The teen bloggers who took over the internet
It’s a teenage rite of passage to invent new worlds: worlds of the imagination, gangs, cliques and clubs, worlds apart from adults. And then came the internet, where anyone can be anything, a meta-persona of your own choosing. There are hundreds of millions of blogs; a new one is created each second—many by teenagers.
Most are probably adolescent doodlings, some may be undiscovered gems.
And then there are the blogs which—usually with a fair bit of luck—suddenly set the blogosphere abuzz. Usually, these are sites that look and read more like the next generation of “e-zine” than something knocked up in a 15-year-old’s bedroom.
Such blogs from all over the world (although most commonly the US) attract tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of readers a month. They can pull in advertising revenues (albeit small), and their creators become stars when they come to the attention of the mainstream media. Tavi Williams, a 13-year-old self-confessed “dork”, became an influential player in the fashion world almost overnight after her Style Rookie blog was featured in the New York Times last year.
You can understand the NYT‘s interest. Adults have always been desperate to get an insight into what teens are thinking, and business even more so. Somewhere out there is the New Next Big Thing, and it’s almost certainly being dreamed up by a bunch of teenagers. Even Katie Grand, stylist, editor and one of the most influential women in fashion, has devoted the second issue of her magazine, Love, to teens, with bloggers to the fore.
“The fashion industry is really aware at the moment that it has to look at new territories,” says Grand. “When I was having meetings with advertisers for this issue, two big Italian houses said they felt that their clients were getting older and they weren’t looking at the youth market enough.
“The difficult part was motivating anyone from that teen age group to get involved with a magazine. Very few kids are bothered about the printed word; we would work really hard on finding these kids, but then you’d get a call at six in the morning saying, ‘I’ve missed my train, so I’m not coming to the photo shoot.’”
Tavi is the queen of the teen bloggers, and fashion houses have gone out of their way to court her. For a time, there was a suspicion her blog was so professional that it must be a stunt created by industry insiders, but she appears to be the real deal: a 13-year-old who has something to say and can say it well.
“Kids often start writing blogs just for the hell of it,” says Sadie Stein, a contributing editor at the US online feminist fashion mag, Jezebel. “Sometimes it’s because they are feeling isolated in small conservative towns and want to connect with other kids; sometimes it’s because they have areas of specialised interest they want to share.” Two teenaged examples that have grown into serious sites are Philadelphian gastro-obsessive Nick Normile’s Foodie at Fifteen and, in the UK, Charlie Lyne’s movie-mad Ultra Culture.
“The key to getting a higher profile,” says Stein, “is to get linked to better known websites. But to make it really big, ironically you need to get noticed by the established print media: a mention in a well-known newspaper can massively increase the number of hits a website gets overnight. And getting picked up in this way is usually down either to luck or good self-promotion—neither of which has much to do with the quality of the blog itself.”
It’s no coincidence that many of the most “popular” teen blogs are those written by girls interested in style and fashion. Designers and retailers recognise teenage girls as a hugely important and profitable market, and so the personalities of their teen blog-idols has become a powerful commodity. Tavi has been sent clothes by Rodarte, and is reportedly read by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, while Karla Deras, who writes a blog called Karla’s Closet, has featured in an advertising campaign for American Apparel.
Stein acknowledges that business and media tend to seek out young girls, suggesting that “perhaps society doesn’t consider the opinions of boys to be as interesting”. But Sam Wolfson, a 19-year-old from London who is one of the creators of Readplatform, a website to which established bloggers are invited to contribute, sees it slightly differently.
“Being young is often a real advantage if you are a girl,” Wolfson says. “For a boy, being young is often taken as a sign of inexperience and people are less inclined to take you seriously. The great thing about the internet is that you can be who you want to be. There are probably many blogs being written by teenage boys who are going out of their way to keep their anonymity in order to get credibility. So there’s no real way of knowing just how many male teenage bloggers there are.”
Readplatform was set up to maximise the chances of contemporary teenage lifestyle and music sites getting noticed, and now picks up about 60 000 unique hits a month. While this has not yet translated into advertising revenue it has attracted the interest of market researchers, who have spotted the potential of being hot-wired into some of the most influential teenage trend-setters in the capital, and are prepared to pay for the privilege.
