Blogs, Blogs Everywhere: From political commentaries to thoughts about hamburgers,weblogs have proliferated on the Web
The occasion was the 100th birthday of Strom Thurmond, the outgoing senator from South Carolina-and a man with a notorious past. Back in 1948, Thurmond had run for president as the leader of the States' Rights Democratic Party, known as the "Dixiecrats"-who opposed African-American civil rights and supported racial segregation. Thurmond won four states, including Mississippi. And now Mississippi Senator Trent Lott was paying his respects from the podium. "I want to say this about my state," Lott said. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
They were in inflammatory words. But if you looked at the news stories the next day, the words were overlooked. CNN, for example, reported that Thurmond "was honored by political luminaries and family members, serenaded by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and learned he would become a grandfather." The Associated Press noted that Thurmond was "cheered as his two sons and his daughter blew out candles on a red-white-and-blue cake" and that an Air Force Cargo plane would be called the "Spirit of Strom Thurmond."
When Lott's remarks did surface-ultimately forcing him to step down as Senate majority leader-the spotlight was cast by an unusual source: weblogs-also known as "blogs." Weblogs are online personal journals, short accounts of the daily life and random thoughts, maintained by one person or a group. The most recent entries typically go on top, and you can scroll down, like an archeologist digging through time, to read previous posts.
Diary keeping was once a private affair, although some authors, like Ann Frank and Samuel Pepys, have become famous. Weblogs are intentionally public with a potentially worldwide audience, and they have multiplied so quickly on the Web that no one can really keep track. Weblogs range from fascinating accounts by journalists to random musings by high school students. They deliver on one of the original promises of the Web-that anyone can be a "published" author, journalist, travel writer or poet, that publishing houses and editors are, if not obsolete, at least not the only game in town. For readers, blogs represent an alternative, uncensored source of information, a direct conduit between writers and their audiences.
For Lott-who had probably never heard of the genre-blogs were the beginning of his downfall. A few prominent weblogs cast light on his remarks. And many more bloggers chimed in. "If Lott didn't see the storm coming, it was in part because it was so slow in building," said CNN in a followup report. "The [news]papers did not make note of his comments until days after he had made them. But the stillness was broken by the hum of Internet 'bloggers' who were posting their outrage and compiling rap sheets of Lott's earlier comments. It took a few more days before Democrats denounced Lott and demanded a censure."
Knight-Ridder columnist Dan Gillmor wrote that "bloggers and their compatriots have demonstrated the growing power of their emerging medium. They represent a new kind of journalism and public activism, and what they accomplished in the Lott case was just one more example of a phenomenon others have already felt." Gillmor believes that Trent Lott's demise couldn't have happened 20 years ago. Back then, if newspapers and newscasts weren't covering a story, it would stay in oblivion. Until recently, journalism was a lecture; the information flowed in one direction. Now, it is becoming a conversation.
Dave Winer, whose Scripting News is the one of the longest running weblogs, was surprised how effective blogs had become. He thought they would matter first at the local level-affecting, say, a race for city mayor. "That weblogs would play a role in the toppling of a major US political leader, is growth from the top down, and it's happening very quickly," he wrote. "The medium is perfectly suited for this. All of a sudden punditry is open to everyone."
Everyone can be a pundit, and seemingly, everyone is. InstaPundit.
- Human Shields: The volunteers who flocked to defend Saddam from various places in the Arab world don't seem to be returning home now that the war is over. The suspicion is that most of them are dead. Those who have returned home report that they were surprised at the rather unenthusiastic response they received from actual Iraqis.
- Cosmetic Teeth: Just the other day I considered buying those "whitening strips" for my teeth. I mean, I can't very well walk around with yellowish teeth when everyone else in the world has a mouth full of white Chiclets.
- SARS: Can you please explain to me the hysteria surrounding "SARS"? Why is everyone and their mother not just talking about it, but worrying their heads off about it too?...
Now it's important to note that any death, no matter how it occurs, is tragic. But relative to other diseases, 326 deaths from SARS is not that significant... at all.
- Smoking women: This, my friends, is why smart single men always carry around a lighter. Because, if you run into an attractive lady who needs a light, you want to make sure you're a guy who can help. Later, after you've won her over, you can try and get her to quit....
- Hamburgers: No one goes to fast food joints to get a burger full of stuff that will fall out, and McDonald's is the only chain that has consistently understood this. There's no point in Wendy's, Burger King or A&W even having drive-thrus, because it's bloody fucking impossible to eat one of their behemoths while driving. In this way, the Quarter Pounder is a masterpiece.
Famous blogger, but was he real?
With so many blogs clogging the information highway, publishing your own is probably an exercise in obscurity. But some blogs are embraced and a few webloggers become media stars. That was the case for "Salam Pax," the pseudonym for a reportedly gay Iraqian architect. In the heated coverage of the U.
