Blogging with Adolescents: Constructing Writer Identities in an Online Space

Overview of Kidblogs

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Blogging and Microblogging

Dialogic Journal

Blogs have emerged as an alternative to the personal homepage, offering users a more authentic genre for making frequent posts in a simple, clean format without the distractions of the design features of a website. Bloggers are drawn to blogging as a means of journaling about their lives, sharing opinions and comments on topics of relevance to them, developing their own writing, and forming and maintaining relationships with others through the blogging community (Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, and Swartz, 2004). Blogs are also viewed as less intrusive than broadcast emails, for example, as a way of engaging with others through online communication vehicles. With a blog, “no one is forced to pay attention” (Nardi et al., 2004, p. 43). It is apparent from the research that many bloggers do not receive much traffic on their blogs and even fewer receive reader feedback or comments. This suggests that bloggers, like webpage creators, reap benefits from the process of blogging as a means of self-inquiry, self-exploration, and self-reflection. Many bloggers use their blogs for accountability and discipline for their writing and report that the blog serves as a “muse” encouraging them to keep up with the writing and thinking that they might otherwise not do (Nardi, 2004). I was not surprised to learn that an even more authentic experience arises from participating in blogging communities which provides the social and conversational element that helps bloggers feel a sense of responsibility and encouragement to keep up with their their blogging practice.

Open Conversation

Microblogging appears to fulfill a more social function, “social warmth” as Johnson calls it, than blogging. As someone who participates in a social network, has multiple email addresses, and a busy enough “real life,” I was very skeptical about what role Twitter could possibly fill in my life that was not already addressed. I decided at my husband’s urging (okay – dragging is probably more appropriate) to give it a go while we were attending the bi-annual Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival a couple weeks ago in Newark, NJ. This was the first time that live tweeting was encouraged and a # established for the event (#dodgepoetryfest). This experience with using Twitter turned out to be an ideal introduction for several reasons. Because it was such an enormous event (like a conference), it was impossible to be everywhere, so following others on Twitter gave me access to events and speakers that I wasn’t able to attend and a valid reason for tweeting from my own sessions. It also allowed me to connect with other participants through reading their posts and retweeting those posts – a confirmation that their posts resonated with me. Likewise, retweets of my posts encouraged me to continue tweeting. According to Boyd, Golder, and Lotan, (2010) those who retweet are more likely to be users who seek out Twitter as a means of engaging in conversation and sharing information. Retweeting, according to the researchers, is a way of validating the messages of the tweet, the “me, too 2.0.” (Boyd, et al., 2010). This was the feeling that I had while participating in retweeting. It was my way of letting the person know that I had heard and agreed with their message. In this sense, tweeting is much less about the process of microblogging and more about the usefulness of what is being communicated; however, I did experience unexpected benefits from even those tweets that went “unheard.”

The Poetics of Twitter

Although I expected the opposite, composing in this genre put me in touch with craft in a way that was actually poetic. I came to see the brevity of the posts, the inclusion of voice, nuanced language, and tone similar to the way in which poets seek to get at the essence of their subject. I appreciated the posts that I read for their style and flavor as much as for their content, much like I would enjoy a unique turn of phrase in a line of poetry. In the past, I have always kept a journal while at the festival, and I routinely write down notes and ideas in that book. I am not a poet, but the 140-character format encouraged me to tap into my poetic sensibilities in a way that my journal did not. As Boyd et al. (2010) posit, “though the 140-character format is a constraint; it need not be seen as a limitation” (n.p.) As Johnson (2009) noted, Twitter also gave me a space (via the #) to return to and reflect after the event was over. The physical event might have ended, but the conversation remained open, giving it “an afterlife on the Web” (Johnson, 2009, n.p). I started following some groups and now check blog posts and suggested articles on poetry that I find through Twitter. Several poetry organizations are now following me, and I am following them. Two days after the event was over, one of the bloggers attending tweeted a link to a blog post that he had created using Storify, culling the microblogs, photosharing, and blogging that took place and archiving it. That’s when I truly got it. As Raynes and Goldie (2204) posit, information is just a stream of data until it is transformed by the people who are using and creating it into something more, something that is useful and meaningful. For me, that is the power of the human need for story and storytelling. Twitter allowed me to not only participate in a broader conversation but also to help tell a greater story. That’s pretty powerful.