At which point, the teen blogosphere starts to feel distinctly grown-up. And just like a teenager passing into adulthood, the next question is surely whether idealism then gives way to cynicism.
Tavi Williams, fashion blogger
Fashion and compassion from this ridiculously precocious 13-year-old from Chicago. Clever mix of high-end style and knowing kookiness, plus campaigning for genocide victims in Darfur on the side.
High point so far Where to start? Being love-bombed by Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons) and the New York Times. Being sent free clothes by Rodarte.
In her own words “I don’t feel like a part of the industry, not really. I was just at a shoot where some of the people couldn’t believe someone my age was at this place. But I’m just sitting at home typing about stuff that interests or amuses me. Part of the reason some people in the industry take an interest in my blog is that, at this point, basically everything has been done before. But because I am younger and insecure about other things instead of appearances, it is easier for me to try out kooky things.
“The blog is profitable for me in ways not to do with money—the people I’ve met; the books, movies and music that I probably would not have discovered until I was much older.”
Kristin Prim, shopping guru
Blog Kristin Prim
Peppered with moody black-and-white shots of 15-year-old New Yorker Prim’s hair covering half her face. She’s also confident at giving tips to those who email in (although the main question seems to be: “how can you afford it?”) Almost every one of her blogs is an account of some clothes shopping trip—she doesn’t stint herself.
High point so far Being featured in French Glamour, Teen Vogue and Italian Elle.
In her own words"I started blogging when I was 12 years old. At the age of 14 I began my own magazine, “prim”. I tend to blog about my personal style, shopping trips, prim itself and my inspirations. I get countless emails a day from readers, but the “weirdo” comments are few and far between. If I ever do receive one it just gets deleted right away; I don’t even continue reading it. It’s not worth my time.
“Many times editors of magazines live behind their pages and don’t get to be seen. Blogging is my ploy to step away from the publication and share my personal style, likes and dislikes with the industry.”
Julie Zeilinger, angry young feminist
The F Bomb
Grungy, angry, inspiring site by this 16-year-old feminist from Pepper Pike, Ohio.
High point so far Getting mentioned in Jezebel, one of the US’s leading feminist blogs.
In her own words “I began blogging this year because the mainstream feminist blogs I read weren’t representing the teenage perspective on issues that directly affect us. I write about feminist issues from a teenager’s perspective, such as reproductive justice, body image and sexism in the media—anything that is impacting my generation and needs to be discussed.
“I get about 13 000 hits a month. Now that I have a significant readership, other people have urged me to look into advertising, but I don’t want the F Bomb to be about money in any way. I spend hours every day writing for the blog, moderating comments, social networking and reading submissions from other people. It’s difficult because I’m a full-time student, but I really do love it. Maybe once I’m not a teenager anymore I’ll pass it on, so that there will always be a supportive and interactive community out there for teenage feminists. “
Stephen Yellin, politico
The Yellin Report
American Stephen Yellin began blogging as a 13-year-old under the alias Mr Liberal but now, aged 21 and at Drew University in New Jersey, he writes as much under his own name both for his own blog and the online political magazine, the Daily Kos. Precociously assured.
High point so far Getting a regular slot on the Daily Kos which helped make him a phenomenon Stateside. Was profiled in the NY Times, and attended the 2004 Democratic National Convention as part of the press corps.
In his own words “When I started back in 2001, I didn’t think very much about my age—I never felt intimidated or out of my depth while blogging about politics, and have always done my homework before writing about a candidate. But when I started writing columns at the Daily Kos, some bloggers found it hard to believe I was ‘only’ 15. Initially, I was offended they were assuming a teenager couldn’t be an authority on politics. But then it hit me that it was an advantage to be a teenage blogger, particularly in a field where the vast majority of bloggers were older than me.
“As I moved into my college years, I’ve found myself blogging less. My life’s orientation has changed, and while I have [mostly] great memories of my time as a teenage blogger, being an active adult blogger isn’t on the cards.”
