At 8:43 p.m. Pacific time on Dec. 11, 2004, the American Digest Weblog announced the number of blogs being tracked by Technorati had exceeded 5 million -- 5,002,014 to be exact. By the following evening, the number of blogs jumped to 5,028,255.

The "blogosphere" -- or the universe of Weblogs -- continues to explode exponentially. Perseus Development Corp., a firm that studies Internet trends, estimated that more than 10 million blogs will exist by 2005. And based on the latest figure, that 10 million will certainly have been exceeded before the end of 2005.

These fantastic numbers really don't mean much, however, other than to illustrate that blogs are catching the attention of a growing number of regular Internet users.

Blog-hosting services make it so easy to create a blog that many would-be bloggers show no real commitment to continuing the blogs they initiate. In October 2003, Perseus randomly surveyed 3,634 blogs on eight leading blog-hosting services, discovering that 66 percent had not been updated in two months and had practically been abandoned. They also estimated, based on the survey, that about a quarter of all blogs were one-day wonders, with no postings at all after the initial launch.

Moreover, even those blogs updated regularly have almost zero chance of attracting wide readership. "Blogging is many things, yet the typical blog is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends and classmates on happenings in her life," Perseus COO Jeffrey Henning noted in the study summary.

He compared the blogging phenomenon to an iceberg. "An iceberg is constantly dissolving into seawater, and the majority of blogs started are dissolving into static, abandoned Web pages," he wrote. "Right now, though, this iceberg is moving so quickly into arctic waters that it is gaining mass faster than it is losing it. The key is that an iceberg is never what it appears, and so it is with today's blogging community."

Tip of the Iceberg

Certainly one factor fueling greater public awareness of blogs is that there have already been a few major shipwrecks when public figures and the mainstream media collided with this growing iceberg.

It was only after intense online commentary in 2002 that the mainstream media paid any real attention to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, turning these into a full-blown scandal that ultimately forced Lott's resignation.

"Blogs have ignited national debates on such topics as racial profiling at airports and have kept the media focused on scandals as diverse as the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity to bribery allegations at the United Nations," wrote political scientists Daniel W. Drezner and Henry Farrell in a paper on the influence of blogs in foreign affairs called Web of Influence.

"One thing bloggers are very good at is focusing attention on things that have often been underreported by the mainstream media," Drezner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, explained in a follow-up interview. "Bloggers have become very good at fact-checking the media and pointing out errors."

One high-profile example of this is the Dan Rather/CBS News admission that they could not authenticate documents presented in a story about President George W. Bush's National Guard service. "Nineteen minutes into the segment using the documents, the first post appeared on the Net saying, 'These are fake, and here's why,'" explained Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former campaign manager, in a presentation at the Commonwealth Club in Silicon Valley. "Within four hours, it was spreading across the Net, and within five or six hours, it had leaped from the Internet into the mainstream media. A news organization, for decades regarded as one of the finest in the country, suddenly fell victim to the bottom-up ability of people to say, "No, that's wrong, and I'm going to tell a lot of people.'"

Influence Beyond Numbers

Compared to the mainstream media, the overall readership of blogs is still minuscule. According to the 2003 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Internet Survey, only 4 percent of online Americans refer to blogs for information and opinions. Many experts believe this figure is probably higher now due to the recent publicity blogs have received. Still it is low compared to traditional media audiences. "What matters is not so much the gross number of people who read blogs," explained Drezner. "What matters is a lot of people who read blogs are surprisingly influential."

For instance, a growing number of media professionals -- editors, publishers, reporters and columnists -- take their cues about "what matters" from Weblogs. Blogs can provide up-to-the-minute expertise on specialized subject matter that the mainstream media does not have resources to monitor firsthand. "The blogosphere also acts as a barometer for whether a story would or should receive greater coverage by the mainstream media," according to Drezner and Farrell. "The more blogs that discuss a particular issue, the more likely that the blogosphere will set the agenda for future news coverage."

It is not surprising then that both major U.S. political parties credentialed some bloggers as journalists for their 2004 conventions or that top bloggers are now included in press release distribution by corporate and public affairs institutions.

Yet in trying to chart the growing influence of blogs, it can be misleading to focus solely on the top 10 or even the top 100 blogs. True, the top five political blogs together reportedly draw more than half a million readers a day, but like an iceberg, it can be a big mistake to ignore what lies just below the surface.

