When college student Rob Malda started his weblog in the mid-1990s, it was mainly a way for him to communicate with friends and other programmers. Today, his website slashdot.org—now really more of an über-weblog—is one of the most popular sites on the Internet for techies. Though the primary focus of the site is open source software, every day between 60,000 and 100,000 users visit it to weigh in on a wide variety of in-the-news technical topics ranging from a discussion of the shuttle disaster to hydrogen-powered cars.
"When I first started Slashdot, it was for people I knew, mostly Linux guys writing code and working on open source applications. What happened then is that other people started noticing what we were doing, and we began to break on big news stories like the Mozilla open source announcement and Columbine," says Malda, who sold the popular web destination to Andover.Net in 1999.
For those not familiar with the concept, a weblog—blog for short—is a kind of online diary that typically features daily postings on a selected topic (open source software, digital copyright law, etc.), includes links to other sites, and provides commentary on articles in the media. Though each is as unique as its author and subject, what all weblogs have in common is that they allow members of a community to easily exchange information and interact with one another.
The first group to jump on the blog bandwagon in the mid-1990s was, not surprisingly, programmers like Malda who had a basic understanding of web technology. Early bloggers like Dan Bricklin, CTO of Interland, a supplier of business-class web hosting solutions, and co-developer of VisiCalc, chronicles life in the computer world at his popular blog www.danbricklin.com/log/. Dave Winer, founder of UserLand Software, a leading developer of weblog and content management software, even made weblogs mandatory for the programmers working for him. He publishes his own blog (about blogs) at www.scripting.com.
The blog concept quickly spread to librarians and lawyers—two professional groups who work with information. Now blogs are gaining the attention of the media—both in the way of covering them and publishing them. Journalist Howard Lovy, a news editor with Small Times Media, a publication covering nanotechnology, blogs on the topic at http://nanobot.blogspot.com. Dan Gillmor, a columnist with the Mercury News, blogs about technology at weblog.siliconvalley.com/column/dangillmor.
The number of general science and technology blogs is also growing (see sidebar, page 32). One technology blog, www.scienceblog.com, launched last year, now gets about 100,000 visitors a month. "It's a simple way to get information out in the technology area, without the large overhead associated with publishing a print journal," says founder and publisher Ben Sullivan.
Blogs are also making their way into the military, politics, and mass culture. During the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army had a popular blog written by Scorpio, later identified as Major Chris Chambers (www.americasarmy.com). A blog from Baghdad hosted by Salam Pax reported on the war situation from an Iraqi point of view. Presidential candidates, including Howard Dean and John Kerry, have blogs.
Though no one knows exactly how many blogs currently exist, Jupiter Research, a company that assists companies in developing online business strategies and conducts Internet research, estimates that there are 2.4 to 2.9 million blogs today. More than 1,000 new ones are added daily.
Engineering blogs rare
One area where blogs have not taken off yet—though they have enormous potential—is within the engineering community. Dave Winer, who mandated that all programmers at his company create weblogs, think they are an ideal way for engineers to share information on a specific technical area, publish their insights on technology developments, and even keep a team informed about the progress of a project (not all weblogs have to be public). And, since engineers are often more knowledgeable about specific technologies than members of the press, they can weigh in and critique articles, provide commentary, and even set the record straight.
One reason that engineering weblogs may be slow to develop is at least the perception that all blogs must be sanctioned by a company.
When this magazine published an editorial exhorting engineers to create their own blogs, reactions ranged from, "Where is the gain to the company that they ought to pay me to keep a blog up to date instead of working on getting the new product out the door?" to "Most of the concepts you describe that constitute a blog are forbidden from being practiced at our firm."
Yet a good weblog doesn't need to be a corporate one, and no employer short of Winer is probably ever going to tell an engineer to start one. In fact, many question whether a blog should have corporate involvement at all. "If your employer reviews every posting, it's definitely not a blog," says Winer. Engineers don't necessarily need to focus on a topic related to their everyday work, instead picking an area they are personally interested in (say, Stirling Engines or hydrogen-powered vehicles).
Blogger: Chuck Bennett, author of
Chucksez.com, writes about politics, engineering, and even building a
The few engineering blogs we found on the web are definitely the product of passion and interest in technology, not corporate PR. Chuck Bennett, an air quality engineer for the State of California, publishes www.chucksez.com on a wide range of topics from engineering and science to business. "I kept hearing about blogs, and the idea appealed to me because I could create a complete record of my thoughts that is open for the world to read."
While the 50 to 100 visits a day to his site include family and friends, Bennett has also been able to connect up with other engineers. "An engineer found a reference to one of my patents when I worked at Motorola and was able to use my blog to contact me and get more information for a design he was working on," says Bennett.
Programmer and BSME Jake Howlett launched his blog in 2001, mainly as a way to post technical articles to other Lotus Domino developers. But his blog soon developed into a vehicle for passing along snippets of news and technical details. "I think blogs are still evolving and will mature into other forms. They will change over time," says Howlett.
Segway fan and software engineer Phillip M. Torrone started his blog http://segway.weblogs.com/ because, "There wasn't one place on the web where you could get accurate news about the Segway." His blog, which includes a comprehensive listing of all articles published on the device, has proven helpful to Segway itself.
"With a blog like this, our customers are doing some of the marketing themselves, by sharing their stories. It's helping us monitor the pulse of the marketplace," says Morgan Smith, Segway Brand and Marketing Communications.
No one knows how many Phillip Torrones or Jake Howletts are out there today, or how many there will be in the future. But one thing is clear: Things are changing fast in the Blogville.