(Written for Prof. Finn’s Computers in Communication [COMM435] class at George Mason University.)

Introduction

One of the more fascinating technologies to emerge in the internet age is the weblog, or ‘blog for short. This technology allows the average person—with little or no financial investment—to become a publisher and share their ideas.

While there are unresolved issues with employer oversight of personal blogs, and some resentment from traditional media organizations, it is clear that blogs are a major part of the future of the internet and of information dissemination.

History & How it Works

Almost as soon as the World Wide Web became available to the general public, services sprung up allowing people to create and post their own sites for all to see. But these services required users to learn and use Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which is relatively simple but still requires much trial-and-error for budding Internet publishers.

The idea of a content management system (CMS) came out at nearly the same time. CMS programs are web-based applications that allowed a webmaster or site manager to publish new information quickly by entering content into an interface and clicking “submit.” The program would automatically generate the HTML and post the content on the web.

Initially, CMS systems were only available for professional-grade sites, and they required tedious installation and configuration before they were of any use. In the late 1990s, some Internet pioneers made modified CMS systems available to the general public. This made it possible for anybody to become a web publisher with virtually no knowledge of HTML or Internet design—end users could just type what you want to publish, and click submit.

On one hand, this gave the general population access to what was effectively their own private printing press. With only a few clicks, somebody could publish their opinion on a recent political debate, news events in their neighborhood, or any number of other things. Anything was possible. On the other hand, many chose (and still choose) to write about mundane everyday activities—what they had for breakfast, what party they’re going to that evening, or why they don’t like ketchup.

These Internet outposts of informal publishing came to be known by several names—online journals, web diaries, and weblogs or ‘blogs—and they continue to grow at sites like LiveJournal.com and Blogger.com.

Pervasiveness

In 1999, some didn’t think that blogs would remain popular. “Blogs are never going to be big business and they’re not the future of the web, either,” said Andrew Brown in an opinion article that year (Brown, 1999).

Many today would beg to differ. One of the pioneers of the blog phenomena, Blogger.com, is now owned by Google.com—one of the web’s most successful companies. Blogger.com, considered to be the most popular service, had over 1 million users more than 1 year ago and has been growing steadily ever since (Huffman, 2003). LiveJournal.com, a Blogger competitor, claims over 1.25 million active users on their home page (http://www.livejournal.com/).

Blogs are also increasingly popular among people who have more traditional methods of information publishing at their fingertips. When The Station nightclub burned down in West Warwick, Rhode Island, the Providence Journal newspaper created an informal blog where newspaper staff posted information submitted by readers about what had happened and the victims of the tragedy (Lennon, 2003).

Also, blogging has had its impact on politics. The revolutionary aspect of Democratic candidate Howard Dean in the early phasesa of the 2004 election season was his online presence and his innovative use of the internet to find supporters and prod them toward campaigning for Dean. Part of this included his famous “Dean for America” blog (eWeek, 2003).

But while some big names are getting into blogging, the core of the blogger movement is still the general public—who have never before had the ability to publish in a forum where potentially thousands or millions of people could read what they had to say. “In the past it took a lot of money and staff to produce a publication or broadcast and influence a lot of people. It’s amazing how computers have given power to individuals,” said T. Andrew Finn of George Mason University (Huffman, 2003).

Rights and Limitations

While students are in little danger of repercussions from their blogging, legal issues get more complex when talking about adults with employers who blog in their free time—and even more so when those adults are employed in traditional media. Some journalists are worried about the bottom-up nature of blogs—the sources write their own material. Others, however, have jumped into the fray whole-hog (Lennon, 2003).

When CNN correspondent Kevin Sites was posting to his own private blog with experiences covering the war in Iraq for the network, CNN made Sites take the site down, saying that “covering a war for CNN . . . is a full time job.” Only four days later, Joshua Kucera—a freelance journalist writing for Time magazine—was asked by his editors to remove his blog, and only a month after that Denis Horgan of the Hartford Courant was asked to take town his blog as well (Palser, 2003).

