Weblogs and Their Influence
Weblogs have developed from a personal hobby and an Internet specialist niche to an important contemporary mainstream communications phenomenon. Weblogs or blogs have entered into almost every sphere of communications and knowledge sourcing. While blogging is relatively easy to explain in terms of the mechanics of its functioning, it is much more difficult to understand in terms of the implications and potential for development; particularly with regard to the fields of politics, journalism, academic research and education.
One of the essential functions of Weblogs is to filter the masses of online information, which is growing at an exponential rate. This is a crucial aspect as, through technology such as RSS syndication, the user can selectively access and edit large amounts of information from thousands of formal and informal sources. RSS and news reading software is one of the latest developments in the Weblog field and are aspects that will be discussed in this paper.
However this is not the only advantage to Weblogs and blogging. Both online commerce and journalism are being affected and changed by the proliferation of Weblogs and the recent sophistication of Weblogging software.
Weblogs also provide a unique way of communicating and networking over the Internet, which is proving to be highly successful. Weblogs are also starting to make their influence felt in the world of online commerce and corporate business as well as in journalism. Blogs allow for the all-important element of self-expression and self-publishing in an organized, linked and syndicated environment.
( Smith G.B. 2004)
Those critics who predicted that blogs would be a sporadic fad that would be absorbed by Internet chat groups and peer-to-peer networks, have been proven wrong. One of the indications of the increasing importance and the potential that Weblogs have today is the recent purchase by Google of Pyra Labs’ Weblog tool Blogger. Furthermore, “An indication of the competitive activity surrounding Weblog technology can also be seen in the launch of by Six Apart, which sells the popular Weblog tool Movable Type, in answer to Google’s initiatives.” ( ibid) There are other signs that Weblogs are becoming more mainstream; for example, the new Blogs at Harvard Initiative. Criticism that blogs are too numerous and without much relevant ‘rich’ data and content, is being countered by recent improvements in Weblog software and filtering systems. Another indication is the recent signs of the incorporation of Weblogs as acceptable media in journalism and the academic research environment. Technology such as RSS also aids this process.
The number of Weblogs online has escalated dramatically in the last year. This escalation can also been measured in the higher readership numbers.
Pyra Labs, which publishes the Web-based editing tool, Blogger, has registered 3,000 new users since its launch late last year. According to the company, subscriptions are growing at a rate of 30% a month. (Smith, G. 2004)
There are a number of factors that have created the environment for this upsurge on blogging activity. Among the most important is spam mail. Another is the increase in Web speed, broadband and downloads times on the Internet in general. Another crucial factor in understanding the impact of Weblogs is the user-friendly and largely free software that has recently been offered for both Weblog creation and maintenance.
A definition of Weblogs and blogging is essential if the precise impact and influence of this technology is to be understood. The following is a brief overall explanation.
In short, Weblogs are regularly updated sites that contain lists of links, commentary and other elements such as online articles, images and media. While this description may seem similar to any interactive website, the difference is that Weblogs are designed for quick and easy access via links to in-depth information and commentary on certain topics. They also allow for a sense of personality and individual style that comes through in the reading of the various entries on an effective Weblog. It’s a tour of specified topics; each guide or Blogger develops an audience for his or her particular insights, style and sense of humor. Significantly, Weblogs are often linked to one another and act as a network of information and information sharing.
The above extract points to a number of important facts. Firstly, that Weblogs are similar but much more effective than ordinary Web pages. Secondly, that they also facilitate a personal style and character which fosters creativity; and thirdly that they are intensely interactive and allow for various forms of communication and online input to further immediate discussion.
Userland software, a main player in the Weblog industry, has this succinct definition of a Weblog. “A Weblog is a personal Website that allows you to easily publish a wide variety of content to the Web. You can publish written essays, annotated links, documents (Word, PDF, and PowerPoint files), graphics and multimedia. ” ( ibid) A central aspect of modern Weblogs and a factor that has been important in the increase of the usage and popularity of blogs, is that Weblogs do not require e extensive or in-depth technical knowledge on the part of the user. Another aspect is the ability to manage entries according to time.
