January 11, 2004, Sunday

My So-Called Blog

By Emily Nussbaum (NYT) 4768 words
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.

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 the walls were covered with posters urging extracurricular activities. (''Instant popularity, minus the hazing,'' read one.) I had 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.

Writing in his online journal was cathartic for him, he said, but it was hardly stress-free. A week earlier, he left a post about an unrequited crush, and an anonymous someone appended negative comments, remarks J. wouldn't detail (he deleted them), but which he described with distress as ''disgusting language, vulgarities.'' J. panicked, worried that the girl he liked might learn about the vulgar comments and, by extension, his attraction to her. It was a somewhat mysterious concern. Couldn't the girl have read his original post, I asked? And anyway, didn't he secretly want her to read his journal? ''Of course,'' he moaned, leaning against the banister. ''For all I know she does. For all I know, she doesn't.''

J.'s sense of private and public was filled with these kinds of contradictions: he wanted his posts to be read, and feared that people would read them, and hoped that people would read them, and didn't care if people read them. He wanted to be included while priding himself on his outsider status. And while he sometimes wrote messages that were explicitly public -- announcing a band practice, for instance -- he also had his own stringent notions of etiquette. His crush had an online journal, but J. had never read it; that would be too intrusive, he explained.

In any case, today he was in a strikingly good mood. After a year of posting his journal on Blurty, which few of his fellow students used, he was switching to a different Web site: LiveJournal, the enclave of many kids in his school's punk set. He'd spent the last day or two transferring all his old posts, setting up a friends list and concocting a new ''icon,'' the tiny symbol that would represent him when he posted: a blurry shot of his face in profile. Unlike Blurty, where accounts are free for anyone who signs up, LiveJournal was restricted. (That policy has since changed.) You either had to pay to join (which J. couldn't afford) or be offered a coveted membership -- a private ''code'' -- by someone who already belonged. The policy was intended to make members accountable to one another, but it also had the effect of creating an invisible clique. For J., it was a sign that he might belong at last.

While the sites that are hosts to online journals may attract different crowds, their formats vary only slightly: a LiveJournal is a Blurty is a Xanga is a DeadJournal is a DiaryLand. A typical page shows a dated list of entries, beginning with the most recent. Many posts are short, surrealistic one-liners: ''I just peeled a freckle off my neck. Does that mean it's not a freckle?'' Others are more like visual poems, featuring a quirky series of scanned pictures (monkeys and robots are popular), a quote from a favorite song or a link to a strange news story. Some posts consist of transcripts of instant-message conversations, posted with or without permission (a tradition I discovered when a boy copied one of our initial online conversations under the heading ''i like how older people have grammar online'').

But a significant number of writers treat their journals as actual diaries, toting up detailed accounts of their day. ''I watched the miracle of life today in bio, and it was such a huge letdown,'' read one post. ''I was expecting it to be funny and sexual but it was way too scientific for my liking, and a bit yucky too, but not as bad as people made it out to be. Although, my not being able to laugh made me feel a bit too old. Current mood: disappointed.''

Then there are the kinds of posts that fulfill a parent's worst paranoia. ''It was just a nite of lying to my dad,'' reads one entry posted last fall. ''At like 7ish we started drinking, but i didnt have THAT much. And i figured out y i drink so much. Cuz i really really don't like being sober with drunk people. . . . i have more homework to do than imaginable. And to make it better, im hungover and feel sick. Great . . . great. DRINKING IS BAD!!''

Other entries are just plain poignant. ''My father is suing my mom on no real grounds. He just wants to 'destroy her' and I am trying my best to stay 'neutral.' Things seem real foggy, but I am told that they should turn out for the best. I just don't know. Affection needed. Current mood: indescribable.''