Editors are concerned about these journalists’ private blogs because they may end up competing with the employer’s own website, or that journalists may focus too much of their creativity on the blog and not enough on their day-job. Further, traditional media may be concerned that if their staff blogs it may undermine the appearance of objectivity (Palser, 2003).

While these issues have only been attention-getters in the journalism field, the inherently private and informal nature of blogs leaves them open as a potential harm to an individual’s employer. Many people use their blogs as an online diary—so how much can the user say about their boss, coworkers, or employer? In many cases, the employer would not necessarily even know that their employees are blogging about them, but the employee may be in trouble if the company finds out and does not approve of its portrayal.

For example, a company may have a policy that its employees may not talk to the media about what the company does or what projects the employees are working on. But, while they may be prohibited from talking to the media, there is clearly no prohibition against them talking to their friends our spouse about how work has been going. Many companies do not have specific policies dealing with blogs, and it is unclear whether such an online diary would be considered communication with media or with friends.

Because blogging technology is regularly new, and the phenomena it has become is even newer, it is unclear at this time what legal protections bloggers might have—if any—and what powers employers may have over employees’ home blogging activity. As blogs become more and more popular, these issues will become more and more contentious and controversial.

Impact and Future

Blogs have already shown that they can impact media attention and coverage of stories. For example, when Trent Lott—then the Senate Majority Leader—spoke at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party and praised Thurmond in a way that appeared racist, the mainstream media largely ignored it. The story, however, festered in blogs over the next week and ended up costing Lott his position as majority leader (Huffman, 2003).

As previously mentioned, former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean managed to drum up media attention and grass-roots support in part by harnessing the power of the blog. But, what blogs built they can easily destroy: Dean’s campaign later disintegrated after his primal scream became the fodder of bloggers and amateur music-remixers across the country.

As technology becomes more advanced, it is likely that blogging will grow more complex along with more influential. Already, a daring few are beginning to experiment with “vlogs”—or a video blog. Steve Garfield, for example, uses basic video equipment to record rallies, news, and more and then post it onto his website in a format similar to that of the ubiquitous blogs (Ressner, 2004).

Some are experimenting with animations, music, and more as well. New technology from companies like Apple Computer make it easy for end-users to arrange tunes and edit videos without much of an additional investment beyond their basic computer setup. Where blogging made it possible for the average person to publish, new computer software is making it almost as easy to create videos and music of a quality that previously would have required a huge investment.

While these variations of blogging may not retain the name, they are an offshoot of the “do-it-yourself” atmosphere espoused by web diaries and blogs.

Conclusion

As the blogging trend continues to catch on and grow increasingly popular, there is no question that bloggers as a whole—and possibly as individuals—will have a huge impact in politics, entertainment, and society overall. Further, blogs will become richer and more interactive as technology develops and bloggers become more daring.

While it is impossible to predict in detail what impact blogs will have on society in the future, there is no question that they will have an impact. Because blogs are inherently democratic, they will allow people more power than they have ever had before in our political system and the dissemination of information.

References

Brown, A. (1999, October 11). It’s a blog’s life. New Statesman, 128(4458). 49.

eWeek (2003, November 18). Presidential Marketing: Howard Dean’s Blog. pNA.

Huffman, M. (2003, January 18). ‘Blog’ trend provides virtual soapbox. United Press International.

Lennon, S. (2003). Blogging journalists invite outsiders’ reporting in; ‘to be interesting, the blog must have a discernable human voice: a blog with just links is a portal.’ Nieman Reports, 57(3). 76-79.

Palser, B. (2003). Free to blog? Three journalists are told by their employers to cease their Web musings. American Journalism Review, 25(5). 62.

Ressner, J. (2004, April 19). See me, blog me: Turned on by online opinion sites? Then get ready for Web video journals. Time, 163(16). 98.