A big chunk of the Internet is now devoted to personal websites called weblogs, or blogs. In the blogosphere, as it's sometimes called, an estimated six million people open their lives and opinions to the world.
But blogs are more complex than simple diaries. Essays are often accompanied by headlines, clever graphics, and a place for readers to react. Blogging humorists, reporters and ordinary people who fancy themselves as political pundits are attracting an enthusiastic worldwide community of web surfers.
PC Magazine and is a blogger himself, says ordinary citizen are tapping readily available software to produce weblogs about everything from family travels to model-train collections. They are, in effect, quickly and inexpensively publishing their own online magazines.
"Go to Google or one of the other online search engines," Mr. Dvorak suggests. "Type in 'model railroading blog.' Use the word 'blog' itself. You will get a listing of people who are writing about model railroading. When you go to a couple of them, they tend to point out other blogs about the same topic. It's almost like a world in and of itself -- which is why, I think, a lot of people don't know about blogs. It's almost its own universe."
Because Internet expression is uncensored, some weblog content is hateful, profane -- even pornographic. "But at the same time, there's so much good stuff in the blogging world," says John Dvorak, "that it's well worth exploring. And everyone who gets involved with it, as a reader or someone doing the blogging, will find that they develop a list -- which many call a 'blog roll' -- of favorite blogs that they'll go to like they would go to the New York Times in the morning."
Blogging began in the 1980s in California's Silicon Valley, as early Internet wizards shared technical information. More recently, bloggers made headlines during the early stages of the war in Iraq, when journalists and U.S. service personnel shared their experiences on-line.
And it wasn't just Americans. A blogger who took the name Salam Pax - using the Arabic and Latin words for peace -- described himself as a 29-old Iraqi, living in Baghdad's suburbs. "The radio plays war songs from the '80s nonstop," read one entry by Salam Pax. "We know them all by heart. Songs saying things like 'We will be with you till the day we die, Saddam.'"
Media-watchers and bloggers wondered whether Salam Pax was a real person or a sneaky tool of Iraqi disinformation. Then a reporter at the online magazine Slate confirmed that Salam was, in fact, his translator when the reporter worked in Iraq.
These days, blogs routinely point out mistakes by the mainstream media. Bloggers exposed controversial remarks about race relations by U.S. Senator Trent Lott. They also brought to light sloppy research in a CBS television report about President Bush's service in the Air National Guard in the 1970s.
Mickey Kaus, who writes a political blog for Slate, says some political blogs get thousands and thousands of hits -- or virtual visits -- each day. "Bloggers link to each other," he says. "They talk to each other in something that at least approximates a conversation. They bring people together and also bring the truth out fairly quickly."
Or do they? Blogger Rebecca Blood argues that a weblog is not a conversation. "Publishing a weblog," she wrote recently on her blog, Rebecca's Pocket, "is more like speaking in front of a room full of people -- some of them trusted, some of them strangers -- and having every word you say recorded and catalogued for future random retrieval."
Some fans of this personal publishing on the web call blogging "the new journalism." But blogger Glenn Reynolds - who teaches Internet law at the University of Tennessee - notes that bloggers have no editors. While that speeds the flow of information, it also can open bloggers to charges of carelessness and bias.
"I've had editors who made my stuff better," Professor Reynolds acknowledges. "And I've had editors who've made my stuff worse. So the absence of editors is a mixed bag. Blogs are all about taking your own thoughts and bouncing them off other people, and bouncing other people's thoughts off you. I suppose there's a sense in which everybody who says things in the public sphere is doing so out of vanity."
Blogs have gained such acceptance that many newspapers, magazines and broadcast and cable networks now assign staffers to produce them on company websites. And the next generation of blogging has arrived, as well. All across the Internet, people are now posting mini-documentaries called "video blogs."