Nick Normile, foodie
Foodie at Fifteen—Now 16
Nick Normile, a 16-year-old from Philadelphia, is a man obsessed. He’s hell-bent on becoming a top chef and spends as much of his spare time as possible trying out new recipes and eating posh nosh.
Best moment Getting five-star service at the French Laundry’s New York sister restaurant, and a thumbs-up from food writer Michael Ruhlman.
In his own words “I had become serious about cooking 18 months before I started my blog, after going to one of Philadelphia’s best restaurants, La Croix, and asking to be given lessons. They were surprised to find someone so young coming along and took me under their wing, offering me an apprenticeship at weekends. I’ve been working there on a Saturday or Sunday ever since.
“I first began to get a lot of followers after I wrote about how I had saved up to make a trip to New York to eat at the French Laundry’s sister restaurant, Per Se. I guess it was an unusual thing for a 15-year old to do on his own and I got quite a lot of media coverage which resulted in my site getting linked to other bigger sites. My peak viewing figure has been 10 000 hits in a single day and I now use Google’s advertising blogging software and can upload Google’s ads for free. So far, I’ve made about $299,97. I don’t do it for the money, but what does come in helps pay to keep the site running.”
Charlie Lyne, film critic
BlogUltra Culture The self-styled “UK’s greatest movie blog” was set up by 18-year-old Londoner Charlie Lyne, and features trailers, reviews and gossip for all the latest movies. Written in a chatty style with no shortage of strong opinions that don’t run with the herd—he gave Inglourious Basterds a firm thumbs-up.
High point so far Being recognised as a serious critic and getting on the list for all the advance free screenings.
In his own words “There was no grand design when I started blogging 18 months ago; I just wrote about music, film and lifestyle. But as I got into it, I concentrated on film because that’s what really interests me. For ages no one read it, but then I got noticed by the national press, worked on my design and promotion and used search engine optimisation tools and get roughly 30 000 unique hits a month.
“I’m fairly neutral about my age. I never mentioned it when I started out because it didn’t seem important, but I’ve never gone out of my way to conceal it. I know there’s a danger some people will think a teenager hasn’t got anything much of value to say about film, but I hope that people will just judge the opinions and the writing on their own merits. However, I can’t see myself doing this indefinitely. I’m about to go to art school and my real aim is to be a director, not a critic.”
Matt Benson, trend spotter
BlogBetter Never Than Late (BNTL)
This music and fashion “platform blog”, run by 20-something Matt Benson and pals, showcases the best young bloggers in London. With its eclectic mix of photos, clips and grime reviews, you have to be an achingly hip teenager just to know what the hell’s going on.
High point so far Running its own club nights and getting advertising revenue from mainstream companies such as Uniqlo and Size?
In his own words “The site started off three years ago as a bunch of friends blogging about things we were interested in. Now we get 60 000 unique hits per month, but we’re even more influential than those stats suggest as our readers tend to be at the forefront of what’s going on in London; the ones most likely to shape future trends.
“We recently turned BNTL into a limited company; it’s definitely turning into more of a business, but we’ve kept our editorial independence and sense of what matters to us. After all, we’re basically a bunch of ordinary teenage kids doing stuff we enjoy, and it’s that experience people want to be part of.”
Angelique, student confessor
Blog Raining Noodles
A witty, well-written confessional on everything from this semi-anonymous 20-year-old’s course work in Singapore to the state of her hamster’s health. Angelique promotes nothing, has no specialist axe to grind. Raining Noodles is her emotional piggy bank.
High point so far Winning Best Teen Weblog in 2006 and 2007 in the annual international Bloggies awards.
In her own words “I’m in Singapore, unfortunately in law school. I try to maintain as much anonymity as I can (am not particularly fond of stalkers) so don’t know why I go by my real first name online. I never had a real desire to write until I started blogging; then suddenly realised that I, a completely common commoner with zero superhero powers, had the capacity to weave stories in different threads and colours.
“I try to make my writing as personal as I can—but also respect the people around me: if they request that I do not write about them, I don’t. (Unless they’ve offended me, and then I kick their derrieres online. Muahaha ... Kidding!) - guardian.co.uk