One of the central issues that have emerged in recent months is the contention that Weblogs combined with RSS technology may be a viable challenger and even an alternative to email. ” “Weblogs go beyond e-mail. While e-mail is great for one-to-one interaction, it fails at one-to-many communication. Also, e-mail systems don’t organize information for you; while you can categorize e-mail you receive, e-mail doesn’t provide you with the context of the message like Weblogs can.” ( ibid)
There are also aspects to Weblogs that can possibly been seen in a more negative and critical light. One of these is that in to be effective any Weblog has to be continually updated. If Weblogs are not maintained on a daily basis they become repositories of old information. A part of the value and impact of Weblogs lies in their immediacy and the way in which they can provide instant information and discussion on various topical issues much more quickly and effectively than traditional media. This has been an influential facet for the development of online journalism. An example is the recent Iraqi conflict, where Weblogs or “warblogs” provided in-depth information and commentary long before the mainstream media could assimilate and edit reports.” In fact many journalists were scanning the Weblogs each day to find data and links for their stories during the war. Weblogs are also a new publishing phenomenon. With no editors to worry about, the Weblogs can express ideas and views quickly and freely.” ( Smith G. Weblogs. 2004 )
In actuality Weblogs, defined as extended and modified Web pages, are not a new phenomenon. They are newer and more competent versions of some of the oldest Web sites which produced commentary and lists of links to areas of similar interest. However, Weblogs have become more accessible and there is a growing list of services and applications that allow easy Blogging.
But blogs aren’t as new as you may think. They have actually been around since the early days of the Internet. In the strictest sense, a blog is someone’s online record of the Web sites he or she visits. Today’s blogs, of course, are much more than that. In 1999 there were dozens of blogs. Now there are millions. (Jensen 22)
In terms of this view the first Weblog was the website created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (info.cern.ch/). The content of the site has been archived at the World Wide Web Consortium. There were a number of well-known Weblogs that directed the visitor to other sites of news and interest. These included NCSA’s What’s New, and Netscape’s What’s New page (1993-96). The Weblog idea progressed from these initial concepts. Some early Weblogs that are still popular are Robot Wisdom, Tomalak’s Realm and CamWorld.
The term Weblog was created by Jorn Barger in December 1997. In relation to the contemporary view of a Weblog, there were only a few active on the Web in 1998. (Blood R. 2000) and at the beginning of 1999 there were only 23 bone fide Weblogs online. ( ibid ) The real development of Weblogs as an accessible medium for Web users begins correctly with Pitas.com. This was the first tool for do-it yourself blogging that was developed by Andrew Smales, a programmer in Toronto in July 1999. (Jensen 22)
Smales, twenty-nine, sort of blundered into blogging as he was developing software that would allow him to more easily update his personal Web site and also facilitate the “online diary community” he envisioned. Personal sites such as his aren’t listed prominently on Internet search engines, and Smales thought it would be “cool if I could just click around to read what other people were saying,” rather than surf blindly for their sites. ( ibid)
This eventually developed into the diary software that was to become the foundation of the blogging community. Pyra labs then released Blogger. The initial software produced was the prototype for subsequent developments. This early period was followed by the creation of Diaryland, which has grown in sophistication since the early years. Of course, the name Blogger.com is synonymous with the growth and popularity of Weblogs. Part of the reason for the success of Blogger.com is that users can store to archive the blogs on their own servers rarer than remote sites; which led for personalized web addresses.
Therefore the history of Blogging is intricately related to various aspects of the growth of the Web and Internet itself. Blogging can be seen as a natural development and response to the organic development of the Web, and not an artificial imposition from outside. This fact bodes well for the future of blogging in that blogging continues to express a dynamic and innate process. With the help of user-friendly and inexpensive software, Weblogs are in the process of establishing their presence on the Internet and developing their own specific character and sense of community. This sense of community is also an important aspect to consider in the cultural and social impact of Weblogging. This is a complex area and involves many variables. One of these is the development of Weblog ‘personalities.”
Cults of personality sprung up as new blogs appeared, certain names appearing over and over in daily entries or listed in the obligatory sidebar of “other weblogs” It was, and is, fascinating to see new bloggers position themselves in this community, referencing and reacting to those blogs they read most, their sidebar an affirmation of the tribe to which they wish to belong.
( Blood R.)
