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Tracking the blog explosion

By Carol Iaciofano
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2009

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You can tell a lot about a book by its subtitle, which is basically its mission statement.

The one on Scott Rosenberg’s absorbing history of blogging hits a trifecta of big ideas: “How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters.’’

In other words: Blogs have been around for only about 15 years, but they warrant a hardcover history because whether or not you’ve ever read one, their very existence has affected your life as their influence has grown in the marketplace of ideas.

Rosenberg is more qualified than most to write this piece of Internet history. He’s a cofounder of Salon.com and the author of “Dreaming in Code,’’ detailing the struggles of a group of programmers racing to develop new software.

Beyond his tech journalism credentials, Rosenberg knows how to tell a story. And it’s quite a yarn: how blogging went from a “hobby’’ dismissed by professional journalists as “essentially insignificant’’ to “something unprecedented in human history: a new kind of public sphere . . . sharing the characteristics of conversation and deliberation.’’

Not since the early days of personal computers have there been such riveting and quirky tales of “pioneers and innovators,’’ those men and women able to consider the possibilities of daily life in remarkable new ways.

In the 1990s, they also helped transform the Web from an endless mall of dot-com shops to a place where people could “think out loud together.’’

It might surprise current bloggers to learn that early Web-loggers primarily created link-oriented sites to highlight interesting places on the vast Internet. In blogging’s adolescence there came authors who wrote anything and everything about themselves.

In fact, Dave Winer, author of trailblazing Scripting News, defined a weblog as “the unedited voice of a person.’’

That this unedited voice would be heard as loudly as the polished voices of old media was one of the bigger shocks of the new century.

Refreshingly, Rosenberg is a blog historian, not a promoter. He casts an even light around the blogosphere, noting the many instances when this self-expression tool has also promoted verbal thuggery. Rosenberg asks: “How much antisocial behavior are we willing to countenance in authenticity’s name?’’

In a style both conversational and compelling, Rosenberg describes how technology and the wider culture converged to help move blogs from their small orbit (“as the quip went, being ‘famous for fifteen people’ ’’ ) to being substantial enough to merit articles like the landmark November 2000 New Yorker article “You’ve Got Blog.’’

Perhaps nothing helped catapult blogging into mainstream America as much as Google’s Blogger program. (Full disclosure: I use Blogger for my own blog.) Evan Williams, one of Blogger’s designers, wanted nothing more than to give these writers “an elegant tool and see what they did with it.’’ Using the free Blogger system, even writers who were tech-challenged could easily post whatever they wanted. And they did.

Six years ago there were 100,000 blogs in the world. Today there are at least 184 million and counting.

Like any great storyteller, Rosenberg has also dug deep so he can festoon large ideas with noteworthy trivia - such as how Peter Merholz shortened “weblog’’ to “blog,’’ and how Web insiders considered the term “hideous.’’

How could something done for free, with no guaranteed audience, become so big? Rosenberg puts it all in historical context, and in this context, notes, “Now that we’ve begun, it’s impossible to imagine stopping.’’

Carol Iaciofano is a freelance writer who blogs at Suburban Study, www.suburbanstudy.blogspot.com.

SAY EVERYTHING: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters By Scott Rosenberg

Crown, 404 pp., $26

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