If a journal may look at first like a simple recitation of events, the fact that readers can comment renders it deeply interactive. (On some sites, like Xanga, you can give ''eProps'' for particularly good posts -- the equivalent of gold stars.) Most comments are wisecracks or sympathetic one-liners. Occasionally people respond with hostility. The threads of comments can amount to a public miniconversation, in which a group of friends debates a subject or plans an event or offers advice. ''I need your help,'' one poster wrote. ''Yes, your help. You, the one reading this . . . what am i supposed to do when the dynamic of a once-romantic relationship sort of changes but sort of doesn't, and the next week i continually try to get in touch with the girl but she is either not there or can't talk very long, and before this change in the dynamic she was always available?'' A string of friends offered suggestions, from ''don't call her so much'' to ''confront her . . . what she's doing isn't fair to you.''

In daily life, most bloggers don't talk about what they say online. One boy engaged in vociferous debates on Mideast policy with another blogger, a senior a year ahead of him. Yet the two never spoke in school, going only so far as to make eye contact in the halls.

Silences like this can create paranoia. It may be that friends just didn't read the post. Or it may mean they thought the post was stupid. There's a temptation to take silence -- in real life or online -- as a snub. ''If I get a really mean comment and I go back and I look at it again, and again, it starts to bother me,'' M. told me. ''But then I think, If I delete it, everyone will know this bothers me. But if I respond, it'll mean I need to fight back. So it turns into a conflict, but it's fun. It's like a soap opera, kind of.''

It's a drama heightened by the fact that journals are linked to one another, creating a constant juxtaposition of posts among the students. For example, on LiveJournal, you can click a ''friends'' link and catch up on your friends' experiences without ever speaking, with everyone's accounts posted next to one another in a kind of word collage. For many, this transforms daily life. Teen bloggers are constantly considering how they'll turn a noteworthy moment into an online post. After a party or a concert, these accounts can amount to a prismatic portrait of the evening.

But even this endless linking only begins to touch on the complex ways these blogs are obsessively interconnected and personalized. L. has had an online journal for two and a half years, and it has morphed along

with her. At first, her interest list (part of the user profile) consisted of topics like aromatherapy, yoga and Zen -- each of which linked to people with the same interest. She deleted that list and started over. In her next phase, she was obsessed with Freudian psychology. Now she lists fashion trends and belongs to the Flapper, Saucy Dwellings and Sex Tips blog rings.

Over the course of the fall, she changed the title of her Web log more than five times. L. relishes the way subtle choices of design and phrasing lend her posts a winking mysteriousness, hinting at feelings without making them explicit. ''I don't think I reveal too much; if I'm upset, I don't say why,'' she told me. ''In the beginning, I was just like, there shouldn't be private posts, this should all be public. But then it makes you very vulnerable.'' And her attitude goes double for her parents. ''I don't talk to them about anything. They'll be like, 'How was school?' And I'll be like, 'Fine.' And that was it.''

Many of a journal's markers of personal identity are hilariously telegraphic. There are sometimes slots for a journalizer's mood and current music. (Sample moods: ''stoned,'' ''restless,'' ''accomplished,'' ''confused'' and ''braces off Tuesday.'') Journal writers link en masse to sardonic identity questionnaires, like ''How Indie Am I?'' And every once in a while, someone posts a random list of questions, and everyone's journal fills up with simultaneous answers to queries like ''Do you believe in an afterlife?'' or ''Name Four Things You Wish You Had.'' (''1. A flat tummy; 2. people that would miss me; 3. my copy of 'perks of being a wallflower' back; 4. talent at ANYTHING.'')

It's possible to make posts private -- or ''friends only'' -- but many journal keepers don't bother, or do so only for selected posts. The general degree of anonymity varies: some bloggers post their full names, others give quirky, quasi-revelatory handles. No wonder everyone is up till 5 a.m. tweaking their font size and Photoshopping a new icon. At heart, an online journal is like a hyperflexible adolescent body -- but better, because in real life, it takes money and physical effort to add a piercing, or to switch from zip-jacketed mod to Abercrombie prepster. A LiveJournal or Blurty offers a creative outlet with a hundred moving parts. And unlike a real journal, with a blog, your friends are all around, invisible voyeurs -- at least until they chime in with a comment.

For many of the suburban students I met, online journals are associated with the ''emo'' crowd -- a sarcastic term for emotional, and a tag for a musical genre mingling thrash-punk with confessionalism. The emo kids tend to be the artsy loners and punks, but as I spent more time lurking in journals and talking to the kids who wrote them, I began to realize that these threads led out much farther into the high school, into pretty much every clique.