Personal Webpages

Blurring Private and Public Space

Personal websites offer a space for adolescents to explore and construct their identities and their presentation of those identities in an environment that “blur[s] the boundaries of public and private” (Chandler, 1998). While adolescents have historically worked out their identity explorations in private diaries, journals, or intimate, private conversations, the creation of a personal website that is published to the Internet offers an audience (both real and imagined) for this process. Although personal websites as a genre have been difficult to define because the content and depth are as varied as the users, the form takes advantage of the new medium of the web, allowing the user to compose in a dynamic environment where there is never a final draft or a finished product (though there are plenty of abandoned ones). According to Chandler (1998), the allure of the web as a medium of choice for adolescent identity construction resides in the user’s ability to constantly revise and rework that identity as s/he revises and reworks the content of the website.

Looking into a Mirror

Interestingly, the self-reflection required to maintain and update a personal website encourages adolescents to adopt a self-reflective stance as they seek to layout and modify their websites to mirror their evolving sense of self (Stern, 2008). While the Website genre has been criticized as a purely narcissistic exercise, Doring (2002) concluded from a small study of German university students’ websites that Website owners are no more likely to evidence personality traits of narcissism or exhibitionism than non-website owners. Which begs the question: if websites appear to serve exhibitionist impulses, are website owners constructing the sites with a particular audience in mind? It would appear from these studies that the audience is a combination of the self, and an imagined audience of sympathetic readers who may have the same experiences as the webpage owner. The studies confirm my experience that adolescents have a naïve sense of their potential audience, and are likely to reveal sensitive information about themselves online, considering it a “private” space. Typically, personal webpages have also been criticiqued and dismissed because of the frivolous content; yet, according to Chandler (1998) , Doring (2002) and Stern (2008), the genre of personal websites should be studied and evaluated for its value to the website creator. The greatest benefit for adolescent users, according to Chandler (1998) is not in the development of the content, the learning of technology skills, or even the social participation, but instead the greatest benefit is attained through the act of self-inquiry, self-reflection, and self-composing required of this genre.

Composing the Self

Chandler (1992) says, “Text which is constantly revised seems to some writers to be part of themselves whilst that which is printed feels ‘dead’ and detached from them” (as cited in Chandler, 1998, p. ). This is exactly the phenomenon that I have observed with adolescent writers working in the online space – the text becomes more than words or thoughts on the page but an actual extension of the self. When I was grappling with how to make sense of this phenomenon, I asked two of my students to sit down for an interview and to describe the composing process they used when writing on our class wiki. While they talked a lot about their sense of audience, they also talked about the physicality of typing “live” onto the wiki and the “rawness” of the experience. (I had always suggested that they cut and paste from a word document, but this was clearly not the process that they used). It occurs to me now that typing into a word document would have felt “dead and detached from them” as Chandler suggests. This reciprocal relationship between these processes of identity development through the process of identity presentation is a phenomenon that I hope to explore further. I am particularly interested in what I see as an emerging writer identity through the act of writing online. In my experience, adolescents are using this form of composing to write themselves.

Internet as Content Provider

Searching in the Dark

According to a study conducted by Guinee, Eagleton, and Hall (2003), adolescents utilized rudimentary strategies for locating information on the Internet. Their efforts reflected a lack of fluency in the language of digital information retrieval; the adolescents in the study used simplistic approaches that demonstrated their ignorance about the way information is categorized on the Web for retrieval and a lack of ability to apply transferable media literacy skills one would assume that students of this age would have acquired. The Guinee et al. study suggests that just as problem-solving strategies may be taught and applied to mathematics, so to it is necessary for students to have explicit instruction in systems for searching the Internet so that they avoid guessing and grabbing for information. Guinee et al.’s study indicates that when students do not have these skills, they resort to unproductive and inefficient strategies that rely on natural language structures, while students who were able to think in “computerspeak” and utilize Boolean logic while conducting Internet searches were most successful and efficient in their efforts. Their fluency in Boolean logic allowed them to move beyond the “paradigms that work in the physical world” to tap into the reservoirs of Internet-based information (p.372).

Teaching New Languages

Lankshear (1999) makes the claim that the educator’s role in the Digital Age will shift from transmitter of content to a role in facilitating students acquisition of digital literacy skills: “(a) teaching new languages (e.g., informatics, telematics/, and (b) developing refined abilities to handle ‘the language game of interrogation’” (p.5). According to Lankshear, the paradigm shift in the Digital Age is away from a philosophy of knowledge as emancipation towards knowledge as commodity. In this analysis, texts are viewed as data with the goal of information searching to find ever more precise search terms and to locate information with greater and greater precision. While I already see my role shifting more and more to facilitator of learning, I do not share Lankshear’s vision of teachers being replaced by computer banks and “intelligent terminals” (p.5). I hold onto the view (perhaps naively) that our culture will become more concerned with holding onto our humanist ideals about education as more and more of our information is shared and acquired through the Internet.

