For teens, Dear Diary morphs into Xanga covers everything from banning Xanga in schools to cyberbullying to the advantages of blogging for youth. It’s a great article (although the worst signup process ever).
For teens, Dear Diary morphs into Xanga
By LAURA BAUER and MELODEE HALL BLOBAUM
The Kansas City Star
DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star
Erin Ray, 17, a senior from Olathe Northwest High School, checks her Web log every day when she gets home from school. Her online musings (shown with her home page, a tribute to the Harry Potter books) is a rapidly growing aspect of Internet communication.
Erin Ray is a high school senior who likes to go to bookstores, obsess over Harry Potter and occasionally complain about life as a teen.
She wonders why an ice cream truck drives around her neighborhood on a chilly winter day. She pens a poetic apology to a friend; for what, she doesn’t say. And she lets Beth or Matt or Brian know how much she values their friendships.
Whether it’s the news of her day or just her mood, it’s all there on the Olathe Northwest High School student’s blog on Xanga.com. Her friends check the blog throughout the day, leaving comments that Erin eagerly reads. And the process begins again.
“It’s what we do,” said Erin, who giggles as she calls herself a “Xanga dork.” “It’s a way to get in touch with people, to know what’s going on in their life.”
Adds classmate Michael Stephens about blogging: “I do it all the time. I don’t know what I did before I did this.”
Online journaling has become a way of life for teens who are more accustomed to computers and the Internet than books and writing journals. In a world where technology is encouraged and teens hunger for free expression, Xanga.com has become the place to hang out.
But while many agree that blogging can be good and that teens need an outlet to be creative and express their happiness or angst, these same people worry that parents often aren’t aware of what their children post. Law enforcement officials insist that most teens share too much information over the Internet and that this could make them bait for predators.
Then there are school officials. Their concerns include inappropriate content on blogs such as bullying and threats. They want students to focus on learning rather than blogging during school hours.
That’s why school districts from Olathe to Raytown have blocked access to Xanga.com from school computers. This month, the Shawnee Mission School District became the latest to say no to Xanga when an offensive site that appeared to originate at a district middle school was discovered.
Over the past year or so, the district had received dozens of requests to block specific Xanga Web logs that were offensive or inappropriate, said spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal. Often the person who posted the blog would change names to get around the blocking software, she said.
“It was to the point where it was burdensome to handle the requests as they came in,” Neal said. “So the decision was made to block Xanga.”
A chance to vent
Go to Xanga.com and you can find everything from harmless updates of homework and weekend plans to serious pangs over breakups and frustration with a strict parent.
Started in 1999 as a venue for sharing music and book reviews, Xanga is now also about venting frustration, catching up and writing for an audience.
Xanga is one of many blog hosts, which include Blogger.com, LiveJournal.com and Diaryland.com.
According to Perseus Development Corp., a company that develops online surveys, there are nearly 20 million blogs worldwide, about twice what was predicted by the end of 2004. In a survey more than two years ago, Perseus discovered that 52 percent of blogs were created by youths ages 13 to 19.
“Young people, often they are thinking about who they are, what their identity is, what their role in the world will be,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco created to protect digital rights. “Blogging is a way for them to explore how big the social world is. They can be received by peers in a nonjudgmental way.
“It’s easier for them to talk to their friends about things. They don’t get pounded on like, ‘Oh, you 13-year-old, you don’t know anything about this.’ ”
That’s pretty much how another Olathe Northwest student sees it. Responding to a Web log set up by The Kansas City Star for this article, she said she likes to have the space to vent.
“If I’m upset about something, all I have to do is write something brief like ‘Wow. Life sucks,’ and within moments three or four people will be calling, asking me what’s wrong,” she wrote, identifying herself by her blog name.
“Most of the time, though, I vent my happiness. It’s completely vital to get sources of extreme excitement/happiness/etc. off my chest, just like it is for me to vent my anger or cry about something that’s made me sad. Xanga just provides a canvas for that.”
The blogs are canvases for creative expression in other ways, with personal touches and photos reflecting the writers’ interests. Erin’s is covered with Harry Potter stuff.
Michael, Erin’s classmate, said that when it comes to posting on his blog, “my fingers do the thinking, I guess.”
“When I first started, it was more serious stuff. I used to post a lot more deep thoughts. I know it was a tad bit more religious,” Michael said. “Now I try to appeal to more people. I would watch what I wrote, knowing this many people were reading it. As sad as it is, I recognized my audience.”
When Michael writes, he pays attention to grammar and word structure. Yet many times the content on blogs can be a parent’s nightmare or a gnawing frustration for English teachers.
Most sentences don’t begin with a capital letter, and they’re as likely to end with an exclamation point or an ellipsis as a period. Spell check? Probably not. And abbreviations abound: emo for emotion.