On a sunny fall day, M. and his friends were hanging out in front of a local toy store, shooting photos of one another with digital cameras, when a group of three girls sashayed by. They sported tank tops, identical hairbands and identical shiny hair. I walked over to them and asked if they have LiveJournals. ''No,'' one said. ''We have Xangas.''

They were all 15, around the same age as M. and his friends. But the two groups had never read the other's posts. M.'s crowd was emo (or at least emo-ish; like ''politically correct,'' ''emo'' is a word people rarely apply to themselves). These girls were part of the athletic crowd. There was little overlap, online or off. But the girls were fully familiar with the online etiquette M. described: they instant-messaged compulsively; they gossiped online.

With so much confessional drama, I began to wonder if interactions ever swung out of control. Does anyone ever post anything that seems like too much information? I asked. They all nodded intently, tossing nervous eye contact back and forth.

''Yeah,'' one of the girls replied finally, with a deep sigh. ''This one girl, she was really upset, and she would write things that had happened to her that were really scary. Private things that didn't really need to be said on the site -- ''

Her friend interrupted: ''But she knew she was putting it out there. She said, 'I don't care.' ''

''It was nice that she was comfortable about it,'' suggested the third girl.

Her friend disagreed. ''It was not nice.''

What kinds of things did she write about? I asked. Eating disorders? Sex? ''All of it,'' they said in unison. ''All of it.''

I walked back to M. and his group. ''Those girls are just, like, social girls,'' said M. dismissively. When I told him they had online journals, he seemed astonished. ''Really?'' He said. ''Huh.'' He watched with amusement as they walked away.

Blogging is a replication of real life: each pool of blogs is its own ecosystem, with only occasional links to other worlds. As I surfed from site to site, it became apparent that as much as journals can break stereotypes, some patterns are crushingly predictable: the cheerleaders post screen grabs of the Fox TV show ''The O.C.''; kids who identify with ''ghetto'' culture use hip-hop slang; the geeks gush over Japanese anime. And while there are exceptions, many journal writers exhibit a surprising lack of curiosity about the journals of true strangers. They're too busy writing posts to browse.

But even diaries that seem at first predictable can have the power to startle. Take J.K., whose Xanga titled ''No Fat Chicks'' features a peculiar mix of introspection and bully-boy bombast. Some of J.K.'s entries this fall brooded on his bench-warmer status on the football team. ''Do the coaches want me to quit?'' he worried in one post. ''I know that some people have to sit out, that's just the way it works, and I accept that. But does it have to be me when we're down 36 points and the clock is winding down?''

In J.K.'s diary, revelations of insecurity alternate with chest-beating bombast, juvenile jokes and self-mocking claims of sexual prowess. From a teen poet, you expect angsty navel-gazing; it's more surprising to find it in a jock like J.K. In one post, he analyzed his history as a bully during ''middle school, the time of popularity,'' when he did ''things too heinous to even mention.'' In response, a reader posted a long, angry comment, doubting J.K.'s sincerity: ''I don't think you understand what hatred I used to have for you because of how you made me feel . . . you can't go back in time, but you can try to make up for what you've done in the past.''

Occasionally, a particularly scandalous site will gain a wider readership. It's a social phenomenon made possible by technology: the object of gossip using her Web site as a public stage to tell her side of the story, to everyone, all at once. As I asked around the high school, I found that many other students had heard of the girl the ''social girls'' had described to me -- a student whose confessional postings had became something of a must-read the spring before. Over the course of a monthslong breakdown, she posted graphic descriptions of cutting herself, family fights, sex. It was all documented on her Web log, complete with photos and real names. (She has since removed the material from her site.)

The blog turned her into a minor celebrity, at first among the social crowd, then among their friends and siblings as well. ''We were addicted -- we would track every minute,'' one student explained. ''We would call each other and go, 'Oh, my god, she wrote again!' '' With each post, her readers would encourage her to write more. ''Wow u should be writing a book,'' one wrote. ''Ur stories are exactly like one of those teen diary books that other teens can relate to. That might sound corny but its so true.''

