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Virtual virtues

'BLOG" HAS A strikingly uninspiring sound, as if it were a cousin of blah-blah-blah -- a heavy stream of words without much sparkle. But blogs are lighting up the Internet, and the field is getting crowded.

One definition of blog, short for weblog, is that it is a personal journal published on the web. But bloggers aren't talking to themselves. They're starting, joining, and changing public conversations about politics, culture, commerce, and people's personal lives.

Even more striking are the virtual connections among blogs, a dense forest of links, referrals, and attacks that lead from one blog to the next, forming seemingly endless branching streams. Often, who bloggers are and what they do for a living doesn't matter as much as the power of their persuasion.

Some blogs are bogged down with news only a mother could care about. Others are written by passionate polemicists who see the world's trends and flaws in ways that are missed by others. They are unregulated and often undisciplined, letting a thousand unverified opinions bloom in the carefree belief that the participatory nature of blogs will eventually correct any errors.

Now the blogosphere, the vast electronic village square, is being invaded by some big mouths. Columnist Arianna Huffington has just launched her own multi-voiced blog, a place where the famous can sound off: from Walter Cronkite telling the Democratic Party to get its act together to Massachusetts's own Democratic congressman, Ed Markey, writing, ''I wonder how many North Korean nuclear weapons we will have to discover in order for this administration to conclude we can no longer continue to preach nuclear temperance from a barstool."

Recently The New York Times reported it is exploring the possibility of creating a Times blog ''that promotes a give-and-take with readers while satisfying the standards of our journalism."

Other newspapers are already there. For example, the Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania hosts blogs written by the paper's staff, the mayor of Reading, and area residents.

It must be a little daunting to the bloggers -- something like what happens when a funky neighborhood with a sleeper reputation becomes gentrified by a parade of new arrivals. The hope is that fresh voices will survive -- that the outraged theory-busters and hole-pokers will keep changing the ways that society talks about itself. Like voting, protesting, and debating, blogging can be a key ingredient of democracy. The trick is for the blogging pioneers to take seriously their responsibilities to the town square and resist trashing it with self-indulgent graffiti. That would improve the neighborhood for everyone.

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