Reports on power of blogs have been greatly exaggerated

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What transformed politics this time around?" The New York Times Op-Ed Page asked-quite rhetorically, mind you-on Election Day. Answer: the blog. "The commentary of bloggers," the unnamed editorialist averred, with an assurance quite rare for the avowedly middle-of-the-road page, "... helped shape the 2004 race."

Although it's fun to catch conventional wisdom in the act of reiteration, it's also a reminder that parrots are annoying pets. Having reflected on blogs for the better part of two years, and having participated in the sport for a short two months, I am prepared to report that blogging is little more than hype dished out largely by the unemployable to the aimless. While there is a phenomenon that bears attention buried within them, blogs themselves are barely worth the attention politicians-or marketers-are paying them.

The Times defines bloggers as "individuals or groups posting daily, hourly or second-by-second observations of and opinions ... on their own Web sites." They have been aided by technology that makes it very easy to post-so easy that the Wall Street Journal estimates there are as many as 5 million blogs.

Hence the first contradiction: Who in the world has time to engage in such minute observation? Existing interest groups and individuals with too much time on their hands. That leads to the second contradiction: Who in the world has time to read all this crap? Existing interest groups ... and people with too much time on their hands. In good consulting tradition, I'd like to draw (alas, in words only) a 2x2 matrix describing the sociocultural influence of blogs. They appear to consist of four constituencies:

Interest groups talking to interest groups. Interest groups talking to people with too much time on their hands. People with too much time on their hands talking to interest groups. People with too much time on their hands talking to each other. There can't be too much influencin' going down here.

Why, then, the hype? Journalism organizations are among the interest groups-and reporters, editors and producers among those with too much time on their hands. Newspapers, newsmagazines and 24-hour news channels require a narrative. Bloggers provide an easy yarn to weave.

Do some bloggers have sway? About as much as your average op-ed columnist. A few even have meager, self-sustaining ad-support. Some have joined together the best-written, most provocative blogs in single sites, a vitally important trend for which we might coin a new term. (How about "magazine"?) And sure, blogs contributed to the outing of the false "60 Minutes" report on Bush's National Guard service. But a million monkeys filing second-by-second observations on Web sites would undoubtedly stumble on the real author of Shakespeare's plays.

Marketers have begun to pay attention to blogs, mostly out of fear. They worry that bloggers, unchecked, can spread damaging misinformation. But urban legends predate the Internet. It didn't take a blogger to spread the word that Bubble Yum was made with spider eggs or that Paul is dead.

Blogs are this year's fad. Decentralizing the power of the press is certainly a signal development. Will a million empowered press barons emerge? No-only the few who have something important and original to say. In the case of blogs, McLuhan got it wrong: The medium isn't the message. The message is the message.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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