"There is the notion of the long tail," explained Tim Bray, director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems and long-time blogger. "If you look at a graph of all the blogs ranked in descending order of popularity -- how much traffic they get and the links to them -- it is a classic inverse square log. There is a huge concentration at the top, but that hides a really important fact. Unlike the conventional media, if you look at the big long flat tail, there is actually more traffic in there in aggregate than there is in the top 300."

Bray's observation is particularly poignant because he is the chief architect behind Sun's ambitious corporate blogging program that has, in a few short months, already proved invaluable to the company in a number of ways.

A Thousand Sun Bloggers

In April 2004, Bray and others organized a meeting to propose that the company begin blogging. They received the go-ahead from new President and COO Jonathan Schwartz, and by June, they had deployed the technology (which was rather easy, according to Bray, using an industrial-strength, open source, Java-based package called Roller). They had also worked out some policy issues, which was more difficult to accomplish.

"There are issues of policy, both positive and negative," explained Bray. "There are things you want to encourage people to write about and other things you want to discourage. The advice we give people on the positive side -- aside from the obvious things like spell check and take a little time over what you write -- is the classic writer school advice of writing about what you know. From our point of view, if we've got a specialist in operating systems, then they should bloody well write about operating systems. If they get into writing about patent politics, they are apt to be boring and get in trouble.

"The negative advice would probably be quite a bit different in the private and public sectors," he added. "For example, as a public company, there is much legislation and regulation delineating what we can't talk about. Clearly it would not be okay for one of our people to talk about next quarter results or about litigation in progress, for instance. That might seem obvious, but it isn't to everyone. What does a software engineer know about SEC regulations?"

Bray emphasized that to launch a blogging program in any institution, it is vital to get policies in order first and communicate them to all employees who plan to blog. Sun set its system up with both warnings and a policy agreement button for all employees setting up their own blog. After that, however, there is no preapproval process. What people write is automatically posted.

Such freedom is key to any blogging success. "The only reason the blogs work is the authentic human voice," explained Bray. "So that is one of the single most important things determining the content of a blog. You can be 100 percent certain that if a blog is written in the language of marketing, and talks about synergistic solutions and that kind of stuff, the readers will detect that instantly and just stop reading it. We are all besieged by marketing hype all the time. So you are just not going to get read unless you expose a genuine human voice."

Once people realize both they and the institution can get in trouble for saying the wrong things in a blog, there is a certain amount of peer policing of blog content, Bray said. Discussions about whether it would be OK to post certain information now appear on Sun's internal e-mail list, and peers ask fellow bloggers, "Are you sure it was OK to post that?"

Upsides Outweigh Downsides

For all the potential problems for an institution like Sun, the company already considers their blogging program an unqualified success. Of 30,000 employees, 1,000 now have their own blogs, and this includes Schwartz.

"It turns out that Jonathan Schwartz is a naturally good writer, and he himself is happy to hang out a shingle and write what he thinks for the world to read," said Bray.

According to Noel Hartzell, executive communications manager at Sun, Schwartz's blog has attracted more than 600,000 readers in less than six months. "It is an incredibly effective way for a man with a ridiculously compacted schedule to communicate at a mass level with employees, with customers, with business partners, with prospective new customers and with the developer community," said Hartzell. "Talk about corporate transparency and the role the Internet plays in communications with your markets and the constituencies you are serving. Building communities and evolving them is crucial today, and that's what this company is essentially all about."

Schwartz's blog has definitely been good for Sun business. He now tells stories about how Sun got in front of new customers specifically because they had been reading his blog.

What is happening below the top-tier Sun blogs is perhaps even more important. "What has been really refreshing, and somewhat of a surprise, is that all the way down the ranks of the employee base, there is a new connectivity with people outside the company," explained Bray. "You've got people who have the job to develop, say, 3-D applications or something like that. They are now able to go out and interact with the community in a way they never have before."

There seems little doubt that institutional blogging substantially increases an organization's transparency. However, the point Bray makes is that this transparency goes both ways and this was something Sun hadn't predicted in setting up the blogging program. "Not only does it improve our ability to tell the world about what's going on at Sun and what we are doing, but it also really improves our ability to listen," Bray said. "There are people out there in the technology professions who have an idea about something we should do, or conversely, who think we are doing something stupid. It is hard to tell Sun. How do you talk to Sun? Sun is a big company in California with 30,000 employees.

