If 2004 was, among other things, the Year of the Blog, that development occurred in terra incognita for most online Americans, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Pew found blog readership increased sharply, up 58 percent, between February and November 2004. This, despite the fact 62 percent of adult American Internet users still have no clear idea what a blog actually is.
"The story is, blogs are catching on," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & Amercian Life Project, "Not just on the creator side, but also on the demand side. Blog readership took off in 2004."
The Pew report was based on two nationwide phone surveys conducted in November. The first polled 1,324 Internet users; the second involved interviews with 537 users.
The report found as of November, 27 percent of the 120 million adult Internet users in the U.S. read blogs, up from 17 percent recorded only 9 months earlier. This means that by the end of 2004, approximately 32 million Americans were blog readers.
In terms of authorship, Pew found 7 percent of online Americans, or 8 million people, have created a blog. That figure contrasts with the 3 percent who said they'd created a Web log in the spring of 2002, when Pew began asking about blog creation in its surveys. (See Graph at bottom of page.)
The report drew conclusions about Blog creators:
The "conversational" dynamic of blogs also seems to be catching on. According to the study, 12 percent of American Internet users have posted comments or other material on blogs. This represents a total of 14 million Americans -- a threefold increase from April 2003, when Pew first began inquiring about contributing to other's blogs.
While the Pew data don't explicitly indicate it, Rainey attributes the surge in blog creation and readership primarily to the fact 2004 was an election year with a sharply divided electorate. "The election year drew awareness to political blogs, which then spilled over into other areas," Rainey said.
His insight is substantiated by other statistics on the blogosphere showing a spike in blog activity during January's Iowa caucuses, when Howard Dean's infamous "scream" became a top download. Other top-blogged events included the beheading of American civilian Nicholas Berg in May; the political conventions in July and August; the Kryptonite lock controversy in September; and Election Day, when political blogs averaged roughly a 130 to 200 percent traffic increase.
Capping the year tragically, the number of blogs referencing this month's southeast Asian tsunami catastrophe is likely to yield the largest spike in blog activity to date, Rainey said.
Finally, the Pew study found six million (5 percent) Americans online consume news and information through RSS or XLM aggregators, a trend that Rainey expects will grow in 2005 and beyond.
"If you're looking at the future," Rainey said, "the number of people who read information online through RSS feeds is going to continue to proliferate. Because there are only 24 hours in a day, and the amount of information sources are multiplying online, it raises the question of how this will change the way people learn and spend their time. Will people become more insular, filtering out information and perspectives they do not agree with? Our initial finding is that the opposite is true, that people tapping these new online sources are getting a wider variety of information, not less. But it's too early to say."