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By Annalee Newitz

WHY BOTHER to call something a blog, when the term is essentially meaningless? Almost anything can qualify as a blog—from a personal diary chronicling my ongoing obsession with putting fruit on my cat's head, to serious dope about what's happening inside the Washington beltway.

So what's the point of lumping all these things together under one name? The point is that blogs are in fact an identifiable media form, just as poems and movies are despite their diversity of formats and styles. A blog is a regularly updated online periodical, often created using special blog-building tools or software.

Nearly all share the same basic structure: the title hovers at the top of the page; a central column of text makes up the blog's main content, with each entry getting its own headline and date; the page is flanked by two narrow margins full of ads, links or other incidental information.

There are even blog genres at this point. There are gushing, personal, LiveJournal-style blogs; snarky political blogs; news blogs that report insider information about government or industry; fan blogs that focus on a particular performer or some other aspect of pop culture; wonk blogs that report all the minutiae of a particular type of legislative or policy issue; and the unclassified other types that are sort of the funky metal bands or science fiction Westerns of the blog world.

Blogs are also a media form that could only have come into being at this period in history, and therefore they will always be marked by a particular political and cultural bent. This is a form that was born at a time when global communication systems are fast becoming the norm in many places, including the developing world. International bodies like the E.U. and U.N. are reconsidering the legitimacy of excluding certain countries from massive geopolitical negotiations.

Blogs are, in some sense, part of this. In Iraq and Malaysia, for example, bloggers are broadcasting their concerns to the world, under threat of imprisonment. Nobody can argue with the idea that the web provides a new vehicle for free speech. But blogs challenge what makes for valuable or credible speech, which is not at all the same thing as free speech.

Unlike USENET posts or email, blogs are sometimes indistinguishable from professionally created news and information sites—on the Internet, it's hard to tell the upstarts from the establishment. This creates a tremendous amount of anxiety, and not just on the part of media professionals who feel like their turf has been invaded. Everyone is affected by this anxiety. The people whom C. Wright Mills once charmingly dubbed "power elites" get sweaty because their control of pop culture does not yet include an ability to steer bloggers the same way they do The New York Times or Newsweek. But it also freaks out the everyday media consumer, who isn't sure whether to trust her local blogger or the unreachable bigwig at the news desk uptown.

As a result, blogs have created a brief and interesting moment of cultural chaos where regular folks don't know what to believe, and elite types don't know whose ass to lick to get their stories pumped out of the live-news nozzle. What's surprising is that the bloggers themselves are striving to bring this chaos to an end as much as everybody else is. And they're doing it by setting up their own hierarchy of what's valuable in the blogosphere and what isn't.

It's common nowadays to hear about A-list blogs and B-list blogs, or funded and unfunded blogs. And of course it's no accident that blogs are achieving some degree of legitimacy at the very same time that bloggers are creating their own versions of the authoritarianism and money hunger that already plague the traditional media.

You can watch this authority-building exercise in action just by reading the latest headlines. While big corporations and newspapers set up their own jingoistic blogs, such as Microsoft's Scobleizer, a handful of journalists have been fired for blogging, as have corporate serfs at Google, Microsoft and Delta Airlines. Guess who's legit and who isn't in this equation? I think the guys with the money win.

Similarly, the blog Gawker has gotten far more attention than any number of its equally irritating, celebrity-stalking counterparts because Gawker has funding from entrepreneur Nick Denton, who also owns Gizmodo, Fleshbot and Wonkette.

Even more disturbing are the implicit rankings between blogs such as Gothamist and SFist. Both are lively, well-written publications that cover urban culture, politics and art. But one is A-list, and the other is B-list. Why? Gothamist is based in New York, ground zero of the "legit" publishing industry. SFist is out on the media frontier in San Francisco. The old voices of authority are not exactly dying out. Say goodbye to the chaos and hello to the A-list.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who only reads the B-list blogs in her town.

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From the March 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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