Aaron Swartz was nervous when I went to interview him. I know this not because he told me, but because he said so on his student blog a few days afterward. Swartz is one of millions of people who maintain an Internet-based Weblog that allows one to punch in daily experiences as easily as banging out diary entries with a word processor. Swartz says the blog is meant to help him remember his experiences during an important time for him--freshman year at Stanford. But it also opens up a window to the rest of us.
Let me explain. I recently completed "I Am Charlotte Simmons," Tom Wolfe's 676-page novel of contemporary college life, based in part on the author's research tour of several campuses, including Stanford. Critics have nitpicked on some of Wolfe's obvious miscues (pampered student-athletes thumb-twitch on Play-Station 3, which doesn't exist yet). But the larger question is whether Wolfe's status-centered, sex-crazed, subintellectual fictional Dupont University actually bears resemblance to modern campus life.
Well, there's now an excellent way for armchair anthropologists to get an answer to such a question. The candid, impressionistic reports of student bloggers provide an un-filtered picture of what college is really like these days. Take Swartz's blog, which is popular among thousands of readers who know him as a brilliant teenage computer whiz. Swartz shares the confusion and excitement of a shy 18-year-old Chicagoan's immersion into higher education with a maturity that eludes Wolfe's made-up brainy backwoods virgin, Charlotte Simmons. Along with Swartz, we sit through lectures, drop in on beer bashes and obsess helplessly over the ponytailed goddess who sits ahead of him in Sociology. In short, Swartz's genuine account of college life is considerably more nuanced (and less alarming) than Wolfe's fictional one.
A quick Web search unearths a wealth of other student bloggers around the country, from the quirky to the prosaic. (Worst opening line of a student-blog entry: "Today I will tell you about my canker sores.") A couple of schools even point prospective applicants to student blogs as evidence of rich campus life. Some of the results are more than Wolfe-worthy, like the observations of a student who checked out the Crayola Web site to find a match for the shade of purple that she dyed her hair. Less interesting are blogs actually assigned by professors; they seem too self-consciously crafted for Teacher's approval.
Clearly the student blogs that tell us most about college are the ones that speak from the heart. "The most interesting blogs are from normal people ranting about their everyday lives... you're not reading about somebody, you're actually reading their thoughts. Thanks to the wonders of Google, it's easy to locate people in your college community who have blogs and see how people in your situation are dealing with similar obstacles."
That last remark was from an e-mail sent to me by a woman student in Swartz's dorm whose blog is a combination of Sylvia Plath and Moll Flanders. Certain entries are fairly explicit--she doesn't want to censor herself--even though someone might Google her youthful indiscretions 20 years hence.
Similarly, exposing his observations and emotional crises to the billion or so people with Web access doesn't faze Aaron Swartz. "When we grow up," he says, "this is going to be more normal." Swartz, however, does draw the line when it comes to readership. When he found out his parents were visiting his student blog, "I blocked their IP address from the Web site," he says. That's a detail that Tom Wolfe would have died for.