WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Web logs, or "blogs," are proliferating across the Internet, providing individuals a soapbox on which to sound off on topics ranging from politics to pet care. It is the former topic area -- politics -- where experts say these online diaries are having growing impact.
"You could say Web logs cost Trent Lott his job," said Michael Cornfield, who follows the "blog" trend closely as director of research for George Washington University's Democracy Online Project.
"The mainstream media largely ignored Lott's remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. It was Web logs, both liberal and conservative, that reported the incident and kept it alive," Cornfield said.
"Bloggers," as they are known, usually write daily on whatever their special interest happens to be. Like a journal, "blogs" tend to be highly personal, running the gamut from short musings to angst-filled rants.
Gone are the days when a computer user needed HTML encoding skills to produce content for the Internet. Doug Payton, a software engineer in Atlanta, has written a "blog" called Considerettes since last April, using Blogger.com's system.
"All you have to do is choose from one of their prepackaged templates and start typing. All you have to worry about is writing the text. When you're finished, you submit it to Blogger.com's database and it's posted on their server," Payton said.
Blogger.com recently reported one million "bloggers" using its services. The basic service is free, meaning it's not only easy to create a "blog," but inexpensive as well.
Andrew Finn, associate professor of communications at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., says "blogs" are a natural result of the Internet's democracy-enhancing effect.
"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," he said.
Just because someone writes a "blog" doesn't mean people will read it. Finn points out "bloggers" must have something compelling to say, and be known to a significant Web community, to be influential.
"There's a lot of drivel out there," Finn said.
Indeed, while many "blogs" come across as an Internet version of a Seinfeld episode -- with long descriptions of nothing in particular, others are serious in their intent. Many focus on politics, all along the political spectrum.
Cornfield points to Andrew Sullivan, Josh Marshall and Mickey Kaus as among the more well-known and influential political "bloggers." While traditional columnists might write an opinion piece once a week for newspaper editorial pages, political bloggers have something to say nearly every day.
"In a political community like Washington, you have people with an insatiable appetite for political news and opinion. There's no question that some Web logs have significant influence," Cornfield added.
For every Andrew Sullivan, there are thousands of bloggers toiling away in relative obscurity. Payton, who calls himself "just an opinionated guy," likes to give his conservative take on the events of the day, but doesn't take himself all that seriously.
"I wouldn't mind having a little influence, but not to the point that I would feel like I would have to write something every day. I'm not that prolific," Payton said.
Cornfield believes "blogs" are no passing fad, and will have significant short-term impact if the United States goes to war with Iraq.
"We'll have much more access to our enemies and they'll have more access to us. The 24-hour news cycle will be supplemented with the 24-hour comment cycle," Cornfield said.
"Web logs are a permanent feature of our media environment. As broadband capabilities expand we can expect them to evolve along with the Internet, and perhaps include video and multimedia features in the future," he said.