For the first decade of its existence, the World Wide Web was primarily a new vehicle for fast-growing numbers of online users to get information from the same sources that had always provided it. The medium offered unprecedented convenience and efficiency; today, more than 90 percent of users see the Internet as a good place to obtain everyday information, including news (Fallows, 2005). But the providers were mostly traditional institutional elites, including media outlets, government agencies, universities, and both for-profit and nonprofit business entities.

Of course, individuals have been building their own Web sites since the first graphics browsers emerged from the labs in the early 1990s. Some of these personal sites developed a following, but their reach and impact generally have been minuscule compared with, say, the 20 million unique visitors a month to sites offered by MSNBC or CNN (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2004).

These mainstream media sites, along with those offered by major newspapers and other news organizations, have become increasingly proficient at taking advantage of the Web's attributes, including its inherent interactivity. But they remain traditional journalistic enterprises, using the online medium to accommodate and extend what they see as their core strength: gathering, organizing, verifying and delivering information to the rest of us.

Blogs are a media form inherent to the Web, similar to personal Web sites but better in various ways. The do-it-yourself sites of the 1990s were often poorly designed and technologically shaky, as well as nearly impossible to locate in the vastness of cyberspace if you did not already know where to look. In contrast, today, free "foolproof" software allows bloggers to select from among standard templates to easily create a sleek, streamlined look and a consistent functionality. Once their sites are established, bloggers typically use extensive hyperlinks to cross-reference other blogs they happen to like, generating "blog rolls" that serve as their own ready-made stepping-stones across the "blogosphere." (And yes, generating lots of jargon in the process as well.)

That blogosphere is an exponentially expanding universe. An estimated 8 million American adults have created their own blogs, and nearly four times as many say they read blogs-a jump of 58 percent in less than a year (Rainie, 2005). And the numbers are likely to continue to grow as blogs become steadily more visible. For example, information requests using popular tools such as Google, which use links as part of their search algorithms, are now likely to turn up blog entries. (Google, by the way, owns the company that offers one of the most popular free blog-creation programs, But that's another story.)

More to the point than either their ubiquity or their visibility, however, are the blogs' common characteristics, of which four are particularly relevant:

  • Use of the format to express personal opinion. Although blogs can be about anything the blogger likes, most are informal, conversational reactions to current events or ideas.
  • Use of extensive links. Bloggers typically embed links to other online documents, news accounts, commentaries and more from within their own posts. A person reading a blog can simply click to read the original item-a news article, say-that the blogger is discussing.
  • Reliance on second-hand information. Although there are exceptions, few bloggers are in the information-gathering business themselves. Instead, they rely on accounts from the news media, other bloggers or a range of other sources (mostly online) for original reports, which they then fact-check; expand on or contradict through their links; offer their opinions about; or use as a basis for whatever other riff strikes their fancy. In some cases, several of them involving the media (such as "Rathergate" last fall and a more recent controversy that led to a CNN news executive's resignation over statements about U.S. soldiers' treatment of journalists in Iraq), bloggers have given visibility to important stories that mainstream journalists ignored or downplayed. They serve as an important watchdog on the watchdog. But rarely does the story originate with the blogger.
  • Perhaps most important, the value placed on user participation. As well-known journalist-turned-blogger-turned-grassroots-media-activist Dan Gillmor (2005) likes to say, a newspaper is like a lecture, while a blog is something between a conversation and a seminar. The blog format includes easily accessible space for user comments, and active blogs can generate hundreds of such comments in a day; indeed, more than 14 million Internet users say they have posted to someone else's blog (Rainie, 2005). The comments from users turn the format into an ongoing formulation of what is important or interesting-or open to debate and challenge-about any given topic.

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp.1,14-16 .