Feared, courted and mocked, blogs are making their presence felt, especially among the young. CHOW KUM HOR surfs the "blogosphere" to find out if there is more than hype to the four-letter word.
AN otherwise ordinary vacancy advertised in a local job-market portal created a buzz in cyberspace recently. Local technology websites, online chat rooms and e-community boards were thrilled by the novel idea that a company had taken out an advertisement looking for a blogger.
"See, mom! Blogging is a JOB, not a hobby," a blogger posted. Another described it as "the dream job". At least one technology website carried it as a news item.
Like their counterparts in developed countries, young adults in Malaysia are increasingly hooked on making their online journals accessible to the millions of Netizens the world over.
The term "blog", made up of "web" and "log", refers to "entries" or "logs" in the World Wide Web, where anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can publish their two cents’ worth on just about any topic under the sun.
From a personal rant on things like the quality of food in the cafeteria, blogs have are now almost on par with the mainstream media, especially in the United States.
In last year’s presidential elections, bloggers went head-to-head with the giants of publishing and TV. The Democratic and Republican Parties invited bloggers to their conventions on the same level as journalists.
In Malaysia, blogs are chiselling their way into the strongholds of newspapers and television.
"Typically, the average Malaysian blogger is a male between 20 and 40 years old from the middle class," says Aizuddin Danian who owns and manages Project Petaling Street (PPS) (www.petalingstreet.org).
PPS, dubbed a "blogtal" (blog portal), is an online voluntary endeavour that lists Malaysian-maintained blogs and provides updates on the latest postings.
So far, some 1,400 blogs are registered with PPS — a small fraction of Aizuddin’s estimate of at least 10,000 Malaysian bloggers based locally and abroad.
Given the borderless nature of cyberspace and the proliferation of companies offering free blogging services (like the popular blogger.com), it is impossible to keep track of all these Internet scribes.
The more popular Malay- sian blogs, such as "Aisehman" and "TV Smith", engage in socio-political commentary. Less known endeavours like "project 8-triple-5", where the blogger assumes the identity of his car, have a niche following.
By and large, the bloggers of the more established websites are identifiable individuals — people with known names and traceable addresses the authorities can come a-knocking when something goes wrong.
And then there are those who hide behind the web of anonymity, stirring sensitive sentiments and inciting hatred in their postings.
Former journalist and now Universiti Kebangsaan Malay- sia professor in media and communications Dr Safar Hashim says anonymity is one reason why blogging has caught on here. The casual activism that the Internet readily lends itself to is another, he adds.
One recent example was spinal cord injury victim Peter Tan (himself a blogger), whose wheelchair was damaged when he flew from Penang to Kuala Lumpur. Through an extensive network of links within the blogging fraternity, the case prompted surfers to flood the airline company with pleas for action.
But for many, it is the bloggers’ originality and linguistic flair that make them go back for more.
One blogger, for example, pens his sarcastic take on the idiosyncrasies of Malaysians with the opening remarks: "There are two things infinite, the universe and human stupidity, although I am not too sure about the former."
Jokes aside, from the business perspective, blogs can help corporations reach their stakeholders, says public relations practitioner K.H. Lim.
In the United States, big companies like Boeing, General Motors and Sun Microsystems have started blogs written by senior executives.
Think-tanker Ibrahim Suffian from the Merdeka Centre says Malaysian blogs, including those bordering on the political, have matured in a short space of time.
Bloggers are also beginning to get the recognition previously reserved for the bricks-and-mortar institutions, like being invited for TV talk shows.
When movie-maker Yasmin Ahmad’s acclaimed Sepet was threatened with the Censorship Board’s scissors, Ibrahim says the blogging community kicked up such a fuss that the board backed off.
In the end, a compromise was struck, with the final outcome acceptable to both parties. (Incidentally, Yasmin blogs at Yasminthestoryteller.blogspot.com.)
Such influence has drawn the authorities’ attention. Earlier this year, another blogger, Mack Zulkifli, was interviewed by the police who wanted to "understand the latest development of blogs".
Aizuddin says the notion of Malaysian bloggers operating from dimly-lit cybercafes hatching plots and spinning rumours is inaccurate.
"We are subject to the same rules as other people, like journalists. Most bloggers registered with PPS are known. In fact, some resort to self-censorship," says the 29- year-old manager of a bank who has been blogging for four years.
Internal Security Deputy Minister Chia Kwang Chye, who is one of the more IT-savvy politicians around, says it is sometimes impossible to nail down surfers who post anonymous comments. He cautions bloggers to exercise care and surfers not to get carried away with their postings.
Umno Youth’s Datuk Norza Zakaria is more ambivalent, saying the party does not want to fall into the trap of giving undue credibility to reckless blogs.
He adds that Umno is not against blogs per se, but bloggers who spread lies and malice online.
Despite the hype, Safar feels Malaysian-run blogs are nowhere near replacing the traditional media in terms of outreach and influence — at least for now.
"A lot of people have not even heard of blogs. Maybe 20 per cent of the population has and most of them are urbanite and relatively young."
Besides, the number of socio-political blogs are few and far between, as the young are generally more inclined to subjects like the latest Hollywood movies or the "coolest" personal digital assistant in the market.
CIMB Securities’ head of economics Lee Heng Guie says until and unless blogs come across as a credible and reliable source of information, the traditional media have nothing to fear.
"My take is blogs now complement, instead of compete, with newspapers and TV."
But given the rising influence of blogs in more developed countries, and its draw among the young here, the "blogosphere" could well be where the next big thing in free speech takes place.