t's a homely little burp of a word: blog. And it describes a means of expression that, on its surface anyway, is as cutting-edge as cave painting: the diary.
But in the space of maybe three years, blogging – the blanket term for the practice of keeping an online journal – has gone from curiosity to major Web fetish.
Teachers have blogs. Pop stars have blogs. Humorist Dave Barry has a blog. A logging protester perched in a tree near Eureka has a blog. A guy living in a simulated Martian habitat in Utah until recently had a blog.
It's possible that actual, nonsimulated Martians also have blogs, which might explain some of the odd blogging one runs across.
In a sign of what the phenomenon has come to – though not, one hopes, where it's going – even Barbie (a.k.a. the First Alternate Horsewoman of the Apocalypse) has a blog.
Blogs are a little like the Blob, that marauding ball of goo from the old Steve McQueen movie: Every day, inexorably, the blogosphere (as some users call their online universe) gulps in more people, growing more imposing in the process.
Blogger.com, the biggest free blog-hosting service, now has 1 million registered users. Plenty of other services have popped up, from Freelog to DiaryLand to Blogalot.
And yet blogs – short for "Weblogs" – have come so far so fast that at the same time they're being co-opted by corporations, they remain a curiously obscure phenomenon. Even the term "blog" is foreign to plenty of otherwise clued-in people.
Part of the reason for the hazy understanding of what blogging is about might be the form's very simplicity.
The typical blog combines frequently updated, first-person commentary with links to other relevant Web sites. Posts are usually stamped with date and time; the newest ones go at the top of the page.
While some are elegantly designed, it's not the visual that generally draws eyeballs to a blog, it's the verbal.
And after all the hype on topics from Napster to broadband over the past few years, who would have thought that the Internet's next big thing would be plain, old-fashioned writing?
"It's like the ultimate democratic form of expression," says Matt Pitcher of Carlsbad, who has been blogging for about a year. "It's unfiltered. You can express your views and you don't have to go through an editor. That's kind of what got me excited about it.
"And the cool thing about blogging is there are as many types of blogging as there are types of people."
One look at a Web page called San Diego Bloggers (websandiego.org/bloggers/) bears out Pitcher's point.
Among the 100 or so sites listed are Photogeek.org, featuring the writings and photography of "a girl and her camera"; Horologium.net, a site whose design and links are themed on the topics of time and timepieces; and The Fishing Caper (www.newclarks.com/kayak/), a chronicle of one man's angling adventures around San Diego.
There's also CrazySaddam.com, offering "news, humor and commentary on Saddam Hussein and the war in Iraq"; and USS Clueless (denbeste.nu/), a nationally prominent (and more sober-minded) political blog run by former Qualcomm employee Steven Den Beste.
In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, politics is what motivated many to take up blogging. And politically minded blogs – some of whom are dubbed "warblogs" for their focus on terrorism and the Mideast – have grabbed most of the blog-related media attention.
The biggest of these blogs – among them Instapundit.com, run by Tennessee law prof Glenn Reynolds, and AndrewSullivan.com, by its namesake journalist – pull in thousands of visitors a day. Their combined critical mass has grabbed the attention of the big media from which they draw much of their commentary fodder.
After Sen. Trent Lott made his now-infamous comments in December – he asserted that the country could have avoided "all these problems" if then-segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 – it was the blogosphere that kept the story percolating until the mainstream media picked up on it.
A New York Post headline called Lott "the Internet's first scalp," and a New York Times columnist singled out D.C. blogger Joshua Micah Marshall as the person who, "more than anyone else, is responsible for making Trent Lott's offensive remarks the issue they deserve to be."
Marshall, whose site is Talkingpointsmemo.com, began blogging about two years ago, inspired by the site run by his friend, Mickey Kaus.
"I've found out since I've been doing this that the blog concept has been around for years," though it was mostly the province of programmers and other techies, Marshall notes.
"And I guess what's happening now is it's becoming a new form of writing."
Like Marshall and Sullivan, some of the most prominent independent bloggers are also journalists. Conversely, news organizations from MSNBC to The Wall Street Journal host opinion blogs on their own Web sites.
James Lileks, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, writes elegant, humorous daily essays at The Bleat, his blog on Lileks.com. Kaus has leaped to corporate media: His formerly stand-alone blog now resides at Microsoft-owned Slate.com.
The warblogs are a community unto themselves, complete with their own devotionals. A "fisking," for example, is the practice of demolishing an opponent's argument, point by point. (The term is derived from the name of Robert Fisk, a British journalist whom warbloggers treat as a toady of Osama bin Laden.)
The sites are also big on "blogrolling" – linking to sites that tend to share similar ideologies.
The rhetoric of this armchair infantry has, perhaps inevitably, inspired a blog whose main purpose is to spoof it.
The Maelstrom, by satirical novelist Neal Pollack, channels the most hawkish rants of the warblog crowd.
In his first book, "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," Pollack parodied self-important writers through a fatuous main character, also named Neal Pollack.
Pollack launched the Maelstrom to do for warblogs what his book did for literary blowhards. His model, at least at first, was Andrew Sullivan, for whom Pollack interned at The New Republic magazine in 1991.
While Pollack gives credit to bloggers for pushing stories like the Lott affair, he also mocks their self-congratulatory impulses, and the way some idolize literary heroes such as George Orwell.
"They spend a lot of time talking about those people, but not being them," he says. "And I think that's funny. Really what they want is to be those people, but they're not.
"They're just kind of lunatic pamphleteers shouting into the wind."
Across the spectrum
Still, there are plenty of bloggers – even politically oriented bloggers – who do it more for fun and a sense of community than for glory.
Scott Koenig, a.k.a. the Indepundit, is a San Diegan whose started blogging last summer. He used to sign onto bulletin-board systems to engage in political debate, but found those forums too controlling.
"I wanted people to read what I said and tell me what they thought, so I could get a marketplace of ideas going," he says. "I think that's what most bloggers want, at least political bloggers."
One hitch, of course, is that most bloggers don't make money off their sites. Sullivan is a startling exception – he reported taking in more than $80,000 from readers in a "pledge week" on his site.
But for working people like Koenig, it's mainly a labor of love, which is why Indepundit is going on hiatus for a while.
"I don't have that kind of money (to blog full time)," he says. "I have to work for a living.
Sometimes, the two can be combined. It's not just Mattel and media companies that are discovering the merits of blogs – independent business people are harnessing the form's power as well.
Matt Pitcher has used his blog to float and formulate ideas for his personal-training business, as well as write about his passion for fitness. Although a separate site for the business is almost complete, that will have a blog element as well.
A White House intern in the Clinton years, Pitcher admits he's "always been a political junkie." But now he's also fascinated by blogdom's capacity to break the hold that images and sound bites have had on the culture, and hand some power back to the written word.
"I think blogging is a great response to that," he says. "Writing isn't dead. But the writing form has to change with the times."