Q. What are blogs and how will they change our lives?
A. Short for "Web logs," blogs are online journals meant for public consumption.
Most of the millions out there are personal diaries that, rather than being kept under lock and key, are shared among a few friends and family members.
Occasionally, readership extends outside that circle through word of mouth. The more popular blogs can have daily audiences in the thousands, rivaling those of smaller newspapers, and a handful even make money through advertising or donations.
Blogs take on the personality of their keepers and can cover just about any topic -- everything from a person's love life to more general issues like politics or technology.
Some can be mundane -- a discussion of a television show -- while others can be well-informed, kept by authors who attain expert status in their fields, either through blogging or from their offline activities.
With such variety, what makes a blog a blog?
No set definition exists, but blogs tend to be more frequently updated than personal Web sites and usually present items in chronological order, with the newest on top. Most blogs let visitors leave comment and include links to other blogs and Web pages to collectively form what's known as the "blogosphere."
So a blogger may see a news article he's interested in and link to it, offering a few remarks on whether he or she agrees or not. Another blogger sees that posting and links to that, adding his or her own thoughts. There's no limit to number of links in the chain.
Most blogs also have what's called a "blogroll," a list of other blogs read by that blog's author. So if you find one blog on a topic you like, chances are you can find others by following the blogrolls.
Blogs have been around for awhile, but only in recent years have software products been available to easily create and maintain blogs.
Each news event -- the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the war in Iraq, the 2004 presidential campaigns and December's tsunami in Asia -- raises more awareness about them.
A November survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that about 27 percent of adult Internet users in the United States read them, up from 17 percent in February 2004. About 7 percent of users have created blogs.
Unlike most papers and broadcasters, blogs aren't constrained by fact-checking or objectivity. But bloggers say the ability to comment and link allows them to point out inaccuracies more quickly than they can with newspapers, and readers can take a blogger's biases into account because they are often clearly discerned from the postings.
And bloggers sometimes influence the mainstream media. Blogs, for instance, have been credited with forcing an apology from CBS News anchor Dan Rather for the use of questionable documents in last fall's "60 Minutes Wednesday" report on President Bush's National Guard service.
Blogs have become a way for average citizens to participate in newsgathering -- to the degree that a few pioneering newspapers, including the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., have turned to blogs to stay in better touch with their readership.
Traditional news organizations won't go away, but blogs contribute to the dialogue by providing additional viewpoints. Though blogs tend to be maintained by individuals and reflect their opinions, the web of links allows a discussion to take place.
Blogs also serve to decentralize decision-making. Howard Dean's campaign embraced blogs and implemented some of their best ideas for campaign messages and techniques.
Starting a blog is quite easy. Google Inc. and Six Apart Ltd. are among companies that offer free and paid blogging services. Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have recently joined the bandwagon.
Maintaining a blog is harder. One study of 3,634 blogs by Perseus Development Corp. in 2003 found that two-thirds had not been updated for at least two months and a quarter not since Day One. A few bloggers had acknowledged being busy, but most just stopped without explanation.
If you're looking to start one yourself, keep in mind that blogs blur the distinction between private and public life. You may be sharing private matters with a select group of friends but unless you password-protect your blog, it's open for public consumption -- and your boss may be one of your readers. More than a few bloggers have been fired for what they've said or done on blogs.
On the other hand, because blogs connect you directly with everyone on the Internet, if your voice is worth listening to, it won't take a lifetime to get noticed.
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