Pax's descriptions of Bagdad bombings put readers in the midst of a city under fire. "the all clear siren just went on," he wrote in on March 20th. The text looked as if it came from someone conversant in English, writing in haste:
"The bombing [could] come and go in waves, nothing too heavy and not yet comparable to what was going on in 91. all radio and TV stations are still on and while the air raid began the Iraqi TV was showing patriotic songs and didn't even bother to inform viewers that we are under attack. at the moment they are re-airing yesterday's interview with the minister of interior affairs. THe sounds of the anti-aircarft artillery is still louder than the booms and bangs which means that they are still far from where we live, but the images we saw on Al Arabia news channel showed a building burning near one of my aunts house, hotel pax was a good idea. we have two safe rooms one with 'international media' and the other with the Iraqi TV on. every body is waitingwaitingwaiting. phones are still ok, we called around the city a moment ago to check on friends. Information is what they need. Iraqi TV says nothing, shows nothing. what good are patriotic songs when bombs are dropping"
But even as Pax posted his urgent reports, some wondered: is he real? "Please stop sending emails asking if I were for real, don't belive it?, then don't read it.
It would be his final post. Ironically, Pax's dissapearance from the Web generated worldwide publicity. Like the rediscovered work of a dead artist, Pax's blog was more famous once the author had disappeared.
Was Salam Pax real? Even with the war over in Iraq, nobody knows. And that's the potential catch with blogs-particularly those maintained by anonymous individuals. The advantage of the traditional publishing apparatus is that editors and reporters vouch for their reports; they stake their publication's reputation on telling the truth. When reporters fabricate stories-as some occasionally do-good journalistic practice requires printing a retraction and apology on the front page and firing the offending party. But webloggers don't have that equity stake in maintaining a publication's reputation. Readers must judge the credibility of each blog for themselves.
Some blogs turn out to be pure fiction. The most infamous was purportedly kept by Kaycee Nicole, a student who for two years chronicled of her battle with leukemia before "dying" in May 2001. Nicole turned out to be the creation of Debbie Swenson, a 40-year-old Kansas mother. The UK's Guardian newspaper called Swenson's work "one of the most meticulous hoaxes the web has ever seen."
From techblogs to warblogs
As with the Internet itself, weblogs began primarily as a communications medium for technologists. That changed with 9/
These days, some blogs are starting to read like newspaper columns. And some newspaper writers have started to keep blogs. During the war in Iraq, for example, Jerusalem Post reporter Caroline B. Glick and St. Petersburg Times photographer John Pendygraft posted their experiences "embedded" with U.
The weblog format also works with news. John Paczkowski, who writes the Good Morning Silicon Valley weblog for Knight-Ridder's SiliconValley.
Good Morning Silicon Valley is loose and fast paced. But Paczkowski still thinks of himself as a member in good standing of the working press, holding himself to the same standards as any good reporter. "The flexibility comes not in reporting technique, but in voice-the tone of the writing. You still always have to have your facts straight." Indeed even the weblogs that specialize in commentary are interlaced with quotes from conventional news stories. Without conventional reporters doing their job, most weblogs would amount to nothing more than navel gazing.
Blog tools and the blog mesh
Simon Phipps, Sun Microsystems chief technology evangelist, says that much of the debate on politics, technology, and culture is actually happening in "meshes" of weblogs. "I read your weblog, I comment on it in my weblog, and point to your entry," he says. "You can get an excellent briefing on an issue by reading that mesh. You can also contribute to the national or international discussion on the topic by contributing to that mesh."
Phipps brought up weblogs in an interview for last months' Pacific Connection article on Web services. He says that blogs are actually the most prevalent Web services application, with Dave Winer's XML-RPC being used, rather than SOAP. The decision to do so came out of online conversations-and that, says Phipps, is the point. XML-PC's adoption as a standard came out of conversation between users. No company, no industry consortium, was involved.
The blogging tool Blogger, developed by Pyra Labs in 1999, was the first to implement XML-RPC in its API. Blogger is a essentially publishing service. You enter your latest thoughts to your Blogger account, and the results are uploaded to your weblog, maintaining your weblog's look and feel. Well known by people keeping weblogs, Blogger gained more attention last February when Google acquired Pyra Labs. The industry has been trying to figure out what the two companies are going to do together ever since. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has given some broad hints: "I believe that this notion of self-publishing, which is what Blogger and blogging are really about, is the next big wave of human communication," he said in an AlwaysOn interview. "The last big wave was Web activity. Before that one it was e-mail. Instant messaging was an extension of e-mail, real-time e-mail." Schmidt noted that for Google, the biggest asset of Pyra was not Blogger, but the development team that created it.
Others have speculated that Blogger could evolve into a Web information tracker, a way to arrange documents pulled by Google into a meaningful arrangement. Or Google could want to better track Blogger-created weblogs, or reach Blogger's community of weblog creators. I see it as yet another step in Google's move from search engine to portal, enabling it to compete with Yahoo!. Google already has a well-regarded news site and its shopping engine, Froogle, is currently in beta. Weblog publishing as an online service is an obvious addition. But maybe it just came down to a comment in the Blogger FAQ on the acquisition: "Google liked our logo. And we liked their food."
