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Wednesday, September 22, 2004 - Page updated at 03:13 P.M.
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Web logs catch fire as kindling for change

By Kristi Heim
Seattle Times business reporter

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Other local blog sources: Emphasis Added
Other local blog sources: Orcinus
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In Washington, D.C., a tenacious Web logger helped take down Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

In the other Washington, a different blogger is helping to take down the center-field bleachers at Safeco Field.

Bloggers, those crusading individuals ranting away on their keyboards to anyone with a live modem, have already influenced national political debates, including the firestorm over Dan Rather's reporting. Even in the relatively bland landscape of Seattle politics, they are starting to find a voice, too.

"We're like the Radio Free Europe for Mariners fans," said Derek Zumsteg, 30, who blogs on the baseball fan site U.S.S. Mariner and says he wants to stimulate "a good fight with hair-pulling and name-calling."

The number of people keeping online journals known as Web logs, or blogs, has exploded in recent years. Blog search service Technorati says it now tracks almost 4 million blogs around the world, up from 100,000 two years ago.

Blogs, which are open for anyone to read and often to post comments, are emerging as a new medium of expression. They're different from garden-variety Web sites because they're updated often, like diaries, and the most recent information appears at the top.

Bloggers also link to each other to spread ideas. But their reach is still relatively small. A study this year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 2 to 7 percent of U.S. adult Internet users have created blogs and 11 percent have read blogs.

Nevertheless, bloggers have played a key role in national issues.

In 2002, when Lott "misspoke" praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's past segregationist policies, his remarks didn't capture national media attention until bloggers got busy posting their outrage over Lott's comments.

More recently, bloggers have analyzed the authenticity of documents reported questioning President Bush's National Guard service, proclaiming them fake 11 days before CBS and Rather issued apologies.

Local potential
Some see this national trend filtering down to the local level.

Kirsten Foot, assistant professor of communication at the University of Washington, has been studying the role of political Web sites in elections that have occurred since 2000. Technology strategies adopted by Howard Dean's presidential campaign, using the power of the Internet to gather support, are spreading out and opening more channels for civic engagement, she said.

"Blogs have created a way for individual citizens to draw attention to issues they think are important and should be discussed," Foot said.

In Seattle, blogs are being used to debate initiatives and racism, chronicle a Libertarian campaign for secretary of state, humanize the image of Microsoft and rally Seattle Mariners fans against a set of bleachers.

From his cyber pulpit, the Shark Blog, Stefan Sharkansky rips into local education levies and the monorail, among other diatribes against liberal media, John Kerry, Michael Moore and Yasser Arafat, to name a few.

He has gone so far as to compare King County Executive Ron Sims to Zimbabwe's dictatorial President Robert Mugabe, a comparison that even one regular reader said crossed the line.

Sharkansky, dubbed by another blogger as "the local political blogfather," has been operating the Shark Blog from his Green Lake home since May 2003, when he moved from San Francisco.

"I find that I'm having the most influence per time spent talking about local issues," said Sharkansky, 41, a software consultant. "There are so many people writing well on national issues. On the local issues, we really need to have alternative voices to what I call Seattle's political monoculture."

His audience is still tiny — on Friday his site meter registered an average of 1,100 visits a day, most of them staying less than a minute. By comparison, the influential blog Instapundit recently averaged 300,000 visitors a day.

But Sharkansky credits his blog for helping him throw his voice into the debate on such local issues as charter schools and programs funded by Seattle's Family and Education Levy.

In July, Sharkansky and five other local bloggers launched a site called Sound Politics to comment on current events in the city, region and state.

Eclectic blogger

Local blogger Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey describes herself as a budding economist, Avon lady, Libertarian politician and science-fiction geek.

Passey, a senior economics student at Seattle University, writes an eclectic blog covering politics, economics, beauty and other topics. She has also started blogging about her campaign for secretary of state. She received more than 10,000 votes in the primary, qualifying as the Libertarian candidate in the November election.

"I think it will get me a few extra votes in the general election, but probably less than 1 percent of my total votes," Passey said.

Her campaign donors were people she knew from before starting the blog, which gets about 300 visits a day.

"I think overall, the campaign has done more for my blog than vice versa," Passey said. "It gives me something interesting to write about, and I've picked up a few new regular readers."

Ian Spiers, a graphic designer and photography student, set up a blog called Brown Equals Terrorist to chronicle his experience being questioned by Seattle police and federal agents after photographing the Ballard Locks in May. Spiers has since used his blog to rail against racial profiling.

Spiers, who is half black, says he was singled out because of his skin color; he made fliers at Kinko's to document what happened and protest his treatment. He began distributing them at local dog parks. But he soon realized a Web log would be cheaper and had the potential to reach more people.

On the first day his site registered only 44 visitors. Then he alerted some bloggers, and they spread the word on the Web. The next day 9,000 visitors converged on the site.

"Blogging was an inexpensive way to publish and try to get people pulled in," Spiers said. "It was a way to make noise and try to say something about what happened. There's something very intimate about following somebody's blog. You're sharing their experience."

Star blogger

Arguably the most famous blogger in the Seattle area is Robert Scoble, a technical evangelist at Microsoft. Scoble's blog, called Scobleizer, receives international attention and ranks among the top 100 blogs on the Web.

Last week, Scobleizer came in at 44, based on the number of other blogs linking to his site. Technorati uses those links as a measure of the blog's influence.

Scoble says blogging and other forms of direct communication over the Web are here to stay. He uses software to scan 800 different Web sources a day, looking for news about Microsoft and highlights of daily political news.

"The word-of-mouth information networks are becoming more and more efficient every day," Scoble writes.

But just how much influence are they having outside the navel-gazing blogosphere?

Kayne McGladrey, author of the blog Pleasing to Remember and a self-described Dean Democrat from Renton, asked a number of Democratic candidates and campaign managers to write on a community Web log.

He offered to handle the technical issues, promote the site and pay for all the costs.

"The idea was to establish a local Democratic echo chamber to promote these candidates, and also to make them more accessible and interesting to the public," he writes.

None of the campaigns accepted his offer.

Bloggers might be slogging away trying to stir up change, but politicians are still stuck in the 1990s, says McGladrey.

Perhaps it takes the right hot-button issue. Zumsteg, a program manager at Expedia who writes the U.S.S. Mariner blog, just might have hit on one.

"Our site attracts a couple thousand of the most avid, smart and active Mariners fans," said Zumsteg. A few weeks ago, "they took up arms against their oppressor."

The issue was a decision by the Mariners in March to cover up a popular gathering spot for fans in center field, known as the Bullpen Market, with temporary bleachers, adding the capacity to sell 240 more seats.

Zumsteg was outraged, and he's been using his blog to lash out ever since. Based on a suggestion from a reader, on Aug. 30 he posted a list of things fans could do to fight back, along with contacts for the team, the facility management and local newspaper editorial pages. He included a sample letter people could use to frame their own.

Flood of protests

Fans sent so much mail that the Mariners drew up a form letter to respond, Zumsteg said. Many were particularly irate that the new seats covered up commemorative bricks that fans purchased for $75 each before the stadium opened five years ago.

Monday, Mariners President Chuck Armstrong made a public apology to any fans whose bricks were covered.

Next year, he said, the temporary seats will be used only at high-demand games when extra seating is needed. The rest of the time, the patio area will be open to fans as before.

While it's not a total victory, Zumsteg says, "at least we're not going to see them every series. It's great to see that public pressure had an effect."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or

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