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Posted on Mon, Jul. 05, 2004

A new social scene


Teenagers turn Internet blogs into a place to hang out, flirt and share thoughts



Mercury News

Seventeen-year-old Patrick Ly was so smitten with a certain classmate that he would visit an Internet blogging site to read his crush's musings. Then Patrick began to keep an online journal himself.

He chronicled his day, wrote about friends and related how he was feeling. And one day last September, he used the blog to announce to readers that he is gay.

``I didn't want to have to hide anything from my friends anymore,'' Patrick explained in an interview. ``I had a boyfriend, and I wanted to be able to write about him.''

He now ruminates about searching for love and romance, his fear of HIV, as well as the more mundane drama of life at Evergreen High School in San Jose.

Though Patrick's candor is exceptional, his willingness to let acquaintances and strangers digitally peek into his life is common among today's tech-wired teens. Along with e-mail and instant messages, online journals are fast becoming a fixture of teenage life. The teen blog scene has become the social equivalent of the shopping mall, a place where teens come to see and be seen, socialize and seek validation.

In many ways, what transpires online is an extension of the social interactions that take place at school. There are online cliques as well as the digital equivalent of hallway banter and gossip. Yet, what occurs online mostly lives in a digital reality that seldom crosses over into real life.

At Evergreen, about 200 students -- or roughly one out of eight -- keep blogs at one popular site, Xanga.com. The term Xanga has even become part of school lingo -- students refer to their blogs as ``my Xanga.''

Under school radar

Evergreen's Xanga crowd operated largely under the radar of school officials until a parent called attention to an anonymous blog called Mc_Smack_Crew that mocks students with digitally altered photos and vicious messages. It derides Patrick for being gay.

School officials alerted San Jose police, who opened a ``hate crime'' investigation. The police decided last month not to press charges, calling it a ``case of name-calling, however foul,'' said Sgt. Todd Martin. Evergreen officials responded by blocking access to Xanga from school computers.

In terms of sheer numbers, the blogosphere is dominated by teens and young adults. According to the research firm Perseus, 52 percent of all bloggers are teenagers, and an additional 40 percent are in their 20s.

The journal sites are attractive because it doesn't cost anything to start a blog or to read others. Other popular blog sites among teens include LiveJournal.com and Diaryland.com. Most of the sites make money through advertising and charge for premium features.

Patrick jokes about being addicted to blogging. ``I go on Xanga like 50 times a day,'' laughs Patrick, who starts college in September. ``I log on to see who's been on my Xanga and who leaves me comments.''

Among teens, the topics tend to be extremely personal.

Rachel Perkins, 16, is a good friend of Patrick. Though they see one another at school, they also check up on one another online. Rachel keeps two sites on Xanga, one dedicated to the who, what, where of her life, and another she shares with two friends. Called Ventilate, the second blog is devoted to her roller-coaster emotional life.

``I ventilate about stuff that I would never talk about in person,'' said Rachel. ``I don't care who reads it. I just need to put it out there.''

After a breakup, she wrote: ``About the opposite sex . . . It's like a good math problem. You understand the concept really well. It's just you need a calculator to help work things out.''

Many teens say blogging is an outlet they wouldn't have otherwise. Nearly all invite strangers in -- but parents are discouraged from crashing on the scene. Many say their parents are unaware of their blogs.

Steve Perkins, Rachel's father, says he's glad his daughter has a place to express herself -- and he's never sneaked a peek. ``It's her own private space,'' he said.

Patrick's mother, Diep Vu, however, wishes he would spend more time with his family and less time on the Internet. Though she's never read his blog, she doesn't like the fact that he keeps one.

``I believe it's stupid,'' Vu said. ``If I were him, I wouldn't want to share with other people things about my life. And I wouldn't read about their private life either, because it's none of my business.''

But teens say they're drawn to sites like Xanga that encourage broad feedback, which sometimes exudes the feel of group therapy.

On Xanga, cliques form through ``blogrings'' -- groups of journals posted by users with shared interest. Anyone can create or join a blogring, which include ones aimed at Japanese anime enthusiasts, students who live in the 408 area code and girls who are ``boyfriendless.''

On a recent day, 220 users had joined the main Evergreen blogring; there were 23 on a blogring for Evergreen's band and three on one for the school's cheerleaders.

Public comments

The blogs enable teens to communicate and commiserate with peers. Readers can leave public comments, participate in a message board with the blogger and other readers as well as leave ``e-props''-- electronic thumbs up -- if they like what they read.

What's consistent throughout is the search for validation. Though most say they write entries for themselves, it's a disappointment if no one responds. One Evergreen student recently posted a message pleading for feedback. ``it makes me sad that no one leaves me comments. . . . i write like these huge entries . . . about so much stuff . . . and no one even says anything in return. and i go to all of your xangas or whatevers and ALWAYS leave a comment.''

After reading one another's blogs, teens will often send a flurry of instant messages. Perkins had four instant message boxes up one afternoon about the prom and an upcoming concert.

Most teens abide by an unwritten code of the blogosphere: What happens online stays online. Many have digital friendships with classmates but never socialize in real life ``because we don't hang with the same crowd,'' as one Evergreen student explained.

Karen Huang, a 15-year-old freshman at Evergreen, carried on a virtual relationship in every way -- and the guy never knew it. Intrigued by a cute classmate at school, she found out who he was and began reading his Xanga. ``Noooo, I never talked to him,'' said Huang, aghast at the prospect of a face-to-face conversation with the boy. ``But I read his Xanga every day and learned a lot about him.'' After a few months, she decided he was ``too weird.'' The flirtation ended without the two ever speaking.

Major news -- or gossip -- however, is cause for the two worlds to blend. Since popping up on Xanga in the spring, the Mc_Smack_Crew has been the talk of the campus. Students speculated it was a group of jealous, not-very-popular kids who created the site.

Patrick, himself, was a favorite target, mocked for being gay. Because of the satirical Mc_Smack_Crew site, classmates began reading his Xanga.

Traffic to Patrick's site has since tripled, he said. Now, he can hardly keep up with the messages, most of them supportive.

``It's means a lot to me to have all these people, many of them I don't even know, to root for me,'' said Patrick. ``I have a whole lot more friends because of it.''


Contact K. Oanh Ha at kha@mercurynews.com or (408) 278-3457.

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