The girls who read the journal were divided on the subject. Some called the Web site an unhealthy bid for attention -- not to mention revenge, since she often posted unflattering details about her ex-boyfriend and former friends. Others were more sympathetic. ''I think I empathized with her after reading it, because I'd just heard the stories,'' one girl explained. ''But then she was saying, 'I felt so sad, and I was in this really dark place, and my parents were fighting, and I was cutting myself' -- so I could understand it more. Before, it was just gossip. It made her seem more like a person than just, like, this character.''

These dynamics are invisible to most adults, whether at home or school. Students occasionally show the school psychologist their journals, pulling up posts on her computer or sharing printed transcripts of instant messages. But the psychologist rarely sought them out herself, she told me, and she was surprised to hear that boys kept them. She called the journals a boon for shy students and admired the way they encouraged kids to express themselves in writing. But she also noticed a recent rise in journal-based conflicts, mostly situations where friends attack one another after a falling out. ''They think that they're getting close by sharing,'' she said, ''but it allows them to say things they wouldn't otherwise say, to be hurtful at a distance.'' When I mentioned the material I'd read about the girl who was cutting herself, she went silent. ''You know,'' she said, ''I really should read more into these.''

The scandalous journal is an extreme variation, but teen bloggers often joke about the pressure to post with angst; controversy gets more commentary, after all. (Entries often apologize for not having anything exciting to say.) But if there's something troubling about the kind of online scandal that breeds a high-school Sylvia Plath -- an angstier-than-thou exhibitionism -- there's also something almost utopian at the endeavor's heart. So much high-school pain comes from the sense of being alone with one's stupid, self-destructive impulses. With so many teenagers baring their vulnerabilities, there is the potential for breaking down isolation. A kind of online Breakfast Club, perhaps, in which a little surfing turns up the insecurity that lurks in all of us.

For some journal keepers, the connections made online can be life-altering. In late November, I checked in on J., the author of ''Laugh at Me.'' All fall, his LiveJournal had been hopping, documenting milestones (a learner's permit!), philosophical insights, complaints about parental dorkiness and plans for something called Operation Backfire, in which he mocks another kid he hates -- a kid who has filled his own journal on Xanga with right-wing rants. ''I felt happy/victorious,'' wrote J. about taunting his enemy. ''And rightly so.''

In the new context of LiveJournal, J.'s posts had become increasingly interactive, with frequent remarks about parties and weekend plans; they seemed less purely rantlike, and he was posting comments on other people's journals. When I contacted him via instant message, he told me that he was feeling less friendless than he was when the semester started.

''I feel more included and such,'' he typed just after Thanksgiving, describing the effect of having switched to LiveJournal from his more isolated Blurty. ''All community-ish.'' He was planning to attend a concert of World/Inferno Friendship Society, a band with a LiveJournal following. And he'd become closer friends in real life with some fellow LJ'ers, including L., who had given J. an emo makeover. He'd begun wearing tight, dark jeans and had ''forcibly retired'' his old sneakers.

Once J. decided to switch to LiveJournal, LiveJournal began changing him in turn. Perhaps he was adjusting himself to reflect the way he is online: assertive and openly emotional, more than a bit bratty. He'd become more comfortable talking to girls. And if he seemed to have forgotten his invocation not to make fun of anyone, at least he was standing up for himself.

J. had also signed up for a new online journal: a Xanga. He got it, he said, to branch out. He wanted to be able to comment on the journals of other students he knows are out there, including that of bully-boy J.K., where I was surprised to find one of J.'s comments in early November. ''I made a xanga for myself because i keep hearing that that's whats 'cool' now,'' he wrote on his LJ with a distinctive mixture of rue and satisfaction, the very flavor of adolescent change. ''And yet i always try to pride myself on not following status quo. I'm a hypocrite. O yes i am. Current mood: Hypocritical. Current music: Mogwai.''

CAPTIONS: Drawing (Drawing by Amy Guip)


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