Blogs Power Stretches Far Beyond Politics

Opinion: While Weblogs have grabbed the public's attention mostly for their political revelations, their value as forums for collective knowledge is becoming known in other areas as well.

Until a few weeks ago, the attention paid to Weblogs, or blogs, focused on politics and the media business. Bloggers were most famously credited with unmasking a fake memo that CBS used for a story about President Bushs Army Reserve records.

But thats going to change, and fast. A study released this week by the Pew Internet and American Life Project—which tracks peoples online habits—says more than 8 million people have created Weblogs. And 32.5 million people read them regularly, a number thats doubled since February.

Still, just 45.6 million out of 120 million Internet users know what a "blog" is. Regardless, the movement is just getting started. And clearly, its growing. A look at the early coverage of the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia shows the power that blogs have. And more and more examples of this are on the way.

So, its worth a few moment to look at whats happened in the political sphere and draw a few lessons about what might happen to other businesses. Blogs are read and written by customers.

Tech, the birthplace of blogging software, has more that its share of blogs focused on the industry. Just yesterday, Om Malik, a journalist and blogger, announced a deal between SixApart, the company thats created Moveable Type and TypePad, and Live Journal, another blogging service.

Before we go on, however, a disclaimer is in order. I run an independent Web site and have done so for about 18 months. It concentrates on national, California and San Francisco politics. Its part of the phenomenon Im writing about here.

And in researching this story, I chatted with Dan Gillmor, a former colleague of mine, who is also in the process of launching what hes calling a "grass-roots journalism" project.

Gillmor has written a book, "We the Media," detailing the changes he expects in the near future. Recently, on his—what else—Grassroots Journalism blog, he pointed to the impact that bloggers have had on the business of politics as an example of what he calls "distributed journalism."

Before Congress adjourned last year, it voted to change its rules to allow Majority Leader Tom Delay to keep his office if he ends up facing criminal charges in his home state of Texas.

But at the public and sustained instigation of two Web sites—Talking Points Memo written by Josh Marshall and The Daily DeLay, a site put together by campaign finance watchdog the Public Campaign Money Watch—voters began calling their representatives to ask how they voted on the rule change and why. They posted their research on their sites and came up with a list of votes.

This, as Gillmor observed, was a quiet turning point in American politics. This week, when the Congress returned to Washington, D.C., Republicans in the House of Representatives undid the ethics rule change.

"Something especially important occurred with these two blogs. They asked readers to call their Republican members of Congress and ask how they voted on the original secret vote to give DeLay a break. Readers responded in droves. This surely helped keep the pressure on the Republicans as well," Gillmor wrote.

But distributed journalism isnt limited to politics, Gillmor says. It can touch on anything of interest to readers or blog writers. Weblogs make it easy to publish your opinion or share your experience and let others comment on what youve been doing or thinking. That can be as true of a piece of balky software as it is of an elected official. "Its the collective knowledge of people gathering data and putting it out there that gives you value, Gillmor says.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read about MSNs new blog service with IM ties.

Another example? Sites that tell consumers how to hack their TiVos to improve the devices recording time are a form of distributed journalism, Gillmor says. "Thats people doing journalism for each other, he says. Readers experiment, do research and chat among themselves about the results and procedures, doing the work that a staff of editors at a hobby magazine would do.

Anything that gathers opinion and focuses it is a phenomenon that can alter the way companies do business. That, says Gillmor, is why this change is so important for everyone, so they can understand the power that blogs are corralling to help people speak out about their opinions and experiences.

"You break up a larger problem into a lot of little pieces, and something good can happen," he says.

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