what the future of the Internet looks like, look to the bloggers among us.