3. The impact of Weblogs
Weblogs have had a profound and often controversial affect on Journalism. One of the central reasons for this impact is that Weblogs are not subject to the “biases or hidden valences of editors or media corporates.” ( Smith G. 2004) Some experts even claim that Weblogs are slowly replacing conventional forms of journalism. Not only do Weblogs provide an unparalleled sense of immediacy but they are also highly interactive; that is they can initiate discussion and comment. This is a new phenomenon where reader response can be immediately added to an incorporated into journalistic activity. This reciprocity and sharing of opinions and data is one of the aspects that make Weblogs such a valuable journalistic tool. Weblog guru David Winer states that “people now get the information from each other and for each other using Weblogs.” ( ibid) Another factor is that “The popularity of Weblog news is also related to the mistrust that many have for established media reporting.” ( ibid) Weblogs are often seen as more ‘trustworthy’ and less influenced by company or corporate bias or policy.
There are many examples of the immediacy of Weblog journalism. One of the latest and most controversial is Weblogs from the Iraq War. These blogs provide uncensored and subjective insight into the war that cannot be achieved through more linear and time consuming traditional formats. For example, the Weblog Baghdad Burning was, and still is, a blog that reports on the life in Baghdad under siege. The blog entries are intensely descriptive and personal and attempt to convey a truthful subjective impression of events from within the heart of conflict. Other similar blogs include the Command Post, and the now famous description of day-to-day conditions in Baghdad by “Salam Pax.” There are also numerous ” warblogs” by U.S. soldiers in the field, which have also raised a certain amount of controversy. These Weblogs and many others provide information to mainstream journalist which would have been difficult to obtain previously.
Blogging has the advantage of broadening and extending the world of printed opinion and disseminating these opinions immediately. On the other hand blogs are also a challenge to traditional corporate and established interests and methods of journalism, in that they allow anyone to break the news. In other words, there is no need for a filtering system of facts and methods, or the intrusion of possible editorial bias. One of the better known examples of this is the breaking of the news of the Clinton scandal. This news was not first published by a major news corporation but by Matt Drudge whose Weblog The Drudge Report offered news about the link between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. His journalistic style is an example of the potential that Weblogs can offer, “He would do reporting and find stories that other news outlets either didn’t have or wouldn’t run. And after he published them, the traditional press would often be forced to play catch-up. “( Last J.V. 2002)
Another very important way in which Weblogs assist journalistic praxis is through fact checking. “Armed with research tools such as Nexis and Google, the average blogger is perfectly capable of uncovering errors in the mainstream press.” ( ibid) For example, without bloggers, the debunking of Michael Bellesiles’s “Arming America” might not have been possible. ( ibid)
There are two opposing schools of thought in Journalism at present with regard to the increase in Weblogging. On the one hand, the more traditional view is that uncensored news means unverified news and therefore blogging is doing Journalism a disservice. Critics point to the fact that blogs often lead to unverified and contentious news that can have a negative affect on the professionalism of Journalism. “For one thing, the blog encourages instantaneous reaction, not serious reflection. And for another, it often degenerates into daisy-chain navel gazing.” ( ibid)
On the other hand many journalists welcome blogging, not only as a very useful tool that can used in acquiring and disseminating information, but also in that it expands the horizons and potential of journalism. Many journalists are in favor of Weblogs which undercut the sometimes unwelcome intrusion of editors and corporate bias into the journalistic process. As managing editor Scott Rosenberg stated in Salon: “Weblogs expand the media universe. They are a media life form that is native to the Web, and they add something new to our mix, something valuable, and something that couldn’t have existed before the Web.” (Lasica p.70) Added to this is the comment made by Walter Mossberg in his Wall Street Journal technology column. “The good thing about them is that they introduce fresh voices into the national discourse on various topics and help build communities of interest through their collections of links.” (ibid)
Thinking about the impact on blogs in terms of journalism, media and publishing has prompted discussion of a “new media ecosystem.” This concept suggests that the barriers between established ideas of journalism and publishing and various activities such as Weblogs and Internet networking are set to collapse as we enter into new phase of media interaction and innovation.
Seen in this light, Weblogs should not be considered in isolation but as part of an emerging new media ecosystem — a network of ideas. No one should expect a complete, unvarnished encapsulation of a story or idea at any one Weblog. In such a community, bloggers discuss, dissect and extend the stories created by mainstream media. These communities also produce participatory journalism, grassroots reporting, annotative reporting, commentary and fact-checking, which the mainstream media feed upon, developing them as a pool of tips, sources and story ideas. The relationship is symbiotic. ( ibid)
The potential impact of Weblogs on journalism was felt during the Iraq war where mainstream journalist found that they were in fact relying on news gathering by Weblogs as an important aspect of their research. This was particularly the case with the Weblog The Command Post, which provided news that was updated by the minute. As one journalist states, ” … everyone in the newsroom was hitting “refresh” on the Command Post every few minutes to find the latest news.” (Reynolds 59) The fact that high profile readers such as professional journalist are reading and watching Weblogs also raises their potential as an important part of the journalistic process.
Possibly one of the central areas of journalism that has already been affected by Weblogs is transparency in reportage. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book The Elements of Journalism that,
“Journalists must invite their audience into the process by which they produce the news … This sort of approach is, in effect, the beginning of a new kind of connection between the journalist and the citizen. It is one in which individuals in the audience are given a chance to judge the principles by which the journalists do their work. ” ( ibid)
Weblogs provide an invaluable service in this respect, as many journalists provide access to the background information and raw material behind the stories in their Weblogs. This provides a sense of authenticity and also an opportunity for the journalist to receive feedback and comment on his reportage. This points to a crucial development in the relationship between journalism and the Internet; namely the increasing demand of the reader to be an integral part of the news process. “Journalism is undergoing a quiet revolution, whether it knows it or not. Readers will always turn to traditional news sites as trusted, reliable sources of news and information — that won’t change. But the walls are cracking. The readers want to be a part of the news process. (Lasica p. 70)
As can be deduced for the above discussion, the power of the Weblog and the process of blogging can have a far-reaching impact on various other fields related to the media. A field that is intimately related to news and media is politics. Blogging has had both a negative and a positive impact on politics – depending on one’s point-of-view. For example, “Bloggers have been credited with helping to topple Trent Lott and Howell Raines, with inflaming debate over the Iraq war, and with boosting presidential hopeful Howard Dean.” (Jensen Mallory, 2003) More recently Weblogs played a role in discussion and opinion forming in the British election on May 5. These Weblogs also interrogated Prime Minster Blair’s alleged media manipulation of the Iraq war.
The use of Weblogs for election campaign purposes abound and were used extensively in the last U.S. election to garner support and to reveal “truths” about opponents. By their discursive and opinion forming potential, as has been seen in the example of the Drudge Report, Weblogs can have a devastating effect in that they can interrogate political propaganda and assumptions that would otherwise be accepted by the public at large. A good example of this is that the issue of President Bush’s National Guard Service which was highlighted by numerous bloggers. They interrogated and analyzed the material relating to this topic and pointed out font differences in the documents and thus raised questions about their authenticity. (The Shape of Days) This Weblogging also led to “Rathergate,” forcing an apology from CBS News anchor Dan Rather for use of questionable documents in his report on President Bush National Guard service.
However the true potential impact of Weblogs is not only that they investigate and raise questions but rather that, by the sheer weight of numbers and intelligent investigative writing, they can force change in political perceptions and policy. Weblogs have therefore the potential to change politics in the real world.
Business and large corporations are also beginning to pay attention to the potential that Weblogs have to offer. As Wayne Hurlbert states, “There are so many benefits to be gained from a business blogs that having one as part of a website will soon be standard operating procedure.” ( Hurlbert, W. 2005) One of the important aspects in modern business practice that coincides with the potential of Weblogs is relationship marketing. Simply put, this means that business, and particularly online ecommerce, is beginning to realize that building client relationships is an essential part of modern business. In this regard Weblogs provide an excellent area for creating and maintaining client relationships. “Instead of simply offering company information, an online brochure, and shopping cart to check out the purchases, a business blog builds a relationship with current and potential customers and clients.” ( ibid) Hurlbert describes the advantages of this process. “By activating the blog comments, and openly displaying e-mail and other contact information on the blog, the writer invites feedback. That openly sought response develops a conversation between the business blogger and the reader.” ( ibid)
A sign of the increasing power of the blog is evidenced by the fact that large corporations are sitting up and taking notice. Corporations are even starting to monitor Weblogs to ascertain how their brands are being received.
The sites that started as observational home pages for enthusiasts have become so powerful that they are starting a new industry of blog monitoring in which media companies scour the net to advise brands on how their name is being talked about online, away from the traditional newspaper and broadcast media sites.
(The blog busters)
Business leaders are also aware of the importance of the new medium. Bill Gates has even launched his own Weblog at www.microsoft.com/billgates. There are numerous large non-computer related companies that are making use of Weblogs and the potential that they present for communication and marketing. For example, Olympus has created a new marketing strategy to incorporate the medium. When a new camera is about to be launched this information is passed onto various popular Weblogs. This is a strategy to get interest ahead of the launch as well as a way of obtaining feedback about the product. ( ibid)
The aspect of Weblogs that is appealing to big business is that it is an interactive and communicative medium. It is therefore a way finding out what the public thinks about a product. This fact has been realized by the Ford Company. Ford makes use of a Weblog searching service which can finds comments and reviews about their products. This is another sign of the seriousness with which business is taking the Weblog medium. The incentives and importance of blogging for the larger business community is spelt out in the following quotation.
Corporations need to pay attention to this online commentary as well as engage in a one-to-one dialogue with its ‘authors.’ We see an opportunity to create a new kind of service that helps companies listen, prepare and manage issues — as well as their overall reputation — in this emerging era of citizen’s media.”
(CooperKatz Launches New Service to Help Corporations )
This was the underlying reason for the recent launch of a service by CooperKatz & Company, a New York City public relations firm, to help corporations monitor, analyze and respond to the development in the Weblogging world.
Many companies and corporations have also started their own Weblogs in an effort to collect and galvanize their resources both internally and externally.
In some corporations, blogs are already being created and shared, many under the radar of top corporate managers. Their promise, says Patrick: to tap into expertise among far-flung locations and enable information-sharing with partners, suppliers and customers about everything from business problems to new-product musings.
(Stepanek, M. 2005. )
In essence .the trend seems to be that the business and corporate world is beginning to lessen its suspicion of Weblog technology by recognizing the potential advantages for its commercial usage. Another aspect affecting commerce is that the increase of spam has meant that email is no longer the prefect means of communication for business. This, and the fact that large amounts of email are counterproductive, means that Blogging has become a more viable option for the commercial sector.
It makes more sense to post to a Weblog rather than attaching dozens of comments and documents to e-mails and then sending them to large number of recipients in the company — and then having to sort, file, analyze and respond to the results. It is far more effective to post to a Weblog, which gives company members the opportunity to add comment and relevant documents. ” ( Smith G. 2004)
Weblogs are even more advantageous for smaller business concerns. A Weblog is comparatively easy to create, without the necessity for any large technical staff. This is made feasible by the large array of free blogging software that is now available. For example Radio UserLand is one company that offers a subscription service that provides extensive Weblogging facilities, including archiving and accessibility to search engines.
3.4. Weblogs and the academic community.
Weblogs provide a perfect framework for academic research and discussion. Numerous Weblogs related to academic subjects and institutions have become prolific on the Internet. The impact of Weblogs is seen in many of the in-depth discussion and research sources that are shared on many Weblogs. By their very nature Weblogs provide an excellent ground for research on every topic. News Reading software or new aggregators, like the sophisticated and intuitive FeedDemon, provide a good tool for searching rapidly though mountains of Weblogs and data for research information.
In terms of teaching and interaction with students, the Weblog format becomes an extension of the blackboard and, because of its discussion facilities, it can be has become a viable teaching and learning tool. In general Weblogs have had the impact of enlarging and extending the learning environment. All of this relates to the idea of an ideal academic ‘blogosphere’ where there is continual interactive discussion.
We have moved from the most practical and direct applications of collaborative web publishing technologies as replacements for existing educational artifacts to an idealized vision of the blogosphere as a continuous collaborative large-scale conversation.” ( Halavais A. 2005)
Many researchers and educators state that the advent of free and accessible Weblogging software has meant that many of the technological barriers to education have been overcome.
What does this mean for educators and their students? In a broad sense, the advent of easy-to-use web publishing tools has effectively lowered the technology barrier, allowing faculty and students to finally take full advantage of the promise of the internet as a technology that bridges space and time, cultures and languages, and enables communication on a global scale.
(Lohnes S. 2003)
There are numerous examples to support the use of Weblogs in academic institutions and particularly as an asset in teaching. As Colleen Wheeler, a blogger and member of the Information Technology & Services staff at Wheaton College in Norton, MA states,
… weblogs can support many of the critical touch-points in the college experience, as a living, reflective journal informing a student’s portfolio; a bridge to connect class content and writing assignments; a strategic tool to fuel ongoing research; collective memory for remote or co-located teams; or a gentle orientation to the new student or employee, providing insight and context into how an unfamiliar community really works. ( ibid)
On a more technical level, the use of RSS and XML technology, as it is related to Weblog syndication and creation, is one of the important directions that academic Weblogging is taking. This aspect will be briefly discussed in the following section.
4. The future
The future is ripe with possibilities for Weblogging. Many of these possibilities in the fields of journalism, education and politics have already been mentioned. There are almost monthly improvements and innovations in technology and in the culture of the Weblog community. Just a few of these will be discussed.
One of the recent innovations is the vlog or video blog. This comes as natural extension of the desire to add images and other media to Weblogs. Although in the experimental stage, vlogs are another future innovation that could provide an integration of various media within Weblogs. However the future of Weblogging as a popular and mainstream activity rests mainly on the improvements in technology and their ease of access as well as in the control of the millions of Weblogs and the plethora of increasing data input. These aspects can potentially have a negative effect that could run counter to the effectiveness of Weblogs. A good indication of the future in this regard is the announcement that the top Web search engine, Google, plans to develop a search engine specifically designed for Weblogs.
However the implementation of RSS and XML technologies has, to a large extent averted the problem of data overload. RSS or “really simple syndication” is a technology which allows for the syndication or distribution of Weblog content. Coupled with this are the news aggregators or Readers which use RSS as a means of filtering the masses of information that appear on Weblogs. While there is not sufficient space to go into depth on RSS and XML formats in this paper, the following provides a brief overview.
In technical terms RSS is a protocol, an application of XML, which provides an open method of syndicating and aggregating or collecting Web content. In more practical terms RSS is a way for Web site owners to let others know what new content they have available on their web sites. The potential of RSS lies in the fact that it is possibly the beginning of an interlinked and interactive network of information sharing and publishing which has all of the advantages of email and fewer of the interference factors, such as spam. ( Lutge-Smith)
In essence, RSS is a format which allows items of information such as news headlines and descriptions to be encoded in a ubiquitous language. This format can be read by RSS readers also called news aggregators. This in turn has the implication that any kind of information or knowledge can be distributed or syndicated. Once information is in RSS format most aggregators can be set to check the news feeds for updates and changes in these feeds.
The potential for Weblogging is therefore obvious, particularly in the light of news aggregators. These applications can be set to search on a time basis for any information that is published in Weblogs which use this technology. This means that information can be shared very rapidly. There are also other implications for this technology in the academic world. XML, which is the foundation of RSS, can be used as means of adding bibliographic and other information that can be searched and retained.
Weblogs can develop in a number of different directions. One of these is that they become part of the peer-to-peer phenomenon that is becoming so popular on the Web. Another is that Weblogs will evolve into a standard tool for communication. There is little doubt that the scope for Weblogs and blogging in commerce and journalism is enormous. Only a few of the most relevant aspects have been touched on this paper. Educationists are already making use of Weblogs extensively and these developments could herald a new age of open-ended and interactive teaching.
However, one of the most important aspects of Weblogs is that they are essentially creative and represent a “real voice,” and not a just another official missive or corporate directive. Some pundits claim that this is the real danger facing the future of Weblogs — that they will be used and subsumed by corporate and commercial goals. On the other hand the value of the easy distribution and discussion of knowledge will, some say, profoundly affect the future of this mode of communication.
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RSS is an aspect that is fundamental to the contemporary understanding of the impact of Weblogs on society. This will be dealt with in the final section of this paper.
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