The number of blogs around the world has jumped from 5.4 million two months ago to 7.5 million today, according to the blog search engine Technorati. They are read by an estimated 32 million people a day.
Inside the United States, these websites can range from the mundane -- an exhaustive documentation of the activities of one's cat -- to provocative columns that are starting to break news and transform the national debate.
But elsewhere in the world, blogs are playing another, increasingly important role: documenting and disseminating dissent in nondemocratic countries. In countries without a free press or where criticism of the government is frowned upon, if not banned altogether, bloggers are finding themselves at the forefront of a powerful political movement -- and some of them are paying a price.
The reformist cleric Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president of Iran, started a blog, Webnevesht (www.webneveshteha.com), which has become a high-profile instrument of critical thought in a country without an independent media. But only a blogger with Abtahi's political portfolio could expect to do what he is doing without repercussions.
In fact, Iran is the most blatant state repressor of bloggers in the world. At least 20 bloggers and online journalists have been arrested and two convicted there in recent months for criticizing the government and speaking in favor of freedom of expression.
Arash Sigarchi, a blogger and daily newspaper editor, was sentenced to 14 years in jail on charges of "espionage and insulting the country's leaders." Another Iranian blogger, Mohamad Reza Nasab Abdolahi, was given a six-month jail sentence, also for insulting the country's leaders. Blogger Mojtaba Saminejad was arrested in November, released on bail in mid-January, then rearrested less than a month later after his bail was doubled and he could not pay. Abdolahi's pregnant wife, Najmeh Omidparvar, also a blogger, was arrested March 2.
Iran is hardly alone in repressing bloggers. Malaysian authorities recently dragged in Jeff Ooi for questioning. Ooi's blog included critical comments about Islam Hadari, a philosophy of Islam promoted by the Malaysian prime minister.
And on Feb. 27, Bahraini authorities detained Ali Abdulemam, one of the moderators of a popular online bulletin board, BahrainOnline (www.bahrainonline.org), whose contributors are frequently critical of the government. Two of his fellow moderators were also detained; yet to be formally arrested, they reportedly will be held for the duration of an investigation.
Blogs are a provocative and corrective voice everywhere for a few key reasons. Obviously they fill a void where media are repressed, but because they tend to reflect the bloggers' opinions and obsessions, they can also cut through the veil that "objectivity" and "newsworthiness" can impose on news. They reveal more. Bloggers brought you "Rathergate" and Trent Lott's downfall as Senate majority leader.
In terms of keeping a free flow of ideas alive, the blogosphere has a distinct advantage over other, more hierarchical information sources. It is a radically decentralized system; bloggers quote each other, pass links from site to site, use all the mechanisms of interactivity.
In fact, to imprison or attack a blogger and think that will end dissident or provocative blogging is on a par of foolishness with Caligula ordering his troops to defeat Neptune by attacking the North Sea with their swords. The blogosphere doesn't let things die.
The state may find and incarcerate an individual and seize his blog, but much of what he wrote will most likely have been cached somewhere in the blogosphere, ready to be called up again. News of an arrest only spreads the blogger's ideas. And if one blog is shut down, another can easily crop up.
"Meme" is a term denoting an idea with a life of its own, proliferating the way genes do as they are passed from generation to generation. The perfect conduit of memes is the blogosphere, where there is the will and the means to allow dissent -- and other forms of free expression -- to reverberate.