Take a look at Ryltar’s comment posted on March 16. “I xanga everywhere … its my way of talking to my friends since I suck at talking o’er the phone.”
Saltier words, which typically are spelled correctly, often spice up entries. Erin warns, “Sorry about the language, it’s teenagers these days.”
Bullying on blogs
Law enforcement officers are less concerned about language than about the personal information teens share on their blogs.
Some put their full names. Their phone numbers. Even their addresses and where they work.
“It’s amazing how many kids won’t talk to a stranger, but they’ll say anything to anyone on the Internet,” said Ganpat Wagh, a special agent with the FBI in Kansas City. “They’ll put all their information out there.”
Leawood Police Officer Brett Leathers teaches an I-Safe program, dealing with safety on the Internet, at Prairie Star Middle School in Leawood. The school was the first in Kansas to teach the course.
Leathers constantly tells students to limit what they put on their personal profiles. He explains that what goes on the Internet is free game for anyone to read.
“What we’re trying to say to them is bad guys have access to this information,” Leathers said. “The predators, they are just sitting there, taking notes and watching what’s going on and hopping in when they feel comfortable.”
Xanga.com CEO John Hiler said his company has put some features in place to improve online safety. E-mail addresses aren’t published directly online, and protected posting allows bloggers to limit who reads their journal.
Police watch for predators on the Internet and encourage kids to report any suspicious comments.
If someone is threatened over the Internet, police can step in.
When it involves bullying, sometimes the intimidation and feeling of isolation can be strong, said Mark Weiss of Operation Respect, a nonprofit organization based in New York focused on promoting compassionate and safe environments for children.
Cyberbullying is one issue Operation Respect workers speak about.
“It can be an extension of mean-spiritedness,” said Weiss, who was a principal in New York for more than 20 years. “It can be ‘American Idol’ at its worst. It’s just another way to inflict pain.”
That’s why he encourages schools and other organizations to talk openly about bullying on blogs.
Lack of monitoring
It appears that most blog sites lack gatekeepers to monitor accuracy, taste, violence or cruelty.
“It was obviously a spoof,” Neal said. “But they were unresponsive about doing anything to remove it. … The thing about Xanga and some of those sites is anybody can start a site under a variety of names, and you’re not going to be able to track down who the originator of the site is.”
Hiler said his company would like to add full-time site moderators and be more responsive to complaints such as those of Shawnee Mission.
“It’s purely a question of resources,” he said. “We’ve started to handle these growing pains.”
Lack of a moderator presents a problem when the sites are used to spread rumors.
“Parents call up and say someone is trashing my son or daughter’s reputation and they think that would be a federal violation,” said Wagh, who works with the FBI cybercrimes unit. “Generally it’s not, unless it becomes threatening.”
Xanga’s abuse policy says the company will shut down sites only if they exist solely to abuse or stalk another Xanga member or ethnic group, contain an explicit death or physical threat, or are pornographic.
The Center School District in Kansas City blocked access to Xanga at the start of the school year after teachers expressed concerns about Web logs they’d seen, said Bruce Rehmer, the district’s technology coordinator.
But, he said, the school block doesn’t stop kids who update their journals from computers at home or libraries.
“What they do at home is between them and their parents,” he said.
Rehmer’s son Ben maintains a Xanga site, and Rehmer said he monitors it regularly and occasionally makes Ben remove posts.
Rehmer is at odds with other parents and experts who advise against monitoring teenagers’ online journals.
Weiss doesn’t like the idea of parents reading teens’ Xangas or other blogs. “I wouldn’t read my kid’s diary,” Weiss said.
But he said that if a parent senses something is wrong in the teen’s life, “then all bets are off.”
Parents have asked him if it’s right to read their children’s blogs. “I ask them a lot of questions, ‘Why, do you think something is going on? Is there something you are worried about?’ We talk about it. The conversation is so much more important than the conclusion. It’s how you respect your children.”
Neal and Raytown School District spokesman Ben Helt said school administrators are far too busy to surf student Web logs looking for infractions. But, they said, if a student, parent or teacher were to report a troubling online journal post, administrators probably would check it out and follow up.
Ben Rehmer, an eighth-grader at Summit Lakes Middle School in Lee’s Summit, said he doesn’t care if his dad reads his Web log. He does care if his dad makes him change a post, but added, “If it’s not pleasing to him, then I probably shouldn’t put it there.”
Other students are less amenable to parents reading their online journals. Erin says she already tells her mom everything.
“To me it would be an issue of trust,” Erin said. “If my mom would go behind my back and read my Xanga, it would be like she didn’t trust me.”
To reach Laura Bauer,
call (816) 234-7743 or send e-mail to email@example.com.
To reach Melodee Hall Blobaum,
call (816) 234-7733 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.