Kevin McCormick needed help. He felt he did not know how to dress, and got flustered every time he shopped for clothes.
"I didn't have a sense of style," says the 22-year-old IT manager from Hoboken, N.J.
So, on Sept. 1, 2005, he posted pictures of his wardrobe on DressKevin.com, and asked 15 friends to vote on outfits and give suggestions for new duds. Less than a year later, his web site attracts up to 15,000 visitors daily.
The attention has astounded Kevin, who says he believes his guests take the time to give advice because they genuinely want to help him.
Kevin's site is far from being the only interactive hot spot on the web. Cyber networking spaces host millions of (mostly young) people: MySpace has 65 million users , Xanga 45 million, and Facebook 7.5 million . In these sites, average Joes and Janes are able to share news, ideas, and photos in their web logs, which are online journals nicknamed "blogs."
Who's Boss of the Blogosphere?
There are nearly 36 million blogs on the Internet, and a new blog is created every second of every day, according to the blog search engine Technorati.
The mushrooming outlet for online self-expression has spawned numerous questions, including:
- Why are people posting intimate thoughts and sometimes compromising pictures of themselves online?
- How are online interactions affecting offline lives?
- What will all this cyber-connecting mean for the future of human society?
WebMD has some answers for these questions, provided by experts in psychology, psychiatry, and sociology. Of course, their opinions are only part of the picture. You, as a member of today's "netizens," are used to having much more say about the state of things, and may want to post your own ideas about the subject.
"We all want to be on the red carpet like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie," says Michael Brody, MD, chair of the TV & Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He says today's Internet users are accustomed to being the celebrities and content of cyberspace. It's an attitude fueled by the popularization of average people in reality TV shows.
The Need to Blog
Ordinary people at the helm of blogs are one of the main reasons why they are so attractive to netizens.
"It's easy to latch on to certain characters if they're more like us," says Brody. He says identification is a particular draw for teenagers -- a large population of bloggers -- because they are still trying to establish their own personalities.
Many teens check out what their peers are saying online to figure out their own voice. They also try out various personas with different screen names and sites. It's all just part of the role-playing and risk-taking that is normally part of adolescence.
"Kids like to play at different identities," explains Kate Wachs, PhD, a Chicago area psychologist, director of DrKate.com, and author of Relationships for Dummies. "For example, if you go away to camp in real life, you might be a little more extroverted to see how that works. If everyone responds well to you, then you might come back and try that in your real life."
There are other motivations for sharing personal thoughts, photos, and videos in cyberspace, and they tap into some basic human needs and idiosyncrasies. Blogs enable us to:
1. Connect with people. We are a social species, and deep down, we want to be where everyone knows our name, says Stuart Fischoff, PhD, editor of the Journal of Media, and emeritus professor of media psychology for the California State University, Los Angeles. Blogs allow people to express themselves in an intimate, political, artistic, or sexual way, and to receive feedback from a global village. The social outreach can also alleviate loneliness and make it easier for people who are introverted, geographically isolated, or physically handicapped to make friends from the comfort of their home, and sometimes even facilitate face-to-face meetings of once-virtual buddies.
2. Become master of our own domain. Everyone wants to feel they are in control of something, even if it's in a virtual world. The motivation is no different when little girls dress up their Barbie dolls, says David Greenfield, PhD, director for the Center for Internet Behaviors in West Hartford, Conn. "Girls choose what their dolls are going to wear, and where they're going to go," says Greenfield, who is also author of Virtual Addiction. Teens and adults act out the same type of fantasy when they create content, give advice or post comments online.
3. Toot our own horn and sexuality. Many blogs start out as vanity pieces, says Fischoff, noting that many new media are usually used for the personal and sexual. When the printing press, Polaroid camera, and the tape recorder first came out, Fischoff says they were used to respectively publish, take pictures of, and record sexual acts. It's little wonder then that many blogs contain photos of people in their underwear, intoxicated, and in compromising positions.
