Send it down in your notebook, my wannabe Harriet the Spy

March 6, 2006 | Leave a comment

I learned about some of the perils of weblogging at a very young age – before there was really a web to speak of (although Tim Berners Lee was already experimenting over at CERN). I spent fifth grade in Parkwood, a suburb of Durham, North Carolina. It was a nice school in an affluent neighbourhood with tree-lined streets, a friendly local library nearby and parks galore. Our house backed onto a lake and I’d often go kayaking in the afternoons. Having spent my childhood prior to that living in cramped student accommodation, this for me signalled a change of fortune, and being computer-inclined (I learned to program rudimentary BASIC on my ZX81 when I was four), nothing symbolised that more than the IBM PC in the corner of the classroom.

I wasn’t used to the rigid grid-of-desks class layout that was so popular in the States; it seemed like a throwback to a time where each student would have an inkwell. Already big for my age, I struggled to fit into the all-in-one desk and chair frame, and being a natural daydreamer who preferred to go off and do his own thing, I wasn’t keen on the style of teaching. But if we were good, did our homework and didn’t get our name chalked up on the discipline board, we were allowed to spend some time on the computer – and as a result, I made sure I did my work quickly.

Most of the programs were dull games designed to teach you how to spell or add up; not a patch on the Carmen Sandiego titles we had at home. But one was interesting: an online, password-protected diary. Of course, in those days “online” meant it was on the computer; it wasn’t connected to any kind of network, and even if it had been the password would have kept it away from prying eyes. And so from then on I kept a diary once I’d finished my work for the day, reflecting on how I was doing at school and how I saw the interactions between my other classmates. Having grown up in England, they were all a little alien to me. It was interesting to see how they talked to each other, and it was good to get my frustrations with the work we were doing out of my system. Anyone who has a child will tell you, the appropriate answer to “how was school today?” is “okay”; you don’t talk about those issues with your parents, because they surely wouldn’t understand.

Unfortunately, one day I was writing in my online diary and someone saw me type in the password. After I’d gone back to sit down at my ill-fitting desk-prison, he went through and read every entry from start to finish – and gave the password to his friends. They were in turns appalled and entertained, and although the number of friends I had was diminishing quickly, very shortly my entire class had read my diary – including my teacher. Everything I had written was honest and, as far as I was concerned, true, but I started to get feedback from what I had written. Being eleven, most of this feedback was, “you’re a dork”. But some of my classmates came up to me after school was over and explained how some of the things I’d said weren’t quite right, and how it really was. And when the time came for me to leave North Carolina, I had a much better understanding of how these kids and their alien society worked. Don’t get me wrong, it was like a fifth grade version of hell for a while, but although I’d never be one of them – their lives mostly hinged on basketball, going fishing and pretending to be soldiers – they knew me better, and I knew them.

When Blogger and LiveJournal came around in 1999ish, I immediately saw the parallel. It doesn’t take a computer to have a public experience with a public diary; anyone who read Harriet the Spy as a kid will immediately know the ins and outs. But it seems to me that as we prepare to introduce the technology to share reflections among students of all ages, it’s worth remembering that these are people undergoing awkward emotional changes, who are new to the world. One approach would be to legislate for it – set rules that dictate what you can and cannot write. I’d advocate going the other way and using it as a platform for support.

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