SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The online diaries known as Weblogs, or "blogs,'' seemed like a lot of inconsequential chatter when they surfaced a few years ago.
But as more people have embraced the concept, what once seemed like a passing fancy has morphed into a cutting-edge phenomenon that may provide the platform for the Internet's next wave of innovation and moneymaking opportunities.
"Just like the Internet was 10 years ago, blogging is popular with an underground culture that is doing it for the love and passion,'' said Tony Perkins, who edited the recently folded Red Herring technology magazine and last month launched a business blog called Always On Network.
"Now there are people like me coming along and trying to figure out how to package it,'' Perkins said. "It's time to take it to the next level.''
Other notables seeking to capitalize on the rise of the Web's so-called "Blogosphere'' include Terra Lycos, America Online and Google.
Terra Lycos last month introduced publishing tools to help people launch their own blogs. America Online is expected to offer a similar service to its 35 million subscribers later this year.
"We want to take what has been an underground phenomenon and introduce it to the masses,'' said Charles Kilby, Terra Lycos' director of product marketing.
Google, the maker of the Web's most popular search engine, created the biggest blogging stir of late by snapping up San Francisco startup Pyra Labs, which runs the biggest network of Weblogs. Pyra's Blogger.com has more than 1 million members, including 200,000 running active blogs.
The people self-publishing these blogs are an eclectic mix, from trendy teenagers discussing their body piercings to nerds swapping high-tech insights, celebrities sharing their everyday lives and activists staking out positions on Iraq.
While blogs are inherently personal, others offer an important communal element by soliciting reader feedback and providing links to other Weblog entries and content.
Complex blogs like the technology-focused Slashdot.org have extensive links to news articles, online discussions, even other blogs.
This phenomenon is spreading largely because of inexpensive blogging software that is designed to make it easy for just about anyone to publish an online journal.
No technical skills or knowledge about computer coding are required.
Organizing blogs doesn't require much thought or labor because the software automatically sorts things in a chronological sequence, starting with the most recent entry and working backward.
Perkins says he spent just $150 to license the software for his Always On Network. Joining Always On is free for now, although Perkins eventually hopes to charge $4.95 monthly subscriptions in the U.S.
"With blogging, all you really need is an articulate point of view and some dedication to reach a very broad audience,'' said Todd Copilevitz, director of Richards Interactive, a marketing firm that has studied blogs extensively.
The way bloggers link and influence each other's thinking could lead to a collective thought process, "a kind of hive brain,'' said Chris Cleveland, who runs Dieselpoint, a Chicago maker of search software that recently worked with Blogger.com.
The hive brain is a science fiction theme most famously explored in the 1996 Star Trek movie "First Contact,'' but Cleveland believes blogs can turn the concept into reality with the help of Google's sifting skills.
Mountain View, California-based Google hasn't provided specifics about its future blogging plans since buying Pyra Labs for an undisclosed amount in mid-February.
In a posting on Blogger's Web site, Pyra Labs' principals said they decided to sell after concluding "there were some sensible, cool, powerful things that we could do on the technology/product side with Google that we couldn't do otherwise.''
Cleveland thinks Google might parlay its search engine expertise to develop technology that will analyze which blogs are getting the most links and pinpoint the most compelling material.
Some sites, such as daypop.com, use search engines to highlight the most popular blogs, but the indexes are limited.
If Google were to introduce a more effective search tool, the best bloggers might be easier to find, helping them emerge as influential trendsetters and shape public opinion - roles traditionally filled by mass media.
Cleveland describes this as "content Darwinism,'' a process that will push the most compelling news and views to the blogging forefront.
Others take a less exalted view of blogging, likening the format to a cross between reality TV and the give-and-take of an online auction.
"This is the `eBayization' of the media,'' Perkins said. "You create a compelling arena and then let the real entertainment come from the participants themselves.''
Because blogs tend to focus on specific subjects and attract people in similar demographic groups, they could be huge for advertisers hoping to target their pitches.
Dr. Pepper/Seven Up is already testing this theory by mining the Blogosphere to launch an unusual marketing campaign for a new flavored milk drink called Raging Cow.
The beverage, currently available in five test markets, is aimed at teens and young adults, a demographic that has embraced blogging.
To create a buzz about Raging Cow before its national launch, Richards Interactive culled through 300 blogs to find the ones that appeared most influential.
The teens writing the blogs, including the likes of boymeetslife.com, italianize.com and sparkley.net, are getting some merchandise and Amazon.com gift certificates in exchange for testing the milk and expressing their opinions online during the next few months.
Richards Interactive also created a blog, ostensibly written by the raging cow herself, punctuated with the slogan, "The Revolution Will Be Homogenized.''
"If you read these sites long enough, you see points of intersections where the opinion makers gather,'' Copilevitz said.
"It's a phenomenon that's not on the mainstream radar quite yet, but it will be in six months.'' - AP
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