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Communications of the ACM

The blogosphere

Introduction


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A blogger needs only a computer, Internet access, and an opinion. It also helps to have a personal obsession and total confidence in your own voice. In need of someone else's opinion, the options are equally open ended.

Less than 10 years ago, practically all media was still a one-way street. Then early self-published online journals, or Weblogs, began to let bloggers bypass the corporate media gatekeepers to say and show practically anything they could think of to tens of millions of computer users around the world. Having to please no one but themselves, these bloggers began enthusiastically linking and cross-linking to and referencing one another's sites and commentaries. These links drove development of blog technology, as well as user curiosity and ultimately creation of the worldwide blogosphere. In contrast, today's generation of bloggers mainly wants to be heard or seeninstantly, throughout the Interneteven as they tend to ignore everything else.

Weblog-tracking company Technorati, Inc., reports almost 4.2 million Weblogs worldwide as of October 2004, up from about one million a year earlier. And a 2003 Pew/Internet survey estimated that more than 53 American adults, or 44% of Internet users, had used the Internet to publish their thoughts, respond to others, post pictures, share files, and otherwise contribute to the content available online.

Millions of bloggers routinely share whatever personal detail comes to mind, generally for a small circle of family members and friends. However, a growing number of public-spirited blogs has also emerged to amplify the voices of politicians, pundits, scholars, researchers, and journalists. Even as their comments arouse controversy and skepticism, they've added depth to the way the related issues are discussed and reported, especially by the traditional mass-market media. For example, bloggers broke several major news stories during the just-concluded political season in the U.S., including those involving Iraqi prisoner abuse and the questionable validity of the documents CBS News used to describe George W. Bush's service in the National Guard.

Blogging has also been turned into a powerful tool for establishing and maintaining online communities. The research disciplines are especially well covered, from multimedia networking standards to bicycle engineering, from processor thermal design guidelines to seismic design in architecture. Businesses have also learned to embrace blogs when, say, promoting a new product or mounting a public defense in the wake of bad news about faulty products or falling stock prices. Blogs have also linked up with entertainment, from celebrity gossip to Martha Stewart's legal troubles to whether Pedro Martinez should be a Yankee.


Sunstein warns that even though it's easier than ever to create our own personal echo chambers, we risk confining ourselves to information that only reinforces what we already believe.


Once exotic blogging technology is also part of mainstream social communications. A commercial market has emerged to supply instant fill-in-the-blanks blog pages and other blog-editing and -broadcasting software. It's cheap, and some blog sites even host bloggers for free. As easy to use as a word processing program, the technology spares users from the tedious process of hand-coding their postings and links. Anyone can be up and blogging in minutes.

All this activity, along with the steady growth of the blogosphere, prompted the authors in this special section to investigate blogger motivations, affiliations, patterns of behavior, software development, and social implications. Ravi Kumar et al. analyzed more than one million bloggers and the individual entries of some 25,000 blogs to chart community structure and patterns of blogger activity. They also analyzed bloggers' personal interests, demographics, and worldwide geographic distribution. Their data indicates increasing community-oriented (bursts of) activity involving links and cross-links among postings and discussions.

Bonnie Nardi et al. weighed blogging as a form of personal communication and expression (through an ethnographic investigation of bloggers and their blogs), identifying five main blogging motivations: documenting one's life; providing commentary and opinions; working out emotional issues; thinking by writing; and promoting conversation and community.

To enable his own research community to manage its collective knowledge (in the form of snippets of information), Steve Cayzer found regular blogging tools inadequate for the necessary filtering, sorting, and navigating through the blogosphere. But he did find that they could be adapted into what he calls "semantic blogging," or a combination of the desirable features of both blogging and the Semantic Web's framework for sharing and reusing data across applications, enterprises, and communities. He now urges blog software developers to let users store snippets in accessible knowledge repositories. Blog entries, he says, could then facilitate the linking of semantic blog output with other snippet data sources.

Rebecca Blood, who's been blogging about and linking to anything and anybody she finds worthwhile since 1999 (at Rebecca's Pocket, www.rebeccablood.net), chronicles the evolution of Weblog technology through the lens of her personal experience. Even as commercial blog software allows the new generation of bloggers to instantly post commentaries and share personal interests, she says they view searching the Web for links as a nuisance, upending blogging's original motivation. Still hand-coding everything on her own site, Blood is loathe to fill in text boxes and laments that using HTML to routinely construct links is a dying art.

In the final article, Cass R. Sunstein warns that although it's easier than ever to create our own personal echo chambers, we risk confining ourselves to information that only reinforces what we already believe. Internet users can readily ignore noise, topics, opinions, points of view, even facts they find irritating. Filtering is thus a mixed blessing for democracy. Being exposed to new topics, chance encounters, and contrary opinions is, he says, central to democracy and even to freedom itself.

While the blogosphere dramatically increases individual control over content (Blood calls it "participatory democracy"), it dramatically decreases the power and authority of the traditional general-interest intermediaries, notably newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. However, although we may share Sunstein's concern about shutting ourselves off from the public sphere, we may take heart from the way Weblogs are influencing traditional media, adding irreverent wit, skepticism, and a challenge to real-world attitudes and events. Even as Weblogs increasingly try to deliver information and opinions like traditional media (see www.slate.com and www.drudge.com), traditional media increasingly try to deliver like Weblogs (see www.nytimes.com). For the reader and the blogger alike, it's still a matter of credibility, trust, and reputation.

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Author

Andrew Rosenbloom (rosenbloom@acm.org) is the senior editor of Communications.


©2004 ACM  0001-0782/04/1200  $5.00

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