WASHINGTON -- In one smoky corner of the Rendezvous Lounge in Adams-Morgan, the clean-cut free-marketeer who writes "The Agitator" swapped tales with the long-haired leftist behind "Maxspeak." Next to them, the amateur clown who runs "The Ankle Biter" leaned on a flowered, burgundy chaise-longue chatting with the rambling "Technology Addict."
Flitting among the conversations was Julian Sanchez -- author of "Notes From the Lounge" -- who held a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other. Sanchez was the dapper host of this unusual party, where many of the guests knew each other well, even though they'd never actually met.
The recent Blogorama at Kalorama, the main drag in this trendy D.C. neighborhood, offered the hip, youngish and politically inclined set a chance to meet, mingle and opine -- this time in an actual lounge instead of in cyberspace. Most knew each other only by their blogs, or Web logs -- the frequently updated online journals that are proliferating on the Internet at a mind-bending rate.
Web logs were once the province of tech-savvy geeks, but now several companies have created software so easy to use that almost anyone can create these scrolling, online commentaries. Some post their opinions on war with Iraq; others use the forum to tell strangers how much they love their cats (a blog species mostly derided as "kittybloggers").
While no one is sure exactly how many blogs have bloomed, the company behind Blogger, the most popular Web log program, claims to have spawned more than 1 million itself.
Some, like Tiffany Baxendell's "The Ankle Biter," focus on life's mundanities, such as the leftover Chinese food she ate for breakfast or her lousy commute into the district.
"It's the ultimate ego trip," said the 24-year-old Alexandria, Va., resident, who estimates about 100 visitors read her daily. "The same people who are yelling at the TV when only their cat can hear are the ones who are blogging. It saves my friends from having to listen to it."
Other bloggers favor the Sanchez approach -- conversational musings about politics, culture and assorted outrages. Though his "Notes From the Lounge" sometimes intersperses photos of friends with essays on libertarian theory, the 23-year-old public policy writer offers little about his personal life.
"I don't want to run into someone at a bar and have them say, 'Hey, I heard you got [lucky] last night. I saw your blog,'" Sanchez said. "That's not something I look forward to."
Baxendell and Sanchez are members of the Beltway Bloggers, a group of online friends who post permanent links to each other's sites. Baltimore has a similar group, the Baltimore Bloggers, which includes about a dozen writers who occasionally socialize offline.
"I think Web logging is reviving the art of letter-writing, with a larger audience. It's like an open letter to the world," said Baltimore blogger Sean Gallagher, a technical writer and editor who runs the "Dotcommunist" and "Mobtown Project" blogs from his Hampden home.
Gallagher uses "Mobtown Project" to post photos of Baltimore life, and encourages others to do the same. He considers blogging part journalism, part art form. "Andy Warhol would have a Web log if he were alive today," Gallagher says.
Bloggers have a knack for devising creative titles -- such as "Insolvent Republic of Blogistan" -- and ingenious new words. When one blogger assails another's claims in a long, point-by-point screed, it's called getting "fisked" -- after left-wing British journalist Robert Fisk, whose articles inspired such attacks.
Many bloggers are fascinated by just how their readers discover them, often through the string of topic words typed in on search engines like Google. Baxendell, who wears a pigtail wig as an amateur clown, said one reader recently found her through a search for the terms "pigtail wig sex." This phenomenon has given rise to its own blog, which lists such misleading search phrases, called "Disturbing Search Request."
Bloggers take up the keyboard for different reasons. Some at the Rendezvous said they wanted to improve their writing. Others see it as a sort of yearlong holiday letter, allowing loved ones to keep up with their lives. Many created their sites after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to fill a void they saw in mainstream media.
Max Sawicky, an economist who runs "Maxspeak," spices his blog commentary with charts of the federal deficit and photo-spoofs of high-level officials (as in President "Moe" Bush, Vice President "Curly" Cheney and Secretary of State "Larry" Powell).
Sawicky, who said he had 49,000 visitors in January, thinks his site gets the word out about his work at the Economic Policy Institute. He also has an extensive "blogroll," called "Ilk Central" that links visitors to other blog writers.
"You'll find out about things faster by following blogs than you will any other way," Sawicky said.
Lot on Lott
Though most bloggers do little of their own reporting, many columnists have credited prominent bloggers for keeping the Trent Lott story alive after the former Senate majority leader uttered his infamous remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party late last year. The brouhaha picked up steam when liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall excoriated the media for ignoring Lott's endorsement of Thurmond's 1948 pro-segregation platform.
"InstaPundit," a hugely popular blog with a libertarian slant run by Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, linked to Marshall's comments. Other bloggers from right and left joined the anti-Lott chorus, though hardly anyone beyond the Internet seemed to be raising a fuss. Within days, though, newspaper columnists, politicians and television pundits were demanding his resignation.
"To me, the Trent Lott story was proof that blogging was not just early 21st-century pet rocks," Sanchez said. "It showed blogs have a purpose to serve."
Still, Reynolds said in an e-mail interview, even blogs like his, which claims 100,000 daily readers, seldom break stories widely unless mainstream journalists bring them out of the "blogosphere" and into print.
"Several big journalists told me they first heard the [Lott] story from my site, and that they probably wouldn't have thought it was important if I hadn't given it so much attention," said Reynolds. But the Lott story could have percolated without him, he said, because some black Republicans were already fuming over the comments. "Like most such things," he said, "how much power the blogs wield is hard to determine."
Maybe not that hard. Reynolds, who started his musings to keep current with Internet technology, now has a second blog on msnbc.com.
Many gain fame
Several well-known professional writers have gained greater fame and exposure through their blogs. Former Washington pundit Mickey Kaus is now well known for "Kausfiles." Former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan has found new readers through his blog, as has author Neal Pollack (who frequently uses his blog to mock Sullivan).
Few journalists had heard of veteran reporter James Romenesko before he started "Mediagossip.com" as a hobby a few years ago. Now the site, renamed "Romenesko" (formerly "Medianews"), has a permanent home at the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism training school. Its author, now a full-time Poynter employee, wakes up at 5 a.m. Central time to scan the Web for stories; thousands of journalists start their days with a visit to his site.
Despite the growing subculture, Romenesko doesn't think blogs will replace newspapers anytime soon.
"I remember when everybody was high on fanzines -- this was the early and mid-1990s -- and there were predictions that fanzines would become all the rage, that every family would have a fanzine, that they would threaten traditional publishing, etc. I see a lot of stories where the word 'blog' has simply replaced the word 'fanzine,'" Romenesko said.
As he worked the lounge on Kalorama, blogger Sanchez said that's as things should be: Each outlet has its place along the media spectrum.
"There are norms in journalism that, for good reason, prevent news stories from having a perspective," he said.
And without perspective, blogs would certainly be blah.
Here are the addresses of Web logs mentioned in this article.
The Agitator: www. agitator.com
Maxspeak: www. maxspeak.org
Technology Addict: www.radio.weblogs.com/0116463
The Ankle Biter: www.quibbling.net
Notes from the Lounge: www.juliansanchez.com/notes/html
Mobtown Project: www.dendro.com/mobtown
InstaPundit: www. InstaPundit.com
Kausfiles: www. kausfiles.com