Reflection on Search Services

After trying out the blog search services, I found Yahoo News and Blog Search the must useful for my research interests. I tried several Boolean searches related to our class topics including “online writing and teens,” “content creation and teens,” and “social networking and teens.” With Yahoo News and Blog Search, the results were categorized by news followed by blogs which allowed me to quickly determine which were the recent news stories and then to move related responses from the blogosphere. The results from Yahoo were more relevant than the results for Google Blogs. It appeared that the Yahoo News search was a topic search while the Google search was a keyword search, returning a much longer and less precise list of results. I discovered that Google Blogs and Yahoo News both have browse features that include updates of top stories, trends, top queries, and most recent posts. I don’t typically read blogs when I am looking for information about an educational issue or trend, but I see the value in using a search engine like Yahoo News to browse the personal perspectives on current educational issues and will consider using Yahoo News and Blog Search in the future. This feature would allow for the “meditative perusal” that Lankshear (1999) suggests is lacking in information scanning.

21st Century Learning

Cognitive Dissonance

Whether our new literacy practices online are resulting in increased cognitve function, efficiency, and recovered time for evolved problem solving and creation, or instead a loss of ability to think deeply and to focus attention on meaningful interpretation of lengthy and challenging texts is a debate unlikely to be resolved any time soon. There is a familiar cognitive dissonance that experts, academics, and other professionals are experiencing as they attempt to accommodate the role of new online reading practices with nostalgia for print-based material. The thought that deep contemplation of novels and non-fiction books is being replaced by quick searches and hopscotching from Website to Website is discomforting to many to say the least (Carr, 2008). Nicholas Carr (2008) notes that mankind has always been able to foresee the disadvantages of new technologies but unable to see beyond those disadvantages to the benefits. If the development of written language and the printing press were feared for their ill effects on the mind, it stands to reason that academics and researchers would be skeptical of the Internet, as well.
Even though he raises these challenges, Carr (2008) posits that while we may be reading more than ever, our reading online is making us fidgety, mechanical readers, more and more like the machine that we are using. On the other side of the debate, Clay Shirkey (2008) posits that cognitive surplus is creating the Internet into architecture of participation, and participating in that space is actually making us smarter. His theory is that those who are online are at a minimum doing something instead of passively watching television. While anecdotes abound, we will have to wait on further studies that address the question of whether or not our online participation is actually changing our brain function and intelligence: if so, are we rewiring it in a way that makes us less human and more “scripted” as Carr (2008) suggests, or are we rewiring it for creation and contribution to the greater good as Shirkey (2008) suggests?

Selective Attention

I wonder what Louise Rosenblatt, the theorist behind the transactional theory of reading, would have to say to this debate. Rosenblatt theorized that readers adopt different stances towards a text depending upon their purpose for reading and that we are always exercising our selective attention as readers. According to Rosenblatt (1988), it is not possible to take in everything, “…we are constantly selecting out of the stream, or field, of consciousness”
(p. 5). Through our participation on the Internet, our field of consciousness is expanding, and we may need to adapt new strategies to allow us to navigate the field. Rosenblatt would argue that this is the essence of reading; each reader’s experience during the reading process depends upon what the reader chooses to bring into focus and what the reader pushes to the background. Isn’t this what we are doing while reading online as we quickly reject, click, shift, compare, and move through a series of links building a deeper and more personalized meaning of the information that we are seeking? Perhaps this new type of reading will require us to spend more time as scholars and educators developing our skills in meta-cognition and task-attention so that we become masters of our selective attention within a reading landscape that may at times seduce us with video, sound, and color. Developing this awareness is what will make us smarter.
Rosenblatt, L. (1988). TR 13. Writing and reading: The transactional theory. NationalCenter for the Study of Writing Technical Report.

The Net Generation

Adolescents long for places and ways to connect and to create a sense of community – this is a universal need across generations that is explicitly reflected in the use of the Internet by the “net generation” for the purpose of sharing original content with each other. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, more than half of teens share information that they have created using the Internet (Lenhart and Madden, 2005). While most teens go online for utilitarian purposes such as accessing references and information and storing material, a growing number of teens, thirty to forty percent, are considered “Internet-savvy,” capable of multi-tasking among a variety of online behaviors. Although the most savvy of the net generation may use the internet differently and more often than members of older generations, Bennett, Maton, and Kervin make a convincing argument that this group, termed digital natives, is not the “homogenous generation with technical expertise and a distinctive learning style” as they have been portrayed but as diverse a group as any generation (p.780). According to Bennett, et al. (2005), contrary to popular belief, this generation is comprised of members with a wide range of technology expertise and varying levels of interest in and use of the Internet.

