Do you blog?
Everything from gossip to homework shows up onscreen in these cyber diaries.
It's a typical journal entry. Natalia is worrying about a fast-approaching advanced-placement test. She's also been pondering some "all-too-relevant concepts" in her psychology book, such as social loafing and groupthink. And over the weekend, while watching a friend gear up for the junior prom, she glue-gunned fake flowers onto a headband and felt affirmation for being "vehemently anti-skirt."
Natalia seems to be documenting her adolescence in the most ordinary fashion, recounting each day's events - the good, the bad, and the mundane - with equal fervor.
What sets this high school junior apart from the Dear Diary scribes of earlier generations is that Natalia posts her entries in the very public domain of the World Wide Web. She is, in the parlance of our times, a blogger.
Translation: Natalia runs a blog (short for weblog), which is the cyber-equivalent of a diary, which means the rest of the world now has peeping rights - and she does it all from a laptop in her bedroom outside Washington. She's been blogging for years, and she is not alone.
Weblogs are known as the indie rock of the Internet; thousands of teens claim one for their own. They need no corporate might to sponsor their musings, doodles, or homework, and they need no permission to publish.
Natalia is a true early adopter. At age 8, she learned both to keep a journal and to surf the Internet. She had HTML down by seventh grade, and has been running her own blog, www.imaginaire.nu, for nearly three years. The software is free, the maintenance low, the authority over content limitless.
"My blog is freedom," Natalia says. "It's an outlet for ideas and thoughts that don't have another place to go. If I feel like going on about an actor I think is cute, or music I like, or typing out my Spanish oral [exam] in order to memorize it, I can do that."
What began in 1997 as a fad among the savviest of the tech savvy - individual blogs had to be built, after all, one block of code at a time - has mushroomed into a hyperconnected network of fanatic bloggers. The fervor reached new heights in 1999 with the creation of blogger.com, a site that, along with a slew of others today, enables anyone to sign up and begin blogging in minutes.
"Kids don't really have controlled outlets like this," says Chris Baker, an editor at Wired magazine who has covered what is known as the blogosphere.
"Parents have a say in how you decorate your room, how you dress, your posture, etc. But anyone with basic Web literacy - which means just about everyone under the age of 25 - can set up a blog in about five minutes. Blogs can give instant entree to even the least tech-savvy kids."
David Weinberger, author of "Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web," says the exploration of self identity is a major allure for bloggers of all ages. "On the Web, we all have a persona," he says. "Furthermore, we have exquisite control over that persona. People who write weblogs are inevitably choosing how they present themselves."
And yet, according to a Pew Charitable Trust study, an overwhelming majority of the middle and high school students who use the Internet say their schools don't create assignments that take advantage of resources online - resources they can find on their own. They're "far ahead of their teachers and principals in taking advantage of online educational resources" - such as weblogs - the report concludes.
Some colleges, however, are beginning to use class blogs as a way to share assignments and get feedback. Paul Grabowicz, new media professor at the University of California at Berkeley's school of journalism, teaches a course where students run a class blog.
"In the class," he writes on the site, "students will create a weblog to explore the subject of 'intellectual property.' News sources will be scanned each day, the top stories will be selected, and precise summaries of each story will be written. Students will also write original stories."
Paul Boutin, a technology writer for The New York Times, Salon, and Wired, says if he'd been graced with a DSL connection as a kid he'd have grown up online instead of at the local public library: "But compared to the '80s and early '90s, when the Internet was a special club for super-smart loners, the Net population seems to have normalized closer to the rest of society. Most of the teen bloggers seem like normal teens to me, rather than just the outcasts and geniuses."
The class blogs, which are taking heat for being "synthetically produced," as a reader of the online journal Slashdot put it, are proving useful. Through postings students can share their thoughts in a more comfortable medium - and hone their writing skills.
"The format of blogs is written, which means the thoughts tend to be in bigger chunks and nobody can interrupt you," Mr. Weinberger says. "It favors a different class of people, people who don't like to talk in class or think out loud, people who like to write things down before they show it."
Meg Hourihan, cofounder of blogger.com and author of the enormously popular weblog www.megnut.com, says blogs can actually level the playing field.
"It's a great way for quieter, shy kids to participate, just as a mailing list can be a great outlet in a corporate environment for the nonvocal to make a lot of contributions," she says. "[Blogs] take away the advantage from the loudest person and highlight people who actually add something to the conversation."
Most bloggers keep a backlog of material on their site. Natalia's blog is called "Toast." On it, the more recent material is filed under "Fresh," and the dated logs - which usually means more than a few weeks old - are catalogued chronologically under "Stale."
"Instant messages and e-mail are notoriously slapdash," Mr. Baker says. "But bloggers archive their old entries, so words have a little more permanence. If you've set up this public forum where you can go every day and carefully explain why you're angry at your friend, or how you feel about the war in Iraq, or why you hated the last episode of 'Buffy,' you're going to learn a lot more about arranging words to say precisely what you mean."
But precision doesn't always gain points online, and it can be dangerous for adolescents who may inadvertently reveal where they live, where they go to school, and who their friends are.
"I think everyone who keeps an online presence is [worried] about security," Natalia says. "I go through periods when I'm really paranoid about stalking and wonder if I should mention city names or link to articles written about my school. But most of the time I'm not very worried. I feel comfortable online."
Jamal, a high school sophomore whose family immigrated to New York from Pakistan, doesn't worry too much about people learning who he is from his blog, which he calls "Jamalistan."
"I definitely don't release too much information," he says. "But if someone were to use the information against me, I guess I'd be flattered that they went to my site to get my point of view."
Many high school students devote hours outside of school to their personal blogs, and find the activity to be both a creative outlet and a place to, well, rant.
"If I have a strong emotion about something, be it joy, anger, frustration, confusion, or anything else, I will usually try to put [it] into words," Natalia says. "It is therapeutic to rant about it."
On the four-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings in April, Jamal posted the following on his blog: "I spent the day being paranoid, moping, and para-moping. Someone was telling me to cheer up, but I said that it actually scared me. Life was proved fragile and delicate that week."
Jamal admits that his weblog has become "yet another tool of productive procrastination." But being productive, he adds, is what counts. "Compared to other forms of expression - painting, drawing, writing - this seems like the one most compatible with today's Internet-incorporated world. Some days I don't have inspiration - just homework."
These minibiographies are unfolding in high school blogs around the world, an exercise in documentation that, in a way, serves as a grand-scale word game, a cyber-form of natural selection that weeds out - or at least ignores - the unworthy.
"Most of the highly visible bloggers spend a lot of time responding to other bloggers, or butting into debates raging on other blogs," Baker says.
"It's called blogrolling - blogging on blogging on blogging. The person who regurgitates clichéd slogans or throws around profanity-laced ad hominem attacks generally loses. The person who's best at wielding words generally wins."