Technology

The Wild World of "Open-Source Media"


As U.S. troops moved into Baghdad in early April, the media moved with them. Some 600 reporters, camera operators, and producers were there -- to beam every move, every explosion, and an occasional death back to the U.S. But people who really wanted to know what was happening on the ground turned away from their TVs to the Web log -- the online diary -- of a young Baghdad resident who called himself "Salam Pax."

At the time, his identity was a secret. But his intimacy, humor, and the unmatched detail he provided on life in Iraq's wartime capital were riveting. "I have not been out of the house for the last three days," he wrote on his personal Web site, "Where Is Raed". That was on Apr. 7, the 19th day of the war. "We are now 15 people at 'Hotel Pax,'" he added, referring to his home in central Baghdad, where his family's generator kept the juice on.

"It's not so safe here," he wrote. "Everybody expects the next move to be on the west/southwest parts of Baghdad and are [sic] telling us we will be the front line. I can only hope when push comes to shove the Americans will not be met with too much resistance and we don't end up in the crossfire."

PAX OFFERINGS. At the height of the war, as many as 20,000 people were said to reading Salam Pax's "blog" (short for Web log). Traffic to his site, which was served from free blog-hosting company blogspot.com, continued to build even after Baghdad fell -- as has interest in this prolific writer, whose pseudonym means "peace" in both Arabic and Latin.

On May 30, Britain's Guardian newspaper revealed that Salam Pax is a 29-year-old gay Iraqi architect -- and that starting this month he'll pen a column on the reconstruction of Baghdad for that newspaper. Book publishers are circling too.

Salam Pax is the most striking recent example of a brand of individual publishing that has lifted global social interaction to a new plane. Blogs are essentially one person's take on the world. Some, like Salam Pax's, feature mainly the writings of their creator. Others, such as BoingBoing (tagline: A Directory of Wonderful Things) are basically a compilation of links to other sites that the blogger finds interesting. Yet others, such as drudgereport.com, are combinations of the two. Nearly all of them inspire the type of enthusiastic -- and sometimes, indignant -- interaction that the Web's creators envisioned a decade ago.

"WEB MEDIA REBORN." Indeed, several newly minted stars among the 500,000 to 1 million bloggers on the Web are proving the viability of that ideal. Christopher Allbritton, an American freelance writer, raised $14,000 from Americans tired of mainstream media to finance his daily blog from Iraq (www.back-to-iraq.com). His stories will be included in the Library of Congress' official collection of Internet materials about the 2003 war. InstaPundit's Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, rounds up conservative opinions from the world's editorial pages.

Blogging is made easy by low-cost, easy-to-use technology that lets anyone -- not just geeks -- be a publisher. And instant, worldwide distribution lets talent shine through. "Blogs are Web media reborn," declares Nick Denton, who authors his own, www.nickdenton.org and has launched two for-profit blogs -- gizmodo.com, which is aimed at wealthy gadget lovers, and gawker.com, a salacious run-down on New York media. "After the boom, Web media got a bad name," Denton notes. "So we gave it a new one."

And in the bargain, the Web has created a more evolved species. Blogs are a far cry from the personal home pages of old, where John Doe from American City posted photos of his dog and lists of his favorite colors. Instead, they're mini opinion journals, with reverse-chronological entries, that provide up-to-the-minute takes on the writer's life, the news, or on a specific topic such as haute couture or wireless technology.

LINK LOGS. And blogs are interactive since writers often express their opinions about what other bloggers have written -- setting off a chain reaction that may go on for days on hundreds of blogs. Some claim that bloggers are responsible for the continuous news leaks about the Jayson Blair scandal, where a young New York Times (NYT) reporter plagiarized and fabricated news, ultimately leading to the resignation on June 6 of the paper's top editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.

Of course, blogs wouldn't be so popular if they weren't so easy to set up and maintain. Bloggers use free (or virtually free) software that's structured to help writers easily post short commentaries and links to other blogs and professional Web sites. Moreover, a few clever features allow bloggers to answer the most fascinating of human questions: Who's talking about me? And what are they saying?

That's what Dave Sifry (www.sifry.com), a self-professed geek and entrepreneur based in San Francisco, wanted to know. So he created a search engine called Technorati -- or as blogging addicts playfully call it, "Egorati." Type in your blog's Web address, and Technorati will instantly return a list of blogs that have linked to your site -- plus an excerpt of what they say about you.

HOT TOPICS. You can sort results based on "freshness" -- how recently someone has posted something about you -- or "authority" -- how popular the blogs are that are talking about you. (Sifry defines authority as the number of links going to and from on a blogger's site. The theory is that if lots of people are linking to a blog, it must be important.) His invention "was pure ego gratification," he laughs. Sites (Daypop) and Blogdex also rank popular blogs.

It hasn't taken long, however, for the impact of Sifry's software to exceed his harmless narcissism. In the eight months since Technorati appeared, it has become a tool not just for bloggers but for anyone who wants to discover what's on the global agenda. At Technorati you can see not only which blogs link to which but which bits of news -- culled from 4,500 media sites, plus from corporate, government, and little-known Web sites -- are getting the most action. On June 3, the most-linked-to stories were an article by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a USA Today article entitled "Ex Army Boss: Pentagon won't admit reality in Iraq," and a diary entry by -- who else? -- Salam Pax.

Seeing what people are talking most about prompts readers to weigh in on the key issues of the day. Is everyone talking about whether weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq? Post a link to an article along with your thoughts, and it will instantly become part of the blogosphere.

NO GIANT KILLER. "If it's interesting and provocative, it will be passed around," says David Weinberger, a blogger (www.hyperorg.com) and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, one of the first books to demonstrate how the Internet was turning business upside down. "Blogging is a bottom-up, grassroots, first-person news network," he adds. "It's more multisided and more objective than any single news source."

Gawker's Nick Denton calls it "open-source media" -- a twist on the concept of open-source software such as Linux, whose programmers make their code available to the community and collaborate to improve upon it. As with open-source software, the costs of production are modest, because readers send in tips and commentary that contribute to the final product. And like the software, open-source media is less formal than traditional media -- blogs bear little resemblance to a glossy publication.

It's that last issue that lends a touch of fantasy to the inevitable speculation that cyberblogs will one day destroy -- or at least maim -- such august media names as AOL Time Warner (AOL), The Washington Post (WPO), or the NBC subsidiary of General Electric (GE). Though blogs may be fast publishing on the cheap, even the most committed bloggers don't see them as a threat to journalism.

FREE-FOR-ALL. For one thing, most blogs are reactions and commentaries related to news published in mainstream publications. Without the media giants, there would be little to discuss. Instead, experts see blogs as complementary to established media.

"It's a new kind of communication," says Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. To say that blogs will harm traditional media, he adds, "is like saying that instant messenger will kill e-mail." Adds Back-to-Iraq's Christopher Allbritton: "Blogs are the garnish to a well-balanced media diet."

The point, bloggers say, is the Web has room for everyone. After all, that's what blogging is all about: Collaborative communication in a truly new medium. By Jane Black in New York


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