"On the other hand, if you are reading a Sun blogger who you happen to know is writing about stuff happening in a particular space, it's super easy to send an e-mail and get your message in. And this has happened over and over just in the few months we've been doing this," Bray added.

State Blogging

While corporate blogging has started to take off, with Sun and Microsoft leading the way in the number of employee blogs, governments are naturally more cautious. And so are government officials. "What you are seeing now, interestingly enough, are some blogs by government officials or bureaucrats, but they are all anonymous," Drezner observed. "They are afraid of official retribution."

That is why the Utah state government's brash foray into blogging stands out. A few months after becoming Utah's CIO in 2001, Phillip Windley began blogging personally.

"It wasn't very long after that -- a month or so -- that I realized there could be a lot of value to an organization if there were people inside the organization who blogged," Windley explained. "I could see how when I wrote stuff on my blog, people who worked for me and people who worked in IT throughout the state, as well as others, would respond to it. I thought, "This is cool. I've got a channel to essentially talk to these people.'"

But Windley also wanted to hear what these people were thinking and saying. So he assembled a little program, negotiated a price for up to 100 licenses with UserLand, and offered anyone in Utah state government a free blog for a year if they wanted to start blogging. Although blogs were little known among the general Internet population back then, about 35 people took him up on the offer.

Many of these blogs eventually died for various reasons. "Some people just don't like to write," said Windley. "And there was some institutional backlash against it. There was one guy in particular who worked for me who kind of caught the vision and started writing about what we had tried that worked, what didn't work, and where we had made mistakes. A lot of people got really upset at that, saying it was airing their group's dirty laundry."

For governments to maximize blogging as an organizational tool, Windley said governments must create a culture that allows people to say things and not get slapped for it. "A lot of governments are not like that," he said. "But if you want to use blogs for interdepartmental communication and for people to exchange ideas internally, they have to feel comfortable that they can say what they think and it is not going to be held against them."

Yet even without such radical cultural change, Windley sees many institutional uses for Weblogs, both behind and in front of the firewall. For example, behind the firewall, a very straightforward use is to put up a Weblog on your help desk. And when you start getting issues about a problem in your IT infrastructure, post it on the blog. "It is like your early warning trouble ticket system," explained Windley. "It takes an hour to set up, and will be much better than what most governments do to let their employees know of issues and problems taking place. Stuff like that is just so brain-dead simple. The software is free or low-cost, and it is easy to use."

In front of the firewall, according to Windley, one obvious place for a government Weblog is in public affairs. Although it isn't obvious to the user, part of the Census Bureau Web site, for instance, actually runs on blogging software. It automatically puts news in chronological order, allows people to comment and gives a free rich site summary (RSS) feed.

For Utah, from what Windley admits was rather haphazard beginnings, blogs have now become a vital tool for state IT management. David Fletcher, deputy director of administrative services for Utah, was one of the bloggers from Windley's original program. Today, his public Government and Technology Weblog comes up high in Google searches.

"I use the blog for a lot of different purposes," explained Fletcher. "You are just seeing the public part of it. Still, I found even the public portion very useful, as it generated a lot of interaction with people around the country who also have Weblogs and are also involved in government."

However, the internal uses are perhaps even more important as a management tool. "I use my Weblog to generate a number of RSS feeds, one of which feeds the news for the Utah.gov portal," said Fletcher. "And I have, for instance, a blog for customer relationship management within our central IT organization. My CRMs have a group Weblog and customer service representatives that meet with agencies and post items. So I can see what my people are doing, and it is a very rudimentary CRM system that is very easy to implement, use and receive alerts on."

Fletcher found that even the public portion of his blog site serves an internal purpose. "A lot of internal employees and others in the state read my Weblog, some through their e-mail or as RSS feeds," Fletcher added. "So I also post stuff I think would interest them."

Like others, Fletcher cautions state employees to be careful about what they post to their Weblogs. "That's one thing -- a problem we had with a number of people," said Fletcher. "They posted things to their Weblogs that weren't too prudent and got into trouble because it is a very public, open environment. I encourage openness, but people also have to realize that not everybody out there takes a joke at face value, especially when it is from a government employee. You have to use prudence in deciding what to post publicly."

