I'm crouched awkwardly on the floor of Xiyin Tang's Columbia dorm room, peering up at her laptop as she shows me her first blog entries, a 13-year-old Xiyin's musings on Good Charlotte and the perfidy of her friends. A Warhol Marilyn print gazes over our shoulders. "I always find myself more motivated to write things," Xiyin, now 19, explains, "when I know that somebody, somewhere, might be reading it."
From the age of 8, Xiyin, who grew up in Maryland, kept a private journal on her computer. But in fifth grade, she decided to go public and created two online periodicals: a fashion 'zine and a newsletter for "stories and novellas and whatnot." In sixth grade, she began distributing her journal to 200 readers. Even so, she still thought of this writing as personal.
"When I first started out with my Livejournal, I was very honest," she remembers. "I basically wrote as if there was no one reading it. And if people wanted to read it, then great." But as more people linked to her, she became correspondingly self-aware. By tenth grade, she was part of a group of about 100 mostly older kids who knew one another through "this web of MySpacing or Livejournal or music shows."
Perhaps that chestnut sounds familiar?
When M. gets home from school, he immediately logs on to his computer. Then he stays there, touching base with the people he has seen all day long, floating in a kind of multitasking heaven of communication. First, he clicks on his Web log, or blog — an online diary he keeps on a Web site called LiveJournal — and checks for responses from his readers. Next he reads his friends' journals, contributing his distinctive brand of wry, supportive commentary to their observations. Then he returns to his own journal to compose his entries: sometimes confessional, more often dry private jokes or koanlike observations on life.
Finally, he spends a long time — sometimes hours — exchanging instant messages, a form of communication far more common among teenagers than phone calls. In multiple dialogue boxes on his computer screen, he'll type real-time conversations with several friends at once; if he leaves the house to hang out in the real world, he'll come back and instant-message some more, and sometimes cut and paste transcripts of these conversations into his online journal. All this upkeep can get in the way of homework, he admitted. ''You keep telling yourself, 'Don't look, don't look!' And you keep on checking your e-mail.'' M. is an unusually Zen teenage boy — dreamy and ruminative about his personal relationships. But his obsessive online habits are hardly exceptional; he is one of a generation of compulsive self-chroniclers, a fleet of juvenile Marcel Prousts gone wild. When he meets new friends in real life, M. offers them access to his online world. ''That's how you introduce yourself,'' he said. ''It's like, here's my cellphone number, my e-mail, my screen name, oh, and — here's my LiveJournal. Personally, I'd go to that person's LJ before I'd call them or e-mail them or contact them on AIM'' — AOL Instant Messenger — ''because I would know them better that way.''