HIGH SCHOOL BLOGGING
NYT Magazine has a very long piece on the phenomenon of high school kids who maintain and read blogs after school. They’re treating it as a big thing–with shadows obscuring the face of the pictured blogger.
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 new friends 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 explosion 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.
A 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.
So, what’s the big deal here? Is this radically different than spending hours instant messaging? E-mailing? On BBS chatroom boards? Yapping on the telephone?