New Delhi: It started as a joke.
Two lines of black text on a yellow box, pinioned in a corner of Peter Merholz’s personal website. “I’ve decided,” the user-interface designer from San Francisco wrote in 1999, “to pronounce the word weblog as ‘wee-blog’, or blog for short.”
In the next 10 years, the unwieldy and awkward word grew from being an exclusive preserve of the tech savvy to become the dominant face of the Internet. It became Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2004. It spawned an entire subset of language to explain itself. The 133 million “netizens” of its “blogosphere” rang alarm bells in mainstream media organizations, and it was arguably responsible for the millionth word in English: Web 2.0.
Also See A Decade of Blogging (PDF)
In India, the blog has grown steadily, if unspectacularly, from a handful at the dawn of the country’s Internet era in the early 2000s to an estimated 3.2 million, according to JuxtConsult’s India Online 2008 report. JuxtConsult is a Delhi-based market research firm.
The exact number of active Indian blogs, however, is hard to pin down, and the size of the Indian blogosphere could be “roughly between 200,000 and half a million active blogs today”, says Gaurav Mishra, chief executive of social media research and strategy company 20:20 Web Tech.
“When I started in June 2003, the Indian blogging scene was mostly personal blogs commenting on each other’s posts,” says Patrix, the founder of DesiPundit.com, a popular Indian blog aggregator. The prominent bloggers were so few, he says, “You could count them on your hand.”
Kiruba Shankar, now chief executive of Business Blogging Pvt. Ltd, a social media consultancy firm and one of India’s earliest bloggers, remembers trying to organize a bloggers’ meet in Chennai in late 2002. Shankar was then a senior executive for Sify Technologies Ltd, an IT services company.
“It took me three weeks to find five people to attend, and back then it was just relief that there actually were other people in this strange new pursuit with you,” he says.
Technorati, a search engine for blogs, in its annual State of the Blogosphere report indexes 133 million blogs worldwide since 2002. The 11 September attack in 2001, and the 2003 Iraq war saw the emergence of a large number of personal and political blogs. In 2004, the first year Technorati published its report, it tracked four million blogs. By October 2005, that number had risen to 19.6 million.
But in Indian blogging, there were no such tipping points. “Indian blogs have always grown organically, steadily through word of mouth. They’ve never suddenly exploded onto the scene in terms of numbers,” says Shankar.
There have, however, been sporadic incidents that made existing bloggers the centre of attention. In the wake of a telecommunications breakdown following the 2004 tsunami, the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog (SEA-EAT) published text messages sent from affected areas by the people on the ground, enabling bloggers to provide useful information from around the region. The now defunct SEA-EAT blog became one of the world’s top ranked blogs—at one point more popular than the BBC website—in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.
Patrix found a similar trajectory with DesiPundit. “It evolved slowly but there were a few watershed moments like the whole IIPM brouhaha (when, in 2005, the Indian Insitute of Planning and Management sent legal notices to bloggers who’d featured a story on the institute), the Blog Quake Day (when, after the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, nearly 100-125 bloggers pooled in money to donate to relief funds) and regular events that result in collective anger among bloggers...who expect(ed) DesiPundit to lead the charge and collate posts on the topic,” he says.
The Indian blogosphere’s growth has also been stymied by technical factors: low Internet penetration, estimated at 60 million people, or 5.22% of the total population, and the only recent arrival of regional language blogging. As a result, it remains a small, urban-centric, niche community.
“A blog with a daily readership of 1,500-2,000 would be considered fairly successful in India; in the US, in contrast, the superstars measure their readership in hundreds of thousands,” says Rohit Pradhan, who’s associated with Pragati: The Indian National Interest Review, a current affairs publication, and blogs at Nationalinterest.in.
But more than technical limitations, it is the idea of the blog, some bloggers say, which people find difficult to conceptualize. The maturing of the blog from a personal publishing medium to a veritable alternate medium has not yet happened in India.
Most people unfamiliar with the medium, says Krish Ashok , an IT professional who runs a Chennai-based blog, look at blogs merely as a way of making a quick buck, or a lazy short cut to instant fame.
“A lot of the questions I get are: ‘How do I get readers?’, ‘What do I write about?’ It’s a very ‘exam’ attitude, like asking ‘what can I write to get the most marks?’” says Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy, who writes the popular blog Compulsive Confessor and also authors a column on blogs in the Hindustan Times newspaper.
Blogospheres have always been scattered, disorganized communities, and in the statistical bell curve of blog popularity, at least 90% are confined to the infinite recesses of Internet obscurity. But blogs in countries such as the US are organized on subject lines, with a cluster of popular and influential blogs acting like hubs. From cooking advice to Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom, there are blogs and hubs for every occasion and purpose.
That variety in subject matter is a strength the Indian blogosphere does not enjoy yet. A few topics —Humour, Bollywood , Cricket, opinion on breaking news—work. The personal blog, unperturbed as it is by the need for readership, works. But this unbalanced importance for a few kinds of blogs does not mean the rest don’t exist, says Priyanka Sachar who blogs as Twilight Fairy. Without the cushion of a large readership, their influence, and consequently, their impact, is reduced.
“In the US blogosphere, you would find a lot of academics with solid expertise—the economic and law blogs there are fantastic—the commentary they are able to drum up after an important Supreme Court judgement, for example, is phenomenal,” says T.A. Abhinandan, professor of materials engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who writes a blog called Nanopolitan. “That is yet to catch up here. We have some good law blogs, but there is really no economics-oriented blog worth its salt here—run by an academic economist who can make some comment on the RBI policy or the finance ministry.”
But the drought in variety is not just in expert, academic opinion.
“Some of the best-followed blogs in India are by people who are in some way already writing for a living. But where are the amateurs and the common people who have other passions?” asks Vinayak Razdan, who writes a blog called At The Edge.
The rise in importance of the so-called amateur, a well-established norm in blogging communities elsewhere, is much more muted in India. “Indians are traditionally careful about self expression. Very few companies allow employees to blog. So with this permission culture we naturally have in place, blogging—which is such a basic do-it-yourself, self-expression, write-what-you-want, don’t-care-what-people-think medium—only a small percentage will take to that,” says Ashok.
It’s still early days for the blog in India, however, and change, says Pradhan, will come with a greater critical mass. “Unless the blogosphere grows sufficiently large, its influence would be limited,” he says.
The beginnings of that change are already being felt by some bloggers. “There is quite a bit of diversity now —simply because a lot more people have entered blogging,” says Abhinandan. “The diversity is reflected in what is being blogged about—for example politics—very leftist to very libertarian. A lot of blogs that talk about Dalit issues and so on—these voices were not that prominent in the early days.”
“The blogosphere has definitely given space to a lot of marginalized voices—for example, support for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) communities,” adds Pradhan.
And in small but sure ways, says Razdan, the blog is beginning to assert itself as a space for political opinion. “During L.K. Advani’s Adsense blitzkrieg during the 2009 election,” he says, “some bloggers did block his ads from displaying on their blogs, even though it was one on the best money making ads at the time. I don’t think the mainstream media could have afforded such ideas.”
This is the first in a four-part series. Tomorrow: The blog as a publicity tool.