In America, the first major study of Web diaries reveals that they are shaping the political landscape like never before, but what of their British counterparts? Owen Gibson investigates.
The former CBS anchor Dan Rather last year experienced at first hand the power of the blogosphere. After his controversial report on the clouds over George W Bush's military service, US bloggers from both sides of the political spectrum swarmed all over the story.
And after the White House released the relevant memos, which had purportedly been written by Bush's commander in the Texas Air National Guard, it was the blogging community that was credited with leading the news agenda as it speculated on their provenance. Two weeks later, CBS announced that the man who supplied the documents had admitted lying about their authenticity and Rather was forced to publicly apologise.
The furore around "Rathergate" brought the blogging phenomenon to the fore during the presidential election as well, and gave rise to a slew of newspaper stories suggesting that a seismic shift was taking place in the American media landscape. Could blogs, they asked, become the fifth estate?
In an effort to test that hypothesis, researchers from the respected Pew Internet & American Life Project have conducted the first in-depth academic study of 40 of the biggest and most respected political blogs and the extent to which they influence and are influenced by other media.
"We tracked not just the political blogs but also what the US mass media was saying and what general Internet chatrooms were saying," explains Michael Cornfield, the senior research consultant on the project, named Buzz, Blogs and Beyond.
Its results show that bloggers are generally following another agenda, whether that of a political party or another medium, but also highlights the extent to which they can now influence the mainstream media on certain topics. "Sometimes blogs lead and can be very influential and other times they're followers," he says. While it remains too early to tell how the medium will develop, he says, the report offers an intriguing glimpse of how bloggers are starting to shape the US news agenda.
Rathergate showed that when bloggers were able to access primary evidence in the same way as newspaper journalists, they could run with a story. "One of the reasons they were so influential was because they were able to put up what they called 'the smoking memo'," says Cornfield, referring to a version of a document reconstructed using Word, and suggesting it had been faked.
"In one sense it's classic investigative journalism but what's new is that the clues are out there in the open. It would be as if the Watergate tapes themselves were online and we could all listen to them and hyperlink to them. This is the change."
According to the study, there are now "A-list" bloggers in the US, such as Andrew Sullivan and Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis, who are capable of setting the news agenda because they are habitually referred to by journalists in the mass media who rely on them to break stories. "Journalists, activists and political decision-makers have learned to consult political blogs as a guide to what is going on in the rest of the Internet," the report notes.
Accordingly, for a certain breed of US political animal, blogs now perform the same function as mass market portals do for the rest of us - sifting and disseminating the morass of material on the web and pointing to interesting stories and primary sources elsewhere.
However, Cornfield also thinks it is important not to overstate the impact of blogs on political life. Apart from the relatively few and far between "swarms" such as Rathergate, he believes that blogs have had a limited impact on the national conversation. "The influence and impact of blogging has been felt much more by journalists than by politicians," he says, pointing out that a group such as the Swift Boat Veterans had a far greater impact on the election than the blogosphere.
The report notes that a number of other potential scandals - such as the apparent bulge in President Bush's jacket during the first presidential debate - failed to ignite in the same way. "For a conversation to acquire the intense simultaneity of buzz, and for buzz to register with force in public affairs, requires a number of other factors to be present, few of which are likely to be at the disposal of a single blogger, or even a blogging collective, ready to activate at will," it concludes.
Also, Cornfield says, the power of a particular blogger can quickly "wax and wane" depending on how hot a particular news story is and how much information they are able to acquire from other sources. On their own, the power of bloggers remains "circumstantial and contingent", the report argues.
In the UK, there was a feeling that the general election would provide domestic blogs with a similar spark to Rathergate. There was no shortage of primary material, such as the attorney-general's advice on the war in Iraq, but there was little sense that the internet impinged on the mainstream media.
While Belle de Jour got the mainstream media speculating on her (or his) identity, and the likes of Scary Duck greatly amuse, there is a sense that the Americans take their blogging more seriously than we do. With the odd exception (Guido Fawkes' Order-Order.com and Mick Fealty's Slugger O'Toole blog on Northern Ireland for example), there is little heavyweight comment and it is rare to see a blog break a story or substantially move it on.
One of the most persuasive theories for this contrast is the far more rambunctious nature of the British national and regional press compared to the mostly regional, generally staid, US titles. So, the argument goes, American bloggers are fulfilling a need for a heated national conversation among competing viewpoints, whereas we can arouse much the same feelings of empathy or revulsion by reading Richard Littlejohn or Polly Toynbee.
For all that, Neil McIntosh, the assistant editor of Guardian Unlimited (responsible for introducing a series of blogs allied to this newspaper), says that a breakthrough Rathergate moment is inevitable sooner or later. "You'd be daft to say never. All that it takes is someone to see that a properly produced Private Eye-style blog would work brilliantly on the web. You'll get something like that in Britain." Cornfield also points to evidence of bloggers mobilising the "No" vote in the French referendum on the EU constitution as proof that it just takes the right kind of issue to spark interest.
Meanwhile, Cornfield notes a new threat to the burgeoning number of influential one-man-band political bloggers in the US - the growing tendency for mainstream media to cotton on to the possibilities. "If everyone blogs, what about that fictional soap-box blogger in Hyde Park? Who knows whether they'll be able to keep their mainsteam audience or they'll be pushed to the edge," he says. And given the pace of change online, it is entirely likely that a new technology will come along and supersede the blog, he adds. "Not many people are going to dive into a 300-page document, but they're more likely to dive into a two-page document. And once homemade video content takes off and is shared, they're perhaps even more likely to dive into that."
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