14 April 2009

Teenagers Reach Out Via Weblogs

There’s so much in this short article that I find fascinating. The basic premise of the study discussed in the article is that teenagers are blogging like crazy, that boys and girls use blogs in similar ways, and that they use it to forge social connection, rather than broadcasting.

First, I don’t think it’s news that teenagers are blogging, and in that regard the article smacks of this spacy, curmudgeonly, maiden-auntly aspect of “have you heard of this ‘blogging’ thing that’s all the rage with the kids these days?” But it’s the BBC and it’s from five years ago, so I’m willing to let that slide. A number of other articles followed in progressively alarmist fashion about the kids and their “weblogs,” and I'm sure they've all moved on to freaking out about sexting and pirates and whatnot.

I do find the statement that boys and girls use blogs the same way to be interesting, for two reasons: first, it’s odd that there might be multiple ways to “use” blogs, and second, it presupposes that this lack of gender difference is surprising. Do we expect boys and girls to use spreadsheets differently? Or calculators?* Is it because blogs are written, or because they are personal, that we expect girls to use them differently? Are we surprised that boys and girls are both interested in self expression, forming interpersonal bonds, communicating with others? How does this revelatory lack of difference compare with other ICTs? And how might all the studies on how boys and girls use cell phones and Facebook and IM and toothbrushes and toasters affected by this presupposition?

Second, I’m pleased and impressed that the kids are using new social technologies to form connections, rather than to harass and embarrass one another. (IF that’s still true. Which I doubt.) But even so, I’m impressed that teens are so willing to open themselves. Even now, as a reasonably well adjusted adult posting to a space where I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to post a comment about my attractiveness, intelligence, or worth as a human being, I’m having a difficult time with this whole blogging thing. I’ve got the drafts of a half dozen posts in a folder on my desktop, but every time I wrote one, I decided the post lacked insight or was too obvious or too boring to post. Maybe it’s because it’s for an assignment, which automatically means judgment and assessment. But I don’t think so. I had a blog some time ago, and the only reason I could keep it was that I had verifiable statistics proving that no one was reading it. As soon as I got one subscriber, I got freaked out and never posted again. So this whole “reaching out for connection through public diary” thing? I don’t quite get it personally, but I’m glad that it’s working for other people. Anything that minimizes the alienation and isolation of grumpy adolescents is good by me.

Other observations: “On average, males used more emoticons, like smiley faces. Previous studies in computer communication, explained Mr Huffaker, have suggested that females are more likely to use them.” I am not surprised that males use more emoticons. I AM surprised that there have been multiple studies about this.

"The average blog post is over 2,000 words (per page), which is really interesting when you are trying to get kids to write essays."

This, I think, is the most interesting statement in the article. Two thousand words is a LOT. And I wonder how much this is colored by the era (at least in as much as you can call 2004 a different era). Have texting and Twitter and Facebook status updates replaced the 2,000-word blog post with 200-character messages? Did the rise of blogging culture show verifiable changes in students’ writing for class? If you give teenagers a computer and free, unregulated, un-judged speech, do they get wordier? The researcher says he wants to use blogs in the classroom. Will the free, open, verbose self expression hold up when you add adult supervision?

* I would guess that girls type “58008” less frequently on calculators than boys do. (If that’s a puzzle to you, look at it upside down in square type. Or ask a middle-schooler to explain it.)

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