4. Actively express our creativity. Interactive sites allow people to create culture instead of passively waiting for it to come to them, says Dustin Kidd, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia. In MySpace, for instance, artists such as comedian Dane Cook have been able to bypass traditional routes to stardom by welcoming at least 1 million virtual guests to his site. Since then, he has filmed his own HBO Special and hosted Saturday Night Live.
5. Earn money or respect. Users who share their hobbies, work, and events may promote themselves online. "Potentially, tens of thousands of people can see you [online], and if you're good ... you might have a burgeoning career," says Fischoff, who notes that the payoff may come not necessarily in the form of money but in respect. Because of the popularity of DressKevin.com, Kevin has been able to earn some cash (albeit not enough, he says, to quit his day job) from ads posted by Google on his site.
Dangers in the Blogosphere
As powerful as the blogosphere is, and as fulfilling it is to some of our needs, there are possible risks associated with it. Here are four:
1. It eats up time. The blogosphere is a busy world. People are constantly setting up sites, maintaining them, responding to guest suggestions or inquiries, uploading files, or networking. All of those activities require time, and that means time away from family, friends, schoolwork, jobs, or another important aspect of your life. This could be a problem whether you are online one hour, 10 hours, or in between. "It depends upon what area in their life gets impacted," says Greenfield, noting that the hypnotic value of the computer screen also doesn't help with keeping track of the clock.
2. It has no mercy for mistakes. The timeless, faceless nature of the Internet can promote rash, reckless behavior. People often post personal thoughts, photos, or video of themselves without fully realizing the information is public. "You get so caught up in the rapture of ... thinking you're important enough to be put on the Net that you lose awareness and appreciation of what you're saying and how it might come back to haunt you later on," says Fischoff. He says people do not realize the irreversibility of information placed on the web. What you post may be archived and retrieved later on by your future children, employers, or people who may want to sue you.
3. It can harm your sense of self. As online journals, many people use blogs to discuss every intimate detail of their lives, or to post images of themselves in their underwear or baring all. This sharing of every part of yourself can be psychologically harmful. "Human identity includes both a social need but also a personal need for privacy - to have some things that are just yours," says Kidd. "There's a capacity to make every mundane detail of your life quite public, and I think that can transform a person's personal identity." If all parts of yourself are displayed on the Internet, you can also lose control of it. Published thoughts, poems, music, and images can be altered, stolen, and represented as someone else's.
4. Predators lurk in it. Almost one in 5 kids receive a sexual solicitation online, and 5% of them report that the solicitation made them feel extremely upset or afraid, according to a 2001 U.S. Department of Justice survey. Predators have used social networking sites to lure their victims, but the risk for children is not necessarily greater because of the technology. "We know from the crime statistics," says Kidd, "that the sexual predators going after children have been there well before the Internet." To make the Web safer for kids, the online watchdog group Perverted-Justice recommends good parenting practices such as learning how to navigate the Internet, knowing which sites your child visits, and having a conversation with your child about Internet use.
A Blogged World
The blogosphere has already changed society. It has altered the way we conduct business and how we socialize. It has encouraged some people to learn new skills such as typing, uploading, and multitasking with different screens. It has even transformed the way we experience life.
"If you go through experiences, you may think, 'I can blog this' ... or you go to a party and you realize this is going to make some nice photographs on Flickr (a photo-sharing site)," says Kidd, noting that the thoughts of putting words or images on sites become part of each person's life experience.
Yet the Internet is not any different from any other new medium in revolutionizing society. Kidd says every novel technology from the cotton gin to cars to TV has had transformative effects on our culture.
What's different about the Internet is the speed in which changes seem to occur. Now blogs may be in vogue, but in the next couple of years something else may be the rave.
"The dust hasn't settled on the Internet generation yet," says Brody. He suspects that blogs will be replaced by a "video game" type of medium in which audiences and celebrities are able to interact.