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Today's diarists now lay it online

The days of scribbling innermost thoughts in a little lockable tome are long gone. Web journals are now an open book.

January 05, 2007|Tara Bahrampour | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Emily Butler used to keep a pen-and-paper diary. But after her mother found it, the Arlington, Va., teenager started pouring out her feelings online.

"When there were days when I just needed to rant, it felt good," said Butler, 16, a sophomore at Yorktown High School who started a blog on the site Xanga a couple of years ago. "I'd come home after school and I'd spend, like, an hour typing in everything I did all day."

Butler added: "Once I discovered, like, posting online, it definitely became, 'Why would I write it in a book?' "

Online diaries have become a phenomenon in recent years, with teenagers and young adults attracted to the genre in huge numbers. Raised on the Internet and reality television, these diarists make their writing accessible to friends, acquaintances and often to hundreds of millions of Web users. Many use their full names and mention the schools they attend.

Parents, teachers and police constantly urge young people not to reveal too much about themselves online. They warn that personal disclosures might be read by college admissions officers and potential employers, not to mention stalkers and pedophiles. The risks were underscored in a highly publicized 2005 Virginia murder case in which investigators looked for clues in the online journals of college student Taylor Behl and an acquaintance later convicted of her murder.

But a review of major blogging and social-networking websites shows that online diaries remain popular for teenagers, and interviews with experts and young diarists such as Butler help explain the psychology behind going public with what used to be private thoughts.

A few examples from area high-school students:

"Unfortunately I feel very distant from everyone.... Maybe it's just how I function. I think its probably my worst flaw."

"i feel she could be the one i know it is crazy because well i am 18 and all that but i really do i am just scared i have never let someone get as close to me as i have let her."

"i feel ... invisible."

A Montgomery County, Md., high-schooler recounts the bliss of falling in love for the first time and then, months later, the anguish of breaking up. A Prince William County, Va., girl sent to a group home laments that old friends seem more distant.

Of course, it is hard to know how many of these diary entries represent the truth as the writers see it, fantasy or something in between. Regardless, young diarists say the journals connect them to a broader community, help them navigate the complexities of friendship and romance, and allow them to vent.

Teenagers also use online diaries to spread information quickly. "You can get to a lot of people all at once," said Colton O'Connor, 19, a recent high school grad from Virginia. "Like, a phone call only gets to one person at a time."

It's impossible to determine how many young people keep online diaries, but companies that operate major blogging and networking sites -- such as Xanga, LiveJournal and MySpace -- say the numbers of teenagers and young adults that use them are in the millions.

Young people point out that posting private thoughts in a public forum has become more acceptable with the rise of cultural phenomena such as PostSecret, a popular website that displays postcards emblazoned with senders' secrets. Xanga, LiveJournal and MySpace all give users the option of making their blogs accessible only to approved readers. Some also keep "secret blogs" on which they enter intimate thoughts that, in the old-school tradition, are meant for the writer's eyes only. But many young people prefer to lay it all out for the world to read.

Rochelle Gurstein, author of "The Repeal of Reticence," a book about the erosion of privacy in the United States, said the blogs seem to reflect an "unprecedented change" in teenagers' sense of modesty.

"Not long ago, young people would die at the prospect of their mother or their friend discovering" their diaries, she said. "The teenage girl that used to be the most vulnerable, protected member of society is now unsupervised, left to her own devices, with access to the Internet, and what does she do? Broadcasts to the whole world to see her in her most vulnerable moments."

But O'Connor, who has kept a LiveJournal diary for more than two years, said blogs actually protect vulnerabilities by allowing for a more polished presentation of self. "You can take three minutes to lay your thoughts out and think about it before you send them," he said.

His older brother noted that blogs let writers interact while avoiding the emotional risks of one-on-one conversation.

"This generation is worse at talking face-to-face," said Jeremy O'Connor, 23, a recent Virginia Tech graduate who has kept a LiveJournal diary for five years. "Everything everyone's writing online, they want it there because they want it to be read by someone.... Having someone read your secret feels better."

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