If your teen isn't text messaging -- chances are they are blogging. That is journaling their innermost thoughts for all to read on-line. Today blogs are giving teens the creative outlook they need to express what they feel, think and do on a daily basis. Emily Nussbaum, a writer for the New York Times, talked to "Today" about an article she wrote for this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine called "My So-Called Blog." Here’s an excerpt:
When M. gets home from school, he immediately logs on to his computer. Then he stays there, touching base with the people he has seen all day long, floating in a kind of multitasking heaven of communication. First, he clicks on his Web log, or blog — an online diary he keeps on a Web site called LiveJournal — and checks for responses from his readers. Next he reads his friends’ journals, contributing his distinctive brand of wry, supportive commentary to their observations. Then he returns to his own journal to compose his entries: sometimes confessional, more often dry private jokes or koanlike observations on life.
Finally, he spends a long time — sometimes hours — exchanging instant messages, a form of communication far more common among teenagers than phone calls. In multiple dialogue boxes on his computer screen, he’ll type real-time conversations with several friends at once; if he leaves the house to hang out in the real world, he’ll come back and instant message some more, and sometimes cut and paste transcripts of these conversations into his online journal. All this upkeep can get in the way of homework, he admitted. ‘‘You keep telling yourself, ‘Don’t look, don’t look!’ And you keep on checking your e-mail.’’ M. is an unusually Zen teenage boy — dreamy and ruminative about his personal relationships. But his obsessive online habits are hardly exceptional; he is one of a generation of compulsive self-chroniclers, a fleet of juvenile Marcel Prousts gone wild. When he meets a new friend in real life, M. offers them access to his online world. ‘‘That’s how you introduce yourself,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s like, here’s my cellphone number, my e-mail, my screen name, oh, and — here’s my LiveJournal. Personally, I’d go to that person’s LJ before I’d call them or e-mail them or contact them on AIM’’ — AOL Instant Messenger — ‘‘because I would know them better that way.’’
Only five years ago, mounting an online journal or its close cousin, the blog, required at least a modicum of technical know-how. But today, using sites like LiveJournal or Blogger or Xanga, users can sign up for a free account, and with little computer knowledge design a site within minutes. According to figures released last October by Perseus Development Corporation, a company that designs software for online surveys, there are expected to be 10 million blogs by the end of 2004. In the news media, the blog revolution has been portrayed as a transformation of the industry, a thousand minipundits blooming. But the vast majority of bloggers are teens and young adults. Ninety percent of those with blogs are between 13 and 29 years old; a full 51 percent are between 13 and 19, according to Perseus. Many teen blogs are short-lived experiments. But for a significant number, they become a way of life, a daily record of a community’s private thoughts — a kind of invisible high school that floats above the daily life of teenagers.
Back in the 1980’s, when I attended high school, reading someone’s diary would have been the ultimate intrusion. But communication was rudimentary back then. There were no cellphones, or answering machines; there was no ‘‘texting,’’ no MP3’s or JPEG’s, no digital cameras or file-sharing software; there was no World Wide Web — none of the private-ish, public-ish, superimmediate forums kids today take for granted. If this new technology has provided a million ways to stay in touch, it has also acted as both an amplifier and a distortion device for human intimacy. The new forms of communication are madly contradictory: anonymous, but traceable; instantaneous, then saved forever (unless deleted in a snit). In such an unstable environment, it’s no wonder that distinctions between healthy candor and ‘‘too much information’’ are in flux and that so many find themselves helplessly confessing, as if a generation were given a massive technological truth serum.
The result of all this self-chronicling is that the private experience of adolescence — a period traditionally marked by seizures of self-consciousness and personal confessions wrapped in layers and hidden in a sock drawer — has been made public. Peer into an online journal, and you find the operatic texture of teenage life with its fits of romantic misery, quick-change moods and sardonic inside jokes. Gossip spreads like poison. Diary writers compete for attention, then fret when they get it. And everything parents fear is true. (For one thing, their children view them as stupid and insane, with terrible musical taste.) But the linked journals also form a community, an intriguing, unchecked experiment in silent group therapy — a hive mind in which everyone commiserates about how it feels to be an outsider, in perfect choral unison.
For many in the generation that has grown up online, the solution is not to fight this technological loss of privacy, but to give in and embrace it: to stop worrying and learn to love the Web. It’s a generational shift that has multiple roots, from Ricki Lake to the memoir boom to the A.A. confessional, not to mention 13 seasons of ‘‘The Real World.’’ The teenagers who post journals have (depending on your perspective) a degraded or a relaxed sense of privacy; their experiences may be personal, but there’s no shame in sharing. As the reality-television stars put it, exposure may be painful at times, but it’s all part of the process of ‘‘putting it out there,’’ risking judgment and letting people in. If teen bloggers give something up by sloughing off a self-protective layer, they get something back, too — a new kind of intimacy, a sense that they are known and listened to. This is their life, for anyone to read. As long as their parents don’t find out.
It was early september, the start of the school year in an affluent high school in Westchester County, just north of New York City, where I was focusing my teen-blogging expedition. The halls were filled with students and walls covered with posters urging extracurricular activities. (‘‘Instant popularity, minus the hazing,’’ read one.) I’d come looking for J., a boy I’d never seen, though I knew many of the details of his life. (J., like most of the teenage bloggers I interviewed, insisted he not be identified, in part because his parents didn’t know about his blog.) On a Web site called Blurty, he kept an online journal, titled ‘‘Laugh at Me.’’ In his user profile he described himself this way: ‘‘I have depression, bad skin, weight problems, low self-esteem, few friends and many more reasons why I am angry.’’ In his online outpourings, J. inveighed hilariously against his parents, his teachers and friends who had let him down. ‘‘Hey everyone ever,’’ he wrote in one entry. ‘‘Stop making fun of people. It really is a sucky thing to do, especially if you hate being made fun of yourself.... This has been a public service announcement. You may now resume your stupid hypocritical, lying lives.’’
I was half-expecting a pimply nightmare boy, all monosyllables and misery. Instead, J. turned out to be a cute 15-year-old with a shy smile. A little bit jittery, he sat with his knees apart, admiring his own Converse sneakers. He had chosen an unfortunately public place for this interview — a stairwell near the cafeteria and directly across from the teacher’s lounge — although he insisted that we were in an obscure location.
J. had had his Blurty journal for about a year. He called it ‘‘better than therapy,’’ a way to get out his true feelings — all the emotions he thought might get him in trouble if he expressed them in school or at home. Online, he could blurt out confessions of loneliness and insecurity, worrying aloud about slights from friends. Yet despite the fact that he knew that anyone who wanted to could read his journal — and that a few friends did, leaving comments at the ends of his posts — he also maintained the notion that what he was doing was private. He didn’t write for an audience, he said; he just wrote what he was feeling.
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Story provided courtesy of the New York Times. Copyright © 2004 by New York Times.