My So-Called Blog

Back when blogging first erupted — three or four years ago — it was known primarily as a form of diary-keeping. Indeed, when I went to a seminar at SXSW in 2001, the trend was called “journalling”. And when John Dvorak wrote his infamous PC World column in February 2002 slamming blogs, he sneered that “with the few hobbyist exceptions, Blogs are mostly personal diaries”. But then the Andrew Sullivans and Instapundits and Gawkers of the world erupted, and everyone started talking about blogs as a form of journalism — a way of getting news out without the normal, button-downed restrictions of the mainstream press. The personal blog — the confessional diary — seemed to fade into the background.

But as it turns out, it never went away. Indeed, one could argue that blogs are still primarily a diarist tool, and that the abovementioned blogs (or even mine here) are the exception, rather than the rule. Indeed, in a superb piece for today’s New York Times Magazine, Emily Nussbaum — a writer and my girlfriend — decided to explore the world of teenage blogs by going to a high school and looking at its secret world of journalling. As it turns out, more than one half of all blogs in the US are written by kids aged 13 to 19, and they’re primarily using them as a tool for personal reflection:

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.

I’ve long argued that the Internet’s central effect on society is that it makes us weirder. All that writing — in email, in IM, on web pages — has an unconsciously therapeutic effect on people. It’s like an id-release valve. Indeed, if you go to most therapists in a crisis, they’ll usually tell you to “keep a journal”: The mere process of writing — even if you don’t write about yourself — is inherently exploratory, because it involves constructing a new version of yourself and your voice in words. You’re taking part of yourself and making it external, on a page, and as any philosopher or poet can tell you, that’s a surprisingly weird existential experience. Even if you’re writing about synthetic motor oil, writing forces you to meditate on who the heck you are.

And the thing that most writers and pundits don’t realize is that, before the Internet came along, the vast majority of Americans never wrote anything — ever — after they left high school or college. There was neither any need (their jobs didn’t require it) or any vehicle for doing it in their spare time. What the Internet did was give us all a reason to write — and write tons. Which is where things get cool, because that helped Americans realize that they are, beneath the surface, a hell of a lot more outre and odd than they’re normally allowed to be in polite company. Hence all the flame wars, the brobdignagian emotions, the playful grandstanding that characterizes so much of online life. (To say nothing of things like The Hamster Dance.)

The Internet will go down in history not as a democratizing force, not as a revolutionary moment in commerce … but as the world’s largest uncontrolled experiment in mass therapy.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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