Early evangelists of the Web hailed the new medium largely for one reason: Anyone, anywhere could now be their own publisher. With nothing more than a modem, an elementary knowledge of HTML, and some basic design skills, even the humblest worker, student, or artist could put together a Web site as eye-catching and influential as anything Madison Avenue could cook up. That democratic vision is finally being realized, at least in part, in the burgeoning form of Web logs.
?Blogs,? as they are commonly known, are essentially public diaries where Web surfers keep a log of the articles and Web sites they encounter in their online meanderings. Most blogs are devoted to a particular subject?like politics, tech news, poetry, humor, film. Others are more like real diaries, random collections of the author?s thoughts and musings. Many blogs even allow readers to post comments responding to the author right on the site.
?Bloggers are turning the hunting and gathering, sampling and critiquing the rest of us do online into an extreme sport,? writes Henry Jenkins in MIT?s Technology Review (March 2002). Many bloggers monitor each other?s sites, often linking directly to posts on other blogs, creating an interwoven community of thousands of constantly updated Web sites. News travels through this grapevine with astonishing speed. Says Jenkins: ?We surf the Web; these guys snowboard it. Bloggers are the minutemen of the digital revolution.?
While the blog format?posts are in chronological order, with the most recent at the top?has existed nearly as long as the Web, it has only really taken off since the dot-com crash of 2000. Since then, hundreds of out-of-work Web designers looking for a creative outlet developed new technologies making it easier for users to update their sites.
?We?re realizing [Web pioneer] Tim Berners-Lee?s original vision for the Web,? says Meg Hourihan, co-founder of Blogger, the Net?s most influential blogging site, and co-author of We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs (Wiley, 2002), ?People can write and publish online now as easily as they can read online. This is huge!? As she notes in the Canadian tech culture magazine Shift (October 2002), ?we?ve only begun to see the repercussions.?
In an August 2001 case study, for instance, Hourihan notes one blogger found a couple of pages on the Coca-Cola Web site touting its ?H2No? campaign, which instructed restaurant chains in ways to reduce their rates of ?tap water incidence.? The indignant blogger posted a link on a group blog site called Metafilter.org, and suddenly, Hourihan recounts, ?this non-story that no journalist would have thought to pick up became a PR nightmare as people online started talking about it. An article about the campaign ran shorly thereafter in The New York Times and the page was removed from Coca-Cola?s site.?
Eve Tushnet in the conservative journal The Weekly Standard (October 7, 2002) describes another positive development in the blog world: Of the more than half million blogs now online, a small but rapidly growing number (already in the thousands) are maintained by and for women in the Islamic world. Sites like Muslimah Ya-Ya (http://muslimahya-ya.blogspot.com/) and MuslimPundit (http://muslimpundit.blogspot.com/) provide safe places for women from Morocco to Malaysia to talk candidly about sex roles, the subjugation of women, and the political implications of Muhammad?s teachings. One Iranian woman blogger, writes Tushnet, ?has heard from men who say her blog helped change their view of women in Iran.?
Tushnet notes that this sort of open dialogue, which is not only discouraged but outright illegal in some Muslim countries, is crucial if democracy is ever to take hold there. ?Before a ?regime change? (whether from without or, much better, from within) can succeed, there must be a core of people who have some of the habits of freedom, including experience with free expression.?
Leif Utne is managing editor of utne.com.