The other thing, Fletcher added, is that you don't want people to spend a lot of their day blogging. He said he only spends perhaps five or 10 minutes a week posting various items to the public portion of his blog.

Inward First Steps

For a government considering blogs as an institutional tool, internal blog use is perhaps not simply a cautious route, but also may yield the most benefits.

"It's ironic, but Pyra Labs initially developed Blogger, which is the software that triggered a lot of this, because they thought of it as an internal corporate tool to problem-solve," explained Drezner. "I think the original intent still stands. So one area I think blogging is potentially useful for government is not so much for government's interaction with the outside world, but government's interaction among its employees.

"Most blogs that do well, do so because they have individual idiosyncratic voice," he added. "They are not edited. That's their appeal. Having worked in government previously, I have to say governments are notoriously leery of anything unedited or idiosyncratic. So it is far from clear to me that at least politicians or leaders of departments are going to be thrilled with the idea of blogs. You'll know blogs have really changed the world when you see the State Department with an official blog."

On the other hand, local-level government blogs are another story, said Drezner. A blog dealing with issues in one local community might prove very useful. "There are fewer downsides from doing that, and there is no question there would be considerable upsides," he added.

Scott Neal, city manager of Eden Prairie, Minn., agrees. He started a city manager Weblog early in 2002. "After I started it, it was an epiphany for me," Neal said. "People in our community were interested in how thick the asphalt was, why we have to lay it on the hottest days of year, why the sewer line works like it does, who the building inspector is, and why we do fire inspections -- all the things we do as a public body. And they are interested in these things on a human scale.

"I think they hear too often that government spent $1.2 billion on such and such," he added. "But they don't think of it on a human scale -- exactly what we did with that money and how it ended up touching them and their neighborhood. And so that's what I try to show them with my Weblog."

Neal also tries to use the Weblog as a means of building greater citizen empathy with the challenges and decisions they make. "I think that is important because I believe it leads to greater levels of understanding and trust for what we are doing and how we are doing it," Neal said.

When looking for Weblog subjects, he sometimes singles out an employee who goes above and beyond the usual, or he sometimes talks about a difficult issue his council had to deal with, summarizing the different views people have presented, and he will ask citizens what they would do.

"The idea really is to show people that these are sometimes tough choices and the people making them are human beings just like us," he explained. "Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they make the noble decision. And little by little, I think it is working. It helps to humanize the face of government for people."

Neal admits that for a city manager, there is an element of risk involved in blogging. "I've written a couple of things where I've had a council member wonder why I'm writing about it or why I said what I said," he added. "But when I think of the almost 900 posts to the Weblog so far, that has occurred perhaps three or four times, it is very small compared to the overall value.

"And when I make a blunder, I'm quick to acknowledge it because that too helps to communicate that this is a human endeavor. From the feedback I get, I think people realize that more. They comment, for instance, that they might have done that too."

Neal also found the blog to be an excellent way to communicate to employees. "They aren't required to read it, but I think they like reading it," he explained. "It has become a way for me to communicate to them tangentially about what's important in our organization and what they ought to be paying attention to."

Overall, Neal believes city managers have little to lose and much to gain from starting official blogs. He actively urges others to try it. If others do, and find it as useful as Neal, then we are likely to see thousands of local blogs start up in the next year or two.

However, it may not be blogs percolating up from the grassroots of local government, but rather the White House that gives impetus for blogs to be adopted wholesale in government.

White House Internet Director Jimmy Orr has been urging the administration to become more interactive on the Internet. White House officials, for example, began hosting online chats regularly in April 2003. This allows citizens to submit questions to Bush administration officials and get responses in chat.

To be most effective, communication must flow both ways, and blogging accomplishes that.

Orr is now looking at additional ways to make the White House Internet presence more bloglike because he thinks citizens need to see that real people are on the White House site, and they need to know these people are listening to what citizens have to say.

At one point, while Orr himself was conducting such a White House chat session, he noted how instrumental bloggers are. "They notice something in the news or something they've observed that maybe the traditional media hasn't covered or is not spending much time on, but they think it is significant. So they give the story a second life (or first). And they talk about it. And others talk about it. Before you know it, it is leading the news. Watch over the next couple years to see how influential they will become."

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor