They're hip. Influential. Out there. By one estimate, there are 2 million of them posted on the Internet around the world talking about everything from knitting patterns to the war in Iraq. But as blogs - or personal weblogs - move into the limelight, they're also coming under closer scrutiny. And the conclusions are in some ways sobering.
Except for a tiny number of blogs that have gained prominence, all this techno-chattiness remains just that: an immature form of communication that has yet to gain traction with the general public, experts say. Most are moldering in cyberspace, updated only sporadically or abandoned completely. But out of this fervid experimentation are coming some new forms of communication that are already influencing public discourse.
Take politics. David Winer says weblogs are going to play a huge role in politics. But all the buzz about politicians using them is overblown. The blog of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was just a "gimmick," says Mr. Winer, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and a pioneer blogger. And any blogs produced this year by President Bush or John Kerry will be "basically run by the ad agencies" - not the kind of honest, even intimate conversations that blogs can represent.
Here's his vision of how real "blogging" by a politician could work. A candidate for city council, for example, would write an ongoing blog to his potential constituents explaining his positions on issues. They could read his pitch and offer feedback, creating a kind of political dialogue that would be "based on substance more than sound bites," he says.
Visionaries such as Winer hope that this is the emerging world of blogs, a place where serious and substantial ideas can be shared. This Saturday he'll host BloggerCon II, a conference at Harvard Law School for both new and veteran bloggers.
In keeping with the egalitarian nature of blogs, no expert panels will speak: Moderators will encourage everyone to share ideas. Among the subjects tackled will be the role blogs may play in the future of politics, academia, business - and especially journalism. ("Are we journalists?" some bloggers ask.)
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