Teen Bloggers
Teen bloggers are an interesting subset of the tech-savvy group of Internet users, and the research on them raises many questions about why teens blog, what they blog about, and how blogging contributes to teen technology acquisition, identity formation, and creativity development. According to the Pew Internet study, teen bloggers go online more often, have access to more technology at home, and have experience with more types of online activity than non-bloggers (Lenhart and Madden, 2005). Teen blogging has declined since 2006 while participation in social networking sites has increased during the same period suggesting that for some teens, networking has replaced blogging. Surprising is the statistic that teens from lower income families are more likely to maintain a blog than teens from wealthier families and that boys and girls are now participating in blogging in even numbers (Lenhart and Madden, 2005). This profile does not fit with other correlations between tech-savvy and household income. Questions that I hope to learn more about during my critical examination of blogging as a learning tool include: Are teen bloggers different from other subsets of tech-savvy teens as suggested by the Pew Report? If so, in what way are they different? How are teen bloggers able to overcome socio-economic factors that prevent lower- SES students from participating in other types of content creation? Is blogging a gateway into other sophisticated content creation? While other teens have moved to more fully participating in social networks, what has compelled teen bloggers to continue blogging or to take up blogging?


Redefining the ‘Digital Divide’

While the gap in access to technology, termed the “digital divide,” has narrowed significantly during the last decade, inequity persists in the areas of broadband access, educational opportunities, and student use of technology in and outside of school. Today, almost all students report having access to computers and the internet; however, whether of not they are reaping the highest level of benefits from that access is likely tied to socioeconomic status, race, and gender. According to Warschauer and Matuchniak (2009), while students from high socio-economic backgrounds are capitalizing on the potential of technology for solving complex problems and creating new knowledge, students from low socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to engage technology for such high-level cognitive tasks. Complex social factors in the home may impact the educational benefit that minority students and students of low-SES receive from their home computer use, resulting in unproductive use that “may not only crowd out productive uses of technology, but may also crowd out offline studying” (Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor, 2008, p. 37, as cited in Warschauer and Matuchniak, 2009, p. 25). Additionally troubling are racial disparities in school settings suggesting that Black students are more likely to participate in routine drill and practice computer applications, while Asian students are much more likely to participate in simulations and applications that promote critical thinking and inquiry (Warschauer and Matuchniak, 2009). Compounding these issues are a range of factors that distinguish educational practices in low-SES school contexts from those in high-SES school contexts such as high teacher turn-over, lack of professional development opportunities, and pressure to increase test scores. All of these sociotechnical factors have converged to create a new digital divide in access to 21st Century skill development.

21st Century Learning Skills

Until we have standards that directly measure 21st century learning skills, it is likely that the new digital divide will actually widen even as new technology becomes more affordable and accessible. Without directly changing curricular standards at the local level, technology will continue to be accessed and utilized unevenly: some students, most likely from high-SES schools, will encounter deep learning through technology which may set them up for high achievement, while others may be directed into a low-achievement spiral through low-level technology applications of basic drill and practice. Due to these inequities, it is necessary for information literacy, digital citizenship, and online communication to be embedded in the core curriculum of Social Studies, English, Reading, Science, Math and the arts for all students. Likewise, teacher-education programs need to develop specific courses around these themes relevant to best practices for integrating subject area content with 21st century learning skills and outcomes. It is clear from the NCES study (2002) that teachers desperately need 21st century pedagogy now! There was no such thing as online reading when I completed my teacher education program, yet that is the primary method my students use for conducting their research today. According to the findings of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, they are in good company: 94% of students in the study said they used the internet for research (Rainie, et al., 2001). As a content-area teacher assigning research-based tasks, if I believe that reading online requires different approaches and strategies than print-based reading, then I need more than just my intuition to guide my teaching. I need to be able to assess that my students are not only comprehending the complex representation of digital information on the Web, but also that they are able to simultaneously critically evaluate what they are reading. This requires new pedagogy. Currently, all secondary level content teachers are required to take two courses in content-area reading for certification, yet these courses do not necessarily address online reading or digital literacy. With the push for national technology standards, it would seem timely to change this requirement and require teachers to meet certification requirements in 21st century skills relevant to their certification area.
I think it’s safe to say that teachers are much more comfortable today using technology than the NCES study (2000) describes. However, I wonder to what degree they are comfortable with using technology for deep constructive learning versus more basic applications and whether or not that has changed. As a specialist in Gifted and Talented education, my role is to help students move along the continuum from consumers of information to producers of information. This goal is aligned with the learning and innovation aspect of twenty-first century literacy skills. It occurs to me that my work with higher-ability students may be contributing to the digital divide in my own school. I wonder how we might redefine and align other specialists’ roles to more actively share the responsibility for teaching 21st Century skills to all students and how we might work together to aggressively combat disparities in technology opportunities?