Blogs reach next level

Weblogs: The sites' evolution includes business purposes and geopolitical commentary.

May 13, 2004|By Dan Gillmor | Dan Gillmor,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Weblogs are growing up.

Last month, several hundred members of the "blogosphere" got together at Harvard Law School for a one-day conference called BloggerCon. I was glad to hear realistic questions of where the medium is going.

Blogs are Web pages that generally consist of time-stamped postings and links to other sites. They vary widely in form, function and content.

But blogs are becoming more than a publishing medium.

One big question at BloggerCon was how to make a living from blogs or use them for business purposes.

Some companies are using the format to keep employees informed and get their best ideas. The relative informality of the format is also valuable in communicating with customers, suppliers and the media.

Tech companies, as you might expect, are leading the way in encouraging employees to speak up via blogs. Microsoft has several hundred staffers blogging on personal sites, but I'm especially impressed with its Channel 9 (http://channel9.msdn. com), run by several of the company's software developers, which puts a distinctly human face on the company.

Mark Cuban's "Blog Maverick" site (www.blogmaverick. com) is a classic in the genre: irreverent and informative.

"I was tired of reading incomplete information or misinformation about what I was doing in the sports media," says the owner of the NBA'a Dallas Mavericks. "This was one way to get the facts out."

Blogs are also becoming businesses in their own right.

In New York City, two entrepreneurs are elbowing to become the best-known operators of niche blogs - sites catering to small but passionate audiences. Nick Denton's Gawker Media (www.gawker.com) runs several popular, advertising-supported blogs including Gizmodo (www.gizmodo.com), devoted to gadgets, and Wonkette (www.wonkette.com), which gossips about Washington power brokers.

His competitor Jason Calacanis created Weblogs Inc. (www. weblogsinc.com). He lured Gizmodo's original author to launch a site, Engadget (www.engadget.com) and his firm handles about two dozen sites now, including Cuban's.

I'm much more interested, though, in the use of blogs for social and political change.

One important session at BloggerCon looked at blogs in the international context. It was run by Rebecca McKinnon, a former CNN correspondent in Asia who's been in Cambridge, Mass., for a Harvard fellowship for the last few months. She has created a blog covering North Korea (http://nkzone.typepad. com/nkzone/), calling it "a forum and information exchange" about the nation.

Hossein "Hoder" Derakhshan couldn't get a visa to enter the United States, but he participated in the event via an online chat. The expatriate who had moved to Toronto after leaving Iran might have been the first Persian-language blogger when he launched his site in December 2000. He has since helped other Iranians set up blogs.

Hoder estimates that more than 200,000 Iranian blogs had been created by early 2004, though not all are written in Iran and many aren't being maintained. What matters is what the Net made possible: People in a country with strict controls on media are able to speak out and access a variety of news and opinion.

For now, I'm satisfied that something important is happening with this emergent, bottom-up medium. The global conversation is growing, and it has value for just about anyone who's paying attention.

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