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Where Are Blogs Headed?    [Date Added : 03/26/2005 ]
The big question is whether blogs - short for weblogs - have the staying power to become more than just online diaries. Will bloggers upend the mainstream media? What legal protections should bloggers have? Is there a blogger business model? While no definitive answers exist just yet, it appears that they will be around for a long time.

Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania legal studies professor Dan Hunter puts blogging right up there with the printing press when it comes to sharing ideas and disseminating information. "This is not a fad," says Hunter. "It's the rise of amateur content, which is replacing the centralized, controlled content done by professionals."

The growth rate of blogs is impressive. Technorati, a search engine that monitors blogs, tracked more than 8 million online diaries as of March 21, 2005, up from 100,000 just two years ago. A new blog is created every 7.4 seconds. That adds up to 12,000 new blogs a day, 275,000 posts a day and 10,800 updates an hour.

"At its most basic level, it's a technology that is lowering the cost of publishing" and turning out to be "the next extension of the web," says Wharton legal studies professor Kevin Werbach. "Blogging is still in its early days. It's analogous to where the web was in 1995 and 1996. It's not clear how it will turn out."

What is clear is that opportunities for blogging abound. Companies can use bloggers to put a more human face on interactions with employees and customers; marketers can create buzz through blogs; and bloggers can act as fact checkers for the mainstream media. There are dozens of applications for blogs, Werbach notes, and many that haven't even been conceived yet.

Certainly, the concepts behind blogging aren't exactly new. Comment and feedback have been around as long as the Internet itself. What's new is the ease with which anyone can publish their thoughts on any number of topics.

"Blogging is really driven by interest and desires, not commercial activity," says Wharton marketing professor Peter Fader. "It's rare to see something take off like this when commercial prospects are so minimal. People just want to share ideas."

The amateur content movement was clearly enabled by the Internet, which made it relatively easy for anyone to start a web site. From there, the concept of amateur content has ballooned. In South Korea, for example, a newspaper dubbed ohmynews.com is written, not by trained journalists, but by regular citizens who send in their reports to editors, who then pick the best ones for publication. Companies and individuals have created their own Internet sites offering original information and content. Other sites, like the technology news-oriented Slashdot, are populated by visitors posting items they have seen elsewhere.

A more recent development has been the use of weblogs by companies and organizations. A "danger" is that corporations might not "understand the culture of blogging" and produce content that contains carefully vetted material instead of spontaneous writings that appeal to blog fans. Indeed, corporations are allowing employees to keep blogs, and in many cases encouraging online diaries. Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, General Motors and Boeing are just some of the companies that use blogs to communicate with employees and outsiders.

Robert Scoble, a Microsoft employee who operates Scobleizer, a blog about Microsoft products and developments, maintains one of the more interesting blogs around. Scoble, whose official title is "technical evangelist," sounds like many employees at large companies. He has his share of gripes, but will also defend his employer. The key is that he is balanced, says Brown. "This Microsoft employee has to maintain credibility by remaining transparent. By being negative once in a while, it's more credible when he's positive."

Scoble is so credible as a Microsoft blogger that he is viewed as the voice of the company across the globe. When Ted Demopoulos, principal of Demopoulos Associates, an information technology consulting company, was traveling in Russia recently, he stopped in Surgut, Siberia, where he was surprised to find Scoble fans. "I'm out in the middle of nowhere and they ask me about Scoble," says Demopoulos. "To them, Scoble is the voice of Microsoft."

Is There a Business Model?

While corporations can chalk up blogging as a marketing expense, the story is a little different for individuals. Can blogging pay the bills? If you are lucky, you can pay the hosting fees, but that's about it, say Wharton experts. Nevertheless, Werbach predicts that multiple business models will emerge. Individuals aged 18-25 are spending more of their time online, and marketers need to reach them. That means blogging could become a way to target the most coveted audience for media.

Bloggers currently can sell ads through a keyword system such as Google's Adsense. If an individual writes a blog about asbestos lawsuits, he or she is bound to get significant traffic from lawyers. And that could lead to subscription models. Some bloggers may become so successful that they can charge for their output. The problem with the subscription approach is that it's not clear if anyone will pay for content beyond financial news, data and pornography. The other model is one that depends on being acquired, notes Demopoulos. Google bought Blogger.com, and media companies such as Gawker Media are buying and consolidating popular blogs.

What happens when bloggers try to make money off their sites? "It's not a matter of when bloggers want to be paid, but when do readers want to pay for content," says Wharton marketing professor Peter Fader. "The mainstream media hasn't had the guts or savvy to start charging. It will be difficult for bloggers."

While most agree that blogging will continue to be popular, its next steps are uncertain. Demopoulos suggests that blogging overexposure is on the horizon. "Right now, blogging is trendy," he says. "I see that lasting a few years, but it will slow down."

Hunter contends that blogging is here to stay, as many sites start to incorporate blogging features, and some news sites become more blog-like. The blogosphere will also become known for topics other than technology and politics. Two things are certain: blogging will remain disruptive to the traditional media, and new uses will surface. "You are going to see blogging move to video and instant messaging," says Werbach. "It's just the beginning."

(extract of 'Blogs, Everyone? Weblogs Are Here to Stay, but Where Are They Headed?,' Knowledge @ Wharton, March 23 - April 5, 2005, Copyright. 2005 The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania).
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