Other weblog software includes Movable Type, from Six Apart, Ltd., and Radio Userland, from Userland Software-both of which are hosted from the weblogger's own ISP. In April, Six Apart said it would go into direct competition with Blogger/
TypePad has gotten some good reviews. "The features are remarkable," wrote Ben Hammersley in The Guardian. "There is a very powerful, but extremely simple, template builder. Users can redesign their weblogs and create fully compliant XHTML pages....
Will Six Apart need to find an equally rich resource-it's own Google-to keep pace? Dash doesn't think so. "Weblogging software is a small community, and there's not a high degree of competition," he says. "Google is already searching in weblogs, and if they expand that, I'm sure we will participate."
Weblogs as Journalism: A conversation with Paul Grabowicz, the New Media Program Director at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Paul Grabowicz spent most of his career as an investigative reporter. At U.
How did you come up with the idea for your course?
We were meeting with online media and tech industry people over what we should be doing as a school to better cover the whole online sector. Weblogs came up in that meeting, along with copyright and intellectual property issues. The bottom line is that John Battelle [then a teaching fellow, now director of the school's business reporting program] and I decided to take on those issues, but do it as a weblog.
There were a lot of issues surrounding weblogs. Should journalists be doing them? If so, how much control should their publication exert? Does it get edited? Given that you're usually not doing formal research like a reporter would do, at what point do you post something? What standards do you apply? Our aim was to devise a class that took on the issue of copyrights, while at the same time puzzling out how to do that using the medium of a weblog. The fall 2002 class was a mix of journalism students, one from computer science, one from the law school, and several from the school of information management and systems, or "SIMS. They produced the Berkeley Intellectual Property Weblog, or bIPlog. It's been kept going, primarily by one of the students from SIMS. [see http://
What did you learn?
One thing we tackled was the whole editing problem. We decided that before any post could go live, at least one other person had to read it. The idea there was to vet the information, to make sure it is right.
So you introduced an editorial process into what is supposed to be a spontaneous, free-wheeling medium.
Yes, and I'm still not sure if that was the right decision. The idea was that, if we're going to be a journalism enterprise, it needed to be credible. We weren't just putting up whatever we had on our minds.
That has been one of the objections to blogs-that they aren't necessarily credible.
Yes, but one of the objections to journalism is that it is too vetted, that it's not a conversation, that it's too constrained and formal. We tried to strike a balance. And we also wrangled over a mission statement: what do we want this to be? What does the ideal posting look like? What are we aspiring to? That's still being debated. There are some people in journalism who argue that blogs should be more closely edited. There are others who say that editing drains the life out. I still don't know the answer.
With the proliferation of weblogs, will the focus grow so narrow that there's no audience left?
I think the danger is the reverse: of a weblog being too broad. The really good weblogs are those that reach a relatively narrow audience, but an audience that really cares about a topic. That's not to say the others don't have their place, but the noise ratio is a lot higher on the broadly focused weblogs.
Did the Iraq war represent another turning point, the way 9/
The war gave weblogs more prominence; news media paid more attention to them. Some news organizations adopted them. CNN had a reporter doing a weblog and then apparently decided it was interfering with his other duties and it was suspended. But the BBC has been doing it. I think all this activity further established weblogs as part of the mix.
Are weblogs becoming an underground resource for journalists, or are readers pushing journalists to cover what they read in weblogs?
Both. It's not like all journalists are paying attention to weblogs, or that everybody is jumping on a weblog in order to force mainstream media to pay attention. Frankly, within the weblog community, there are probably many people who couldn't care less what the mainstream media is or isn't doing. But yes, there is an interplay going on. Journalists, particularly tech journalists, are paying more and more attention to weblogs. I think a significant portion of the webloggers view that medium as a way to force, if not the media, then certainly the public, to pay attention to particular issues that they view as not getting enough attention.
Have non-political weblogs also had an impact?
Certainly in the technology sector. In the media sector, I can't think of anything that journalists pay more attention to than the Romenesko weblog [maintained by Jim Romenesko, for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school for journalists]. There are group weblogs like MetaFilter, that have actually started doing news reporting. When a topic comes up, one person will go check public records, another will check archives, another will do a web search, another will make a call. They've been advancing stories that way. The hoax of the young girl dying of leukemia was actually exposed on weblogs. Metafilter, especially, went after that story. [See www.
I assume you're not predicting the demise of The New York Times.
No, not by any means, but there's something significant going on here. Weblogs aren't just restricting themselves to commentary. Some are starting to do reporting. Journalists go to people for most of the knowledge that we put into a newspaper or on a television broadcast. Well, now those people we go to have their own way of coming together, and that's what you're seeing. I don't want to exaggerate this, but it's fascinating. To me the trick is trying to figure out how the media can interact with that community